By age 10, Natalie Varela was a four-time national champion in judo and jujitsu.
After six years in martial arts, it was time for her to move on to new challenges.
“I think I was ready to move on once I won the national championship in middle school,” said the Gulliver Prep freshman.
“I was happy I achieved everything I wanted to. I think running was more my type of sport and would get me places.”
After she saw the Miami Elite Track Club training while she was conditioning for jujitsu, she was sold on running.
“I wanted to run, I wanted to continue my passion for winning and setting goals. Judo helped me a lot mentally and with eating healthy. But that’s behind me and running is the goal now.”
In middle school, Varela started working with veteran cross country and track coach Mike Ward, who coached hundreds of top athletes at the University of Miami – including team and individual conference champions. Ward is head track coach at Gulliver. He monitors Varela’s workouts along with Gulliver girls’ cross country coach Jesus Batista and her father.
“It’s shocking in this day and age to see a young athlete that realizes the big picture and doesn’t get caught up in the little picture,” Ward said. “She is so competitive and will not give an inch to anybody. She knows when to back off in a race. She has the strength. She is a tough competitive kid. People wrote her off last year because she was so young and she ended up second in the state behind the Bolles girl (Caitlin Collier). She is coming off a great track season. She will do well in cross country.”
Varela, 14, is not only one of the top freshmen in the state – but the nation. In middle school, she won the 800-meter title and anchored the 4×800-meter relay at the state middle school championships. Last year, as an eighth-grader, she won the AAU 13-14 National Cross Country Championships and was State 2A high school runner-up in the 1,600 and 3,200 meters behind Bolles sophomore Caitlin Collier. In cross country, she was fourth at state in 18:40. She was the only Gulliver runner to qualify for state.
The 5-foot-4, 93-pound Varela trains with the Gulliver boys’ team. She has built a solid base for cross country running 33 miles a week at Tropical Park. She is running sub-18s for 5K.
“I do want to be the best,” said Varela, who is ranked second in 2A behind Pine Crest freshman Tsion Yared. “I am hoping I can beat her and the Bolles girls. I hope I can stay near them or beat them before they graduate.
“I know I have a lot of hard girls to win against. I am training for the bigger meets. I am using these early races to prepare for districts and states. I want to get my times down. By the time I get to state I want to be at my peak.”
Varela also enjoys being part of the 12-member girls’ team which is rebuilding.
“I love the team, they are working hard,” Varela said. “They are getting progressively better. I want to stay with running. I am really happy where I am.”
Dade County has a talented core of teams and individual runners returning after successful 2015 seasons.
In Class 4A, Our Lady of Lourdes was fifth at the state meet and return seniors Sabrina Quijano, Calyope Ortega and Nicole Lopez, sophomore Elizabeth McCann and junior Jeannie Estevez.
In Class 2A, Ransom Everglades finished third and lost its top runner Lauren Archer but return sophomore Claire Irigoyen and senior Beatriz Ruan.
In Class 1A, Westminster Christian was third and returns freshmen Kyra Wells and Kaya Matthews and senior Natasha Strump.
Also returning are Mater Academy freshman Rahyah Andressohn, district champion and region runner-up; Doral Academy junior Maria Fernandez, third at districts; Ferguson senior Jazmyn Martinez, district champion; and eighth grader Jinah Mickens of Mater Academy.
DADE GIRLS CROSS COUNTRY
ATHLETES TO WATCH
Kaylee Alfaro, Ferguson; Rahyah Andressohn, Mater Academy; Gabriela Crespi, Ferguson; Jeannie Estevez, Our Lady of Lourdes; Maria Fernandez, Doral Academy; Jazmyn Martinez, Ferguson; Mariana Gonzalez, LaSalle; Claire Irigoyen, Ransom Everglades; Jinah Mickens, Mater Academy; Megan Moussa, Terra; Calyope Ortega, Our Lady of Lourdes; Sabrina Quijano, Our Lady of Lourdes; Daesha Rogers, North Miami; Beatriz Ruan, Ransom Everglades; Natalie Varela, Gulliver Prep; Kyra Wells, Westminster Christian.
DEFENDING STATE CHAMPIONS
Class 4A: St. Thomas Aquinas (boys), Winter Park (girls)
Class 3A: Creekside (boys), Lawton Chiles (girls)
Class 2A: Trinity Prep (boys), Bolles (girls)
Class 1A: Father Lopez (boys), Circle Christian (girls)
Sept. 1, Miami-Dade County Youth Fair Championship
Sept. 3, Park Vista Cobra Country Invitational
Sept. 9, King of the Hill, Miami
Sept. 10, Titusville Astronaut Invite
Sept. 17, 34th Spanish River Invitational
Sept. 17, St. Thomas University Invitational
Sept. 22, Pine Crest Invitational, Mills Pond Park
Sept. 23, Junior Orange Bowl Invitational, Larry & Penny Thompson Park
Sept. 24, Mountain Dew Invitational, Gainesville
Sept. 29, Westminster Christian Warrior Invite, Coral Reef Park
Sept. 30-Oct. 1, Flrunners.com Invite 16, Titusville
Oct. 7, 305 Classic, Larry & Penny Thompson Park
Oct. 7-8, Disney XC Classic, Kissimmee
Oct. 8, FSU Pre-State Invite
Oct. 14, GMAC Championship, Larry & Penny Thompson Park
Oct. 17-22, District meets
Oct. 27-29, Region meets
Nov. 5, State meet, Apalachee Regional Park, Tallahassee
Nov. 12, USATF Junior Olympic XC Championship, Lakeland
Nov. 19, National Youth Championships, Evansville, Ind.
Nov. 19, FACA Senior All-Star Classic, Tallahassee
Dec. 3, AAU National Championships, Oakville, Ala.
Dec. 10, Foot Locker Nationals, San Diego