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The Day's All-Area Girls' Cross Country Runner of the Year: East Lyme's Madison Sjostrom

Madison Sjostrom was a freshman and East Lyme High School was participating in the Winding Trails Cross Country Invitational in Farmington. Sjostrom was in the junior varsity race.

"She was winning and she ended up second," East Lyme girls' cross country coach Mike Flynn said. "She was very upset that she didn't win. That was the turning point where, 'OK, we have something here. She wants to do well.'"

It was the start of the learning curve for Sjostrom, who went from being a fun-loving, Taylor Swift-singing, sandcastle-building girl to a fun-loving, Taylor Swift-singing, sandcastle-building girl who can really, really run.

Sjostrom, now a junior, was fifth in the Class MM state championship this season to earn all-state honors and lead East Lyme to a runner-up finish as a team, this following a successful season in which the Vikings grew in numbers and won the Eastern Connecticut Conference Division I title and ECC championship meet.

Sjostrom was named The Day's 2019 All-Area Girls' Cross Country Runner of the Year.

She's still learning. Every day.

For instance, Sjostrom endured a slip-up in the ECC meet at Norwich Golf Course. She was confident, so much so that she took off at a sprint, quite opposite of the strategy Flynn had mapped out for her, and wound up a disappointing 16th — "I, like, sprinted the first mile, which is something you should not do," Sjostrom said.

But she responded by leading the team in the Class MM meet (20:33) and the State Open (46th, 20:34), both while senior captain Gilly Goodwin was ill and unable to give her teammates peace of mind on the course as she usually does.

"You can't let yourself get down on yourself," Sjostrom said. "The best way to react from something is just move on and pick up the pieces. There's no point in sitting there and crying about it."

"To see her bounce back and finish fifth at the state meet was huge," Flynn said. "She was still a little bit bitter. But we said, 'We're going there to compete' and she ran incredibly well. It showed her going forward next year, she has a shot to make New Englands. I think she's still getting there, but it's a nice way for her to end. There was a lot of pressure."

Sjostrom has become serious about running, a pursuit she hopes to continue in college. While playing softball last spring at East Lyme, she continued to run every day, contacting Flynn for workout advice.

It is in contrast to Sjostrom's not-so-serious side, what Flynn calls "all positive fun."

Earlier in her career, the vivacious Sjostrom was given a question limit by Flynn to prevent her from peppering him with a stream of consciousness every day at practice. And this season Sjostrom began a campaign to get Flynn to let her dog-sit his 10-year-old black lab/pit bull mix, Pennie.

There are a lot of laughs to be had in this circle.

"The girls love being around her," Flynn said of Sjostrom. "She cares so much about everybody, their happiness, taking the time with the younger kids. She's a great, great person."

"I'm an only child," Sjostrom said. "I think (the chattiness) is from the fact I go home every day and I'm alone. (Going to school) is an exciting and overwhelming event that occurs every day. I like to talk and have as much fun as I can. I've gotten in trouble with Mike before. Sometimes I'm not supposed to be talking and I'm talking."

She loves the atmosphere of the cross country team, though, captained by Goodwin and fellow senior Sam Lyster — "they're all very nice people, all smart, all nice, an environment of people you want to surround yourself with," she said.

She is unsure how she'll grow into the role of a senior leader next season. She's still working on pacing herself during races, learning to heed Flynn's game plans and knowing when it's time to take off for the finish line instead of waiting for Goodwin to give her the go-ahead.

Then again, Sjostrom has come this far.

"I think a lot of it just comes down to experience," Flynn said. "Her goals coming in (as a freshman) have drastically changed. She went from just running to competing at a high level. She's starting to believe the things I was telling her, her learning to trust herself, her realizing I'm not going to give her goals that aren't realistic. Her maturity level has greatly increased.

"On the surface, because of her looseness, it can be misconstrued at times as not being serious enough. But she does anything you ask her. She really is goal-oriented and wants to accomplish some pretty high goals. She has a work ethic, when she gets going, that's super-impressive.

"Madison will figure out a way (next season) to motivate and keep things positive, work toward the goal the team has. I don't have any reservations."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

The Day's 2019 All-Area Girls' Cross Country Team

Player of the Year — Madison Sjostrom (East Lyme)

Serena Britner (St. Bernard)

Gillian Goodwin (East Lyme)

Kennedy Holsapple (East Lyme)

Sophia Jones (NFA)

Samantha Lyster (East Lyme)

Mary Madaus (Williams)

Isabel Pazzaglia (East Lyme)

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