Scott Fowler

Act of sportsmanship in cross country meet still magical years later

Any writer can tell you that there are a few stories that stick with you – the stories people still ask about years after the fact.

For me, one of those is the story we called “The Magic Touch” – a tale of true sportsmanship between two female North Carolina high-school cross country runners who didn’t know each other. After one runner suffered a devastating hip injury and nearly collapsed 50 yards from the finish line, the other grabbed her arm, guided her across the finish line and helped the stranger’s team win the meet.

That happened in 2010. It’s not an exaggeration to say I have been asked hundreds of times since then: “Whatever happened to those two runners?”

Here’s the short version: Deborah Guthmann, the runner who was helped, is 22. She has graduated from UNC Greensboro and been accepted into an extremely competitive graduate program at UNC Chapel Hill, where she will pursue a doctorate in physical therapy.

Jenna Huff, 21, is a rising senior at Appalachian State. She is also the reigning Miss Stanly County, was the commencement speaker at her old high school a week ago and on Saturday will compete in the Miss North Carolina pageant in Raleigh.

The longer version? Well, if you want that, let’s start on the day of the race – Halloween morning, 2010.

‘That wouldn’t have been right’

In 2010, Deborah Guthmann was a senior who ran for Waxhaw Cuthbertson. Jenna Huff was a sophomore who ran for North Stanly. They crossed paths for the first time at a 2A high school regional cross-country meet in Salisbury.

In a field of 84 high school girls, the pack gradually separated over the 3.1-mile course. Deborah and Jenna were not among the leaders. As they rounded the final curve and ran over the last bridge, they were fighting for 21st place. Deborah had led Jenna the entire way, by anywhere from 20-50 yards, but Jenna had always had a fine finishing kick and started to gain ground.

In the meantime, Deborah’s right hip was killing her. She wasn’t sure exactly why and she was gritting her teeth and running through the pain. But it was really hurting.

And then, about 50 yards from the finish line of the 5-kilometer race, Deborah’s growth plate popped off her right hip. The pain, her doctor would later say, would have been similar to suddenly breaking a bone.

Deborah stopped and grabbed her hip. Tears streamed down her face.

Taught by her cross-country coach to pass any and all runners, no matter the circumstances, Jenna made a split-second decision as she caught up to the girl she had been chasing the whole race.

“The first thing that went through my mind,” Jenna said in 2010, “was good golly, she just ran 3 miles that fast and she’s going to stop right there? Right at the finish line?

“I didn’t think about passing her, though. It wouldn’t have been right, because she was hurt. Instead, I grabbed her. I looked at her and I said, ‘C’mon. We’re going to run, and we’re going to do it now.’”

A series of remarkable pictures taken by professional photographer Julia DuChateau – who happened to be at the finish line since her son had competed earlier in the day in another race – captured the moment. Jenna grabbed Deborah’s left elbow and gently pushed her toward the finish line.

Deborah took a few small steps, then started slowly jogging again as Jenna urged her toward the finish.

Said Deborah in 2010: “She kept telling me, ‘C’mon, look, it’s right there.’ And I was crying. I wasn’t really saying anything.”

When they got to the finish chute that determines placement order, Jenna stopped. She then pushed Deborah one step ahead of her, ensuring that Deborah would finish just before she did. The points Deborah scored for her finish broke a tie with another team and ensured Cuthbertson’s victory in the meet.

That happy ending was in brief danger of being overthrown.

Technically, no runner is supposed to aid another runner during a race. For a few minutes, there were were rumors that Deborah – or Jenna, or both – would be disqualified. But after a brief discussion that included several coaches on-site, the gesture was allowed to stand. Deborah finished 21st in the race with a time of 21 minutes and 33 seconds. Jenna was 22nd, with a time of 21 minutes and 34 seconds. Jenna would end up winning a national sportsmanship award for the gesture.

I always thought one of the hidden moments of grace in the story was Deborah’s acceptance of Jenna’s help. She could have immersed herself in her own private pain, shrugging off the offer or waiting until a teammate came along. Instead, she allowed herself to rely on the kindness of a stranger.

Nearly everyone who saw what happened at that finish line firsthand ended up crying about it. The Observer published the original story on Christmas Day 2010.

Inspired by her own injuries

That was then. This is now. Both girls still run for exercise, and Deborah even ran briefly as a college athlete at a small Christian school in Georgia. “I was on an academic and athletic scholarship,” she said, “but injuries plagued me.”

The sixth of nine children, Deborah ended up transferring closer to home and going to college at UNC Greensboro. She stopped trying to pursue an athletic career there and concentrated on her studies, majoring in kinesiology with a concentration in sports medicine.

And all those injuries – she later had the growth plate pop off her other hip, too – had a silver lining. She got a close look at the process of injuries and how they are rehabilitated through the work of caring physical therapists.

“My own injuries and rehab experiences shaped my desire to become a PT,” she said. “I saw how you could help people recover from injury – not just with medication, but with therapy and strengthening and whole-body health.”

Deborah will begin her three-year doctoral physical therapy program at Chapel Hill in August. She just got back from touring Europe – after an unscheduled stop in Iceland – and is spending the summer in New York as a camp counselor for international students. When she remembers that race in 2010, she said: “I just appreciate what Jenna did that day.”

A platform for sportsmanship

As for Jenna, she was a five-sport athlete in high school (basketball, track, cross country, swimming and soccer). But she wasn’t quite good enough at any of those to play them collegiately at Appalachian.

The idea of sportsmanship really resonated with her, though. And she also missed the idea of competition.

One day in 2014, she said, “I literally woke up and thought to myself I wanted to do something for Stanly County and also wanted to compete for the Miss Stanly County title.”

She and her mother went to several beauty pageants and studied them. Jenna had never entered one before, but she decided to do so. Surprisingly, she won Miss Stanly County in 2015. She decided to make her platform “good sportsmanship,” talking to numerous school groups about treating others the way you would want to be treated. She always tells the story of the race to help illustrate the idea.

For the talent portion of Miss North Carolina, Jenna won’t sing or dance like so many of the other 40 contestants will do. Instead, she will do a basketball dribbling routine.

“I’m wearing an outfit I designed,” Jenna said. “I took a cocktail dress and made it into shorts at the bottom and bedazzled it myself to make it look right on stage. The music is from ‘Space Jam,’ which was my favorite movie when I was a kid. I spin the basketball, weave it through my legs, do the ‘around-the-world’ trick – it’s pretty much fun.”

After Jenna graduates from Appalachian in May 2017 with a public relations major, she plans to get a Master’s degree in higher education. She hopes to one day work at a university either as an advisor or a professor.

Deborah believes once she obtains her doctorate that she will practice as a physical therapist for awhile and then either conduct research or teach. Because she isn’t often speaking to classes about sportsmanship, she has far less reason to bring up the moment from 2010.

“That race was so long ago,” Deborah said. “I rarely think about it. When I do it’s usually prompted by ‘Tell me something interesting about yourself.’ It seems like another life – but one in which a kind person did something selfless.”

And when we are at our best as a society, that’s what life really comes down to, right?

Kind people, doing something selfless.