When the COVID-19 pandemic ended the IHSA girls track and field season in mid-March 2020, Oak Park and River Forest High School junior Josephine Welin conducted a personal state championship.
On May 23, the day Welin would have raced in the Class 3A state finals at Eastern Illinois University she instead ran a 1,600-meter time trial at Chicago’s Amundsen Park with family watching and OPRF girls cross country and assistant track coach Ashley Raymond on FaceTime.
Welin ran a lifetime-best 4 minutes, 56 seconds that would have earned top-four finishes the previous three state meets.
“Being able to break 5 minutes, [racing] by myself, for the first time showed me I can push myself really hard, and when I get the chance to race again I can do something big,” Welin said.
This track season, Welin often runs alone, because few can keep pace with the fastest girls distance runner in OPRF history. It’s already led to national exposure, such as top-seven finishes in one and two-mile races at the Adidas Indoor Nationals Feb. 26-28 in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
At the one-day IHSA Class 3A State Finals on June 12, Welin seeks top-nine, all-state honors for the 3,200 and 1,600. Her 10:20.40 is the state’s fastest outdoor 3,200 this season by 19 seconds. Her last 1,600 of 4:52.20 on Feb. 19 indoors would rank No. 1 by .61.
There was no IHSA-sanctioned cross country state meet in November, but other results validated Welin as the top Illinois girls runner and OPRF’s greatest team ever.
No IHSA state championship medal? No worries.
“Sometimes I feel a little bit upset not getting all of the attention for being the real state champion or something like that. I have to tell myself it’s just a title. It’s just a medal,” said Welin, who swept all but one regular-season race.
“Even though you don’t have the medal doesn’t mean you haven’t been working hard,” Welin said. “It’s definitely good to know that just training is something that can fulfill me.”
When IHSA cross country ended with sectionals – and Welin winning in record time — the ShaZam Championships on Nov. 8 in Chillicothe became the unofficial state finals.
Welin’s girls course record 17:25.64 for 5,000 kilometers (3.1 miles) won Division III by nearly 35 seconds over six of seven returnees, who beat her all-state 16th in 2019 (17:07.86 for 3.0 miles). The team of OPRF runners finished fourth.
“I am so proud of the way she raced [at ShaZam and sectionals],” Raymond said. “She didn’t want to just win. She wanted to run with guts and test her limits. You have to respect the courage and confidence she showed.”
The Huskies consistently excelled even with junior Nora Wollen, a 2019 all-state 15th, injured until sectionals. Seniors Maggie Rose Baron and Parker Hulen, junior Samantha Duwe, sophomore Avery Minnis and freshman Lenny Sterritt also competed at sectionals and ShaZam.
“Next to racing, my favorite thing is watching my teammates,” Welin said.
In 2018, Raymond’s first season, the 10th-place Huskies equaled their highest state finish. Welin was 80th.
Welin then finished 25th at 2019 state track finals in the 1,600 (5:17.14). When the pandemic halted 2020 track competition, an improving Welin initially was devastated.
Nearby trails then became softer training surfaces to sustain her regimen with less impact. Welin added only five miles weekly and slightly more during the summer.
“Josephine understands the little things, like sleep, nutrition and recovery matter just as much as training,” Raymond said. “She is the last to finish any strength session. She is a machine. Her balanced focus allows her to increase her training load, stay injury free and run fast.”
At the IHSA cross country sectionals on Oct. 31, 2020 at Chicago’s Lincoln Park, Welin won by 40 seconds (course-record 16:33.31 for 3.0 miles) and the Huskies were a program-best second.
When Welin became OPRF’s second runner to win the West Suburban Conference Silver Meet on Oct. 17 (16:49.35 for 2.88 miles), she overcame rain, 35-mile-per-hour winds and pre-race doubts to win by 21 seconds. OPRF finished second to York, whose runners won ShaZam.
“I was really proud of just being able to endure the conditions and prove to myself I still was as good as I thought I could be and my goals were still in reach,” Welin said.
Because of WSC restrictions, OPRF did not race non-WSC schools until the postseason. By ShaZam, strategy was simple.
“[Raymond] told me, ‘You are in a position to win and take it out.’ I wanted to show I can be competitive and push myself no matter what,” Welin said. “We were waiting all season for [additional] competition. I didn’t need it. I still ran fast.”
Welin also enjoys drawing, painting and photography. At OPRF, she is completing a 3D display of pandemic-themed photos that she printed and sewed into face masks.
To achieve her picture-perfect state finishes, Welin now realizes she possesses the physical and mental tools.
“I have everything I need to push myself right in me,” Welin said. “I don’t need everyone cheering. I don’t need a fast person [for pace]. I have that power. I’ve definitely learned I can be confident in my abilities.”