Sydney Thorvaldson used to get nauseous before races. Regardless of previous wins, anxiety would engulf her moments before each starting gun. She loved to run and had no intentions of stopping — so she willed a remedy.Hence the pink iPod shuffle she started clipping to the waist of her shorts. That iPod holds a myriad of genres and artists, one for however she’s feeling. During the Wyoming Track & Field Classic, the annual invite-only all-class culmination of the state’s best, she relied on emo rapper XXXTentacion to repel her unease.
“Usually it’s what will take my mind off all the stuff, so I don’t get too nervous,” she explained. “It really calms me down and gets me focused.”
This helped her put nerves in the rear view mirror — alongside the competition.
The Rawlins standout entered the state championship meet on the doorstep of an unprecedented freshman year. She did not lose a cross country race in the fall. She’s won the 800, mile and two-mile at every meet during the track season.
She’s done all of it with a smile.
“I just love it,” Sydney said. “When I run I feel really great.”
* * *
It started when her mother, Wendy, would run around Rawlins and push Sydney in the stroller. Wendy played multiple sports in high school and eventually played volleyball at Regis University in Denver. She did not like running.
“It wasn’t until I was out of college and decided I needed to look good in a wedding dress,” Wendy said. “Then I developed that runner’s high.”
The high continued after Sydney’s birth. Once Sydney outgrew the stroller, she accompanied her mother by bicycle. Then, around the time she started first grade, Sydney started running alongside her mother.
That was when Nancy Steinberg, the longtime cross country and track coach at Rawlins High School, first saw Sydney. Steinberg remembered seeing the pair run around Rawlins on nice days. Sydney always had a smile on her face, Steinberg recalled.
Sydney wasn’t thinking about her potential at that point. She merely loved to run with her mom.
Then came the local 5K races. Sydney ran what she could and walked when needed. When she ran the Pen to Pen Fun Run in Rawlins as a 10-year-old, the young Thorvaldson left Steinberg in awe.
Sydey began running with her father, Kris, while Wendy ran ahead. About halfway through the 5K, Steinberg found herself running just ahead of the father-daughter duo.
“Sydney,” Kris said, “just go if I’m slowing you down.”
And off she went — past Steinberg and into the distance.
“Oh my god,” Steinberg thought. “She just took off and finished. And every year she’d get a little bit better.”
* * * Sydney joined the school-affiliated running programs in middle school. Rawlins is one of the rare programs where middle school cross-country runners practice with the high school teams. This allowed the young runner to get acclimated to high school practices early.
Stenberg wasn’t sure how well Thorvaldson would integrate with the other runners. Those uncertainties did not last long.
“When she came into sixth grade she was a tiny little thing,” Steinberg said. “And you could tell at practice right away that she was way ahead of everybody.
Sydney won every middle school race. They were not close.
She also inherited her mother’s love for basketball, playing throughout middle school. However, Wendy could already tell where her daughter’s passion aligned.
After a lackluster practice, Sydney came home in frustration. She walked through the door, set her gym bag and backpack down, and headed for the basement. That’s where the tranquility of the treadmill rested. She’d return upstairs with heavy breath and a wide smile.
“I always pictured her following in my footsteps with volleyball and basketball,” Wendy said. “When she got into seventh grade and had to decide between volleyball and cross-country, for her it was no question. It was an easy decision.”
The next stage in Sydney’s progression came during a 10K in Rawlins. She ran toward the head of the pack, alongside her mother, while Steinberg remembered trailing far behind. The head coach saw Sydney’s grandfather sitting in an armchair near the armory, right where he usually sat during those races.
Every time she saw him, she asked who was leading, mother or daughter. The lighthearted exchange brought smiles out of both of them, in part because they knew the inevitable answer.
“Sydney passed her and she’s not looking back,” he responded.
Steinberg chuckled and finished the race, where she saw the mother and daughter hugging while walking away.
“And that was the end of Wendy beating Sydney,” Steinberg said.
* * *
The Rawlins cross-country team opened its 2017 season in Casper for the annual Beartrap Invitational. It’s a race that some teams shied away from due to the elevation on Casper Mountain and exposure to mid-August heat.
That race began Sydney’s high school career.
“Her mom and I were a nervous wreck before Beartrap,” Steinberg said. “She was first in everything in middle school. It was huge for her to go undefeated in middle school.
“But now I was nervous thinking what if something happens in the first race and she’s devastated?”
Sydney grew nervous as well. She jogged to stay loose and keep the nausea at bay. On the official’s mark, she stood behind the spray-painted orange starting line.
The gunshot echoed through the park as the runners took off. It took Sydney less than 70 yards to separate herself from the majority of the runners.
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Mother and coach lost sight of Sydney as the course curved right, through the wooded campground. The freshman reappeared running toward them, essentially alone.
“When I saw her running through the woods and second place was way far behind, I relaxed,” Steinberg said. “You know in your mind that she’s really good, should do well, should win, but you just never really know. She’s something else.”
Sydney won that race by 1 minute, 18 seconds. By comparison, her time — 18 minutes, 18.37 seconds — overshadowed the mark left the year earlier by former Jackson distance runner Anna Gibson (19:42.74).
After the race, Sydney caught her breath and introduced herself to second-place Abigail Whitman from Laramie. Other runners finished and introduced themselves to Sydney, who stood flattered. She did not expect to win. She only wanted to get a time on which she could improve.
* * *
The season progressed with more races and more victories for Sydney. Still, she pushed herself to run faster.
Her thirst for improvement grew to concerning levels during a tempo run at the Rawlins cemetery midway through the season. Sydney’s stride moved further ahead of her teammates. Tears of pain replaced her characteristic smile.
“Stop, stop!” Steinberg shouted.
Sydney, not one to shy from running, initially shrugged off Steinberg’s concerns. Steinberg knew better. She pressed again. Sydney then admitted that her legs and quads hurt. She became even more reluctant to express her pain when Steinberg told her to walk to the school and get ice. After all, Sydney still had a workout to finish.
“If she had her way she’d run every day of the week, morning and night,” Steinberg said. “I told her, ‘You need a day to rest your body’ and that’s like murder to her.”
Wendy voiced similar concerns. She’s insisted that running should be for fun, for a release. As a former college athlete, she’s all too familiar with the stories associated with high expectations.
Wendy learned to look for a watch on Sydney’s wrist when leaving the house. A small digital watch meant tracking distance, time, splits for improvement on the inevitable run. No watch meant the run would be free, with no ways of measuring time or distance.
“She takes it more seriously than I think she should,” Wendy said. “We tell her to go see a movie or to see her friends.”
Sydney won the Class 3A state cross-country championship as a freshman. Her time, through strong winds at Sheridan’s Veterans Affairs Hospital, clocked just 14 seconds shy of the state record — set by Gibson the previous year (17:35.20).
Sydney qualified for the Nike Cross Nationals race, where she tempered her expectations. Soaking in every detail of the event, she aimed to make the top 10. She finished ninth.
While in Portland, she befriended as many runners as she could. She’s kept current with them through Twitter and Instagram.
“It was so much fun, I loved it so much,” Sydney said. “You get to meet so many other fast girls that you can relate with.”
* * *
Sydney excitedly returned to the starting line for the next track and field season. Enough excitement, in fact, that it became infectious. Sydney’s trademark smile attracted friends to run for the Outlaws this spring.
After just nine varsity practices came the season-opening Glen Legler Memorial Invitational at Cheney Alumni Field in Casper. There, Sydney immediately added to her legacy.
Sydney broke the school record in the 3,200 in the first race. She also shattered the school record in the 1,600 at that same meet.
Steinberg decided to enter Sydney in the 800 the next weekend, which she won. Sydney’s time in the 800 at the Wyoming Track & Field Classic set another school record. She also ran in the 3,200 at that meet, where Sydney noticed her family in the bleachers and waved.
Sydney won every race at those three distances heading into the state meet. The only blemishes on her record were the two times she ran the 400, finishing fifth and sixth.
“It’s kind of weird because you have to train for all different sort of things and you have to know when to kick and have a strategy,” Sydney said. “For the 2-mile, usually you can keep a steady pace, but in the 800 you’ve got to know when to kick and stride out. It’s kind of hard but I love it.”
Sydney qualified for the state meet in the 800, 1600, 3200 and as the anchor leg on Rawlins’ 1600 sprint medley relay team. All four of those stood as the fastest times among the 3A field, putting the freshman on the path of history.
Or, as she put it: “I’ve been really impressed with how I’ve done. In middle school I didn’t run quite as well as I think I could have, but this year I’ve really picked it up and I’m really happy with the way things are going so far.”
There’s never been a need for motivational speeches. After witnessing Cheyenne Central’s Aubrey Frentheway run the 1,600 in 5 minutes-flat at the Track & Field Classic, Sydney added a new goal.
“That’s burning at her,” Steinberg said.
Sydney agreed to take a two-week break upon the season’s completion. The Thorvaldson duo registered to do the Bowl to Boulder race, which Wendy reiterated that she does for fun.
The same could not necessarily be said for Sydney.
“I love to run but I can’t say she’s my running buddy because we have different speeds,” Wendy said. “I just hope she continues to enjoy it.”
Sydney has already expressed hope to continue running in college. The family just learned she qualified for the New Balance Nationals in June.
And all that before she even ran her first state track and field race.
With three more years to look forward to, Sydney could only giggle on hearing her already growing list of accomplishments. With a breath, she reclined into her standard smile.
“It’s cool and I really like how things are going right now,” she said. “I hope I can improve.”