The way track and field athletes across Idaho envisioned it in early March, last Friday had all the makings of a big day – and it very well could have been an especially big day for Clearwater Valley senior Melanie Gianopulos, who had placed eighth in the two-mile and fifth in the mile at the 1A state meet a year prior. Those events are typically run on separate days at the 3-2-1A state meet, which the Idaho High School Activities Association had calendared for May 15-16 at Middleton, because the top distance runners tend to do both.
But because of the coronavirus shutdown, Gianopulos had to set aside her last chance for podium placements, the likes of which track and field athletes statewide spent years pursuing.
The night before, the team would have gone out to dinner together and made a shopping run.
“Any time you go down to state track, the team always bonds on a different level,” she told the Free Press last Friday morning. “Everyone just gets so much closer, and you get so sad when, like, you know, it's like about to end. You're just there, you're supporting each other, and you just have opportunities to get to know each other better.”
Then it would be race day.
“I’d wake up super, super nervous,” Gianopulos said of how she had pictured it playing out. “I probably would have had a hard time eating breakfast, because whenever I think about racing, I wouldn’t want a lot to eat. We’d all go down to the bus. We’d get our tent and stuff set up. I’d go for my warm-up and have anxiety and adrenaline.”
“There’s not many places to warm up around there,” she said, “so I’d get a teammate and we’d run around the school. I’d put on some really intense music. Last year, I was listening to some regular-type pop music and was like, ‘OK, this isn’t working.’ So I put on Eye of the Tiger.”
“Then I’d just wait for the call and get in the tent, check in and run my race.”
The mile had long been her favorite.
“I first tried the two-mile my freshman year,” Gianopulos said. “I met this exchange student, Martina, from Italy, and she kind of just encouraged me to try it. I realized I really liked the two-mile. … It's easier to pace yourself than on the mile because it's so long. You can really plan out a strategy. In the mile, when you blink it’s like you're on the third lap.”
“My junior year, the strategy part really did me some good in the mile at state,” she said. “I beat my mile PR from middle school. It took me that long to peak. My coaches just told me to relax and keep my pace up.”
Her middle school PR run didn’t stick in her mind, but her mile at state last year did.
“It was just super intense,” she said. “I couldn’t hear the rest of the crowd, I was just so focused. The girl in fifth was ahead of me, and I was like ‘I can’t get sixth, I have to pass someone.’ It was right by the finish line. It felt so good. Afterward I was in so much pain – but I didn’t care, I felt so good.”
She credited her coaches, Mike and Lara Smith, and their daughter, Martha, for pushing her to be her best.
“One time we were running the 800,” Martha said of what it was like running against Melanie. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is fine, this is great.’ But I’m not a distance runner, and when we got about three-fourths of the way on the last lap, whoot,” she whistled. “I just about died.”
“We could talk about work ethic,” Mike said of Gianopulos’ leadership within the team. “She’s one who keeps everybody on. That’s the big reason we named her captain this year. That, and she has been the girl to beat in the valley the last six years, since junior high. … She’s so competitive, but she’s also always there at the finish line to say ‘Good job’ to everyone else in the race.”
Her mom, Cherylee, told the Free Press the family would go down to the beach and swim. When Melanie was young, she would get cold in the water, so her dad would have her run back and forth on the beach to warm herself up. Later, she would practice for the long jump by jumping in the family garden, and when she was still running hurdles in junior high, she would practice by jumping fences of barbed wire.
“I was holding my breath,” Cherylee said, “and she would be fine.”
One of the harder moments for Melanie came when her dad, Timothy, passed away. That contributed to a difficult cross-country season, which also involved an ankle injury and tough finish on the rough course at state. For her senior school project, she put about 50 hours into organizing a fun run in his honor this past February at CV.
CV’s first competition of this season was rescheduled from a Saturday to the following week, and before it went off, the season was cancelled – so the last competitive mile time Gianopulos posted in a Rams uniform was the 5:26.59 she put up at state, which she planned to beat this season.
That one won’t end up as her last competitive race. She has signed to follow the footsteps of CV alum Cole Olsen to run on scholarship at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, where she plans to study kinesiology.
“That degree has a lot of possible occupations, so I could be a physical therapist, massage therapist, chiropractor, athletic trainer,” she said. “It can be a building-block for a lot of different things.”