Priya Gangadharan Shares Her Journey of Running to the Cross Country State Championship

By Hannah Ashtari, Managing Editor

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  • Gangadharan crosses the finish line during a race. “The competitive aspect [of racing] is awesome, but it’s more like I love being surprised by new terrains in the races,” Gangadharan said.

    Photo By Chloe Boyd

  • Gangadharan keeps pace with other athletes during a race. Like most athletes, Gangadharan views competition as an avenue for improvement. “Your competition is what helps you race. If you didn’t have any competition when you’re racing, you’re not going to be one of the best runners. You need them to be there.”

    Photo By Chloe Boyd

  • Gangadharan with her first fifth place ribbon, running with the CYA running program in Vermont. “I was astonished. I didn’t think I could do that. I’m like, next race, I’m going to do even better. And then it kept getting better from there and then seven years later, it has significantly improved, and I plan on continuing running in college,” Gangadharan said.

    Photo By Priya Gangadharan

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It all started with a sign. Not a metaphorical one, but a literal sign on the sign of the road that catalyzed Priya Gangadharan’s ‘23 journey to running, the Westwood Cross Country team, and the Texas state Cross Country Championships, this Saturday, Nov. 6th. 

“I started off as a soccer player. I had no intentions of running, at all. But when I lived in Virginia, I was driving with my dad, and there was a little sign on the side of the road, and it said, ‘do you want to run cross country’, and then my dad [asked me] do you want to run cross country,” Gangadharan said. “And I was like, ‘umm, sure. I’ll try it out.’” 

Seven years and nearly twenty thousand miles later, Gangadharan is the only Westwood runner to advance to the state competition this year. And while cross country is often viewed as a solitary sport, to Gangadharan, the team environment is more important now than ever in the last races of the school cross country season.  

“We had [two of my teammates] James Robinson and Sam Newlin, they both placed twelfth, and they missed going to regionals only by two spots. I was really upset,” Gangadharan said. “It’s not the same when you don’t have your team with you. It’s hard to see all the other teams [that] made it to regionals, bonding together, doing similar hairstyles, team chants. It’s kind of a little bit lonely but you gotta push through it. The support I got from my team [though], them talking to me in person after the race, telling me good luck, it was really nice of them.” 

When asked to describe Gangadharan, the common consensus among those who know her is that she is, to put it simply using a cliché phrase, a ray of sunshine. Her teammates know that athleticism is also extremely important to her, however.

“Priya is the sweetest and most caring person ever but is insanely hard working and competitive,” teammate Varun Ramesh ‘22 said. 

Gangadharan’s practice schedule reflects this. She runs with both the school team and 620 running, a competitive youth running program that trains year round. (Oftentimes Gangadharan’s club teammates are the ones she races against in school competitions. “It is a little awkward,” Gangadharan said, “but it’s fun.”) 

“A lot of people, they do take an off day, and that’s fine. But a lot of runners [don’t] take an off day. I don’t take an off day. I run every single day. I’ve been running in the evenings. [I] do changes, since [the state meet] is coming up, [I’ve] limited it a little bit, but I do five miles on an easy day, and seven miles on a workout day. So it goes five, seven, five, seven, five, seven,” Gangadharan said. “And then Saturday is an off day, [I] do two to three miles, super easy, conversational pace, and then Sunday is a long run day, [I] go run ten miles, but no long run this week. We gotta get ready for state, you can’t tie yourself up.” 

While Westwood is home to many talented athletes and teams, most find it unimaginable to dedicate that much time and energy to a sport as long loathed and vilified as running. However, Gangadharan asserts that most of the first impressions students have of running, either through conditioning for other team sports or in gym class, aren’t accurate.

“I know not everyone likes running. That is one hundred percent, I agree. Running is not for everyone. There [are a] bunch of other sports to do, but you really have to [realize] before you say any of those things, like ‘running is so tiring, I hate gassers, I hate the mile’, it’s not like we’re doing gassers and miles every day,” Gangadharan said. “There is a lot of running we do that is actually really fun. You really have to go to [a practice] and maybe after a few practices, then you can say if you don’t like it, which I bet you won’t say.”

Though one could be easily fooled by her race times, or watching her sprint across the finish line with ease, Gangadharan maintains that finishing at the top in cross country didn’t always come effortlessly to her.

“At first, I was not good at running. I was placing in the two hundredth place, all of [that]. And you just really have to believe that you can get better. I remember when I got my first ribbon for fifth place I was astonished. I didn’t think I could do that.” 

And though belief in the ability to improve at running might be one part of the equation, Gangadharan has what many other athletes feel they might lack: a reason to improve.

“Running, it’s not like a lot of sports. I refer to running as free therapy. It’s like free therapy. If you’re having a bad day, or if you have a headache even, you can just go for like a mile run. It doesn’t matter the pace, it doesn’t matter anything, and you’re better,” Gangadharan said. “Running comforts me a lot. A lot of [sports] like soccer, baseball, you can’t just go out and hit a ball. You need other people, you need equipment, running you need a pair of shoes and you’re off.”

True to everything her classmates and teammates know her to be, Gangadharan is going into the state meet with an open mindset and positive attitude.

“I have never been to state before. I don’t know all of my competition. I can not really predict how I am going to do. I am just going to go run based on how I’m doing. It’s the last race of the season, I don’t have to strategize anything as much as regionals, because it’s the last race. I’m really hoping I can have one of my fastest races of the season, that would be great to end with one of the fastest races,” Gangadharan said. “And as long as I felt like I gave it my all, and hopefully maybe, if I’m lucky, end up with one of my fastest times of the season, I’ll be happy with that.”

No matter what happens at the state meet, Gangadharan hopes to continue running past that finish line and on to new ones, inspiring others to continue running with her. 

“For runners that don’t see improvement this year, and [start] to lose motivation, [or] stop running. Do not give up. Because you are going to [maybe] have off days, off weeks, off years, but overall, you can see improvement. I swear by it, You will. I promise you if you think you can make it, you will make it.”

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