The diminutive waif from Ireland by way of Cornwall-on-the- Hudson Aisling Cuffe is a national champion with credentials aplenty. She has broken long-standing records both on the track and on cross country courses, which are easily viewed, yet they hardly convey the essence of this singular personality. There is far more to Ms. Cuffe than her simple running ability. First and foremost, when I think of Aisling, is her gentleness of spirit and happy demeanor. Yes to run the way she does she has to have a competitive spirit but it seems in evidence only while in the midst of a race. My wife and I have had the pleasure of seeing and knowing her for three years and the picture, which comes to mind when I think of her, is the brilliant smile on her face. She is a free and happy spirit, who enjoys life and what she is doing at the moment. She laughs and smiles, when she interacts with others, but she is also sporting a wide grin even as she jogs a course or warms up for a race. Hers is an incandescent spirit which brightens the atmosphere for everyone around her. One only need peruse the hundreds of photos that we have of her to see the variety of joyous exuberance seemingly continuously displayed on her face. Indeed in the time I have known her there is only one single moment in which I did not see her beaming, which makes it memorable, and that was about an hour before the 2010 Foot Locker race, when I noted her sitting alone under a tree focusing on what she needed to do in the upcoming race. It was understandable to be a bit nervous and I recalled the need to concentrate before a big race myself, so I merely smiled and wished her luck before leaving her to her thoughts. Still shortly after that her gleeful appreciation of the moment was on display, as she was introduced to the crowd at Balboa Park. One would truly have to work and make an effort to be sad around young Aisling. Quite frankly I will miss that happy presence during next fall’s high school cross country season, when she moves on to college competition at Stanford University.
Second to her demeanor is the loyalty she has displayed over time. There are many runners and a number of teams, who blithely forget that individuals and institutions have supported them through the years but Aisling does not. There is no greater example of this than this winter, when Aisling was invited to the Brooks PR Invitational. I conferred with Aisling & her family to make sure they were aware that this meet was going to be very special for the athletes with a quality like that of Foot Locker. Aisling turned down the trip to support her State meet, because the NY Indoor championship qualifier would be held the same weekend. Aisling was not going to win another title, she was attending in support of the state organization, which had supported her the past few years. She knew she would and did miss a wonderful experience but she remained loyal to those who had been supportive of her. It was not just loyalty but a certain integrity, which sadly is missing in today’s world, that Aisling displayed.
Others have noted Aisling ’s special qualities as a person and one of them is Pat Tyson, who is now the head Cross Country and Track coach at Gonzaga University. Pat was the architect of the great mead teams of the 1980’s & 1990’s is also noted as the room mate of the great Steve Prefontaine. He noted recently in a conversation only a month ago how impressed he had been with her. Tyson spoke at last summer’s Nike Elite Running Camp, where Aisling was a ‘camper.’ Pat, of course, had been paid to be there, but Aisling wrote him a personal ‘hand-written letter” in thanks, which all but stunned Tyson. Pat has made many speeches through years but rarely has a runner taken the time to write a personal ‘thank you’ note. Mr. Tyson was so impressed that he informed her parents how touched he was and he related to them what 'a fine job they had done raising her.' To the list of her attributes pat Tyson includes appreciativeness. Aisling Cuffe is not one of life’s takers, who assumes, that her presence demands things.
Chatting with Aisling is also pleasant, because she is an intelligent young lady. Yes she has a 4.0 average but that, of course, is just a statistic, which may or may not mean anything these days. What is nice about her is that, when one speaks with Aisling her intelligence is on display. She has a vocabulary, which she can use and others can use in chatting with her, which makes conversation so much more pleasant. That is not always the case to say the least, when one converses with the overall schema of athletes these days. This four-year member of the math club will attend Stanford next year, which should say enough on the subject.
Last February Aisling was pronounced the Female Cross Country runner of the year by Gatorade. Although the company honors state & regional leaders, young Ms. Cuffe was selected as the nation’s finest runner and this was a very good year as far as quality runners go. That award may have been due in part to a selection committee but it was earned in competition, as Aisling won the Foot Locker National championship in December and followed that with the US Junior National Championship in February. Foot Locker has long been acknowledged as the High School national championship, because it brings the top prep runners in the nation together to face each other on a demanding course. Of course the Foot Locker series began in 1979, so there have been 32 runners, who share that distinction. Aisling, however, stands well ahead of even most of the champions on the list when you consider the time she ran. Her clocking of 16:53 ranks sixth all-time for the race at San Diego’s Balboa Park. Even more impressive is the fact that her margin of victory, a stunning 34 seconds over a stellar field, ties Janet Smith’s mark from 1983 for third all-time. Aisling qualified for Foot Locker three years, because she did not run cross country as a freshman but he three-year record of 17 points (finishes of 12th, 4th & 1st) places her in the top fifteen runners all-time, when one looks at it from that perspective. She also was the Foot Locker Northeast Champion twice, which also places her in elite company.
Aisling followed up her victory at Foot Locker with the US Junior Championship in February. In this race Aisling not only faced high school runners but a select group of freshman collegiate runners as well. It is always a challenge to defeat more mature runners and in the entire history of the Footlocker series only Aisling and Erin Sullivan have backed up a victory at Foot Locker with a victory at USATF Championships. I would note that Jordan Hasay won Junior Nationals in 2008 and followed that up later in the year with a triumph at Foot Locker, yet even with her inclusion, we have a very select list of champions. Aisling went on to follow up that victory by competing in the World Junior Championships, which were held in Spain. Again she was the top US runner and she placed 17th over-all. Aisling was actually the fourth non-African finisher.
We will not review her full Cross Country record but suffice it to say she completed an undefeated senior year with victories in the Girls’ Eastern States & the Great American races. She backed up victories in the New York Public & Federation meets her junior year with victories in her senior year. Aisling also set numerous course records along the way with the most impressive achievement being the establishment of a new standard at the famed Sunken Meadow course where she broke the 1982 record of Christine Curtin, another of the sport’s all-time great runners.
Track is yet another venue in which she has excelled and we will not belabor the point. Suffice it to say she has been victorious both indoors and outdoors at a number of distances. She travelled to the University of Oregon as a sophomore and won the US Junior 5K championship. She established a newly-minted New York 3K record indoors last winter breaking Molly Huddle’s record and last weekend set a new National Two-Mile record at the New Balance Meet in North Carolina of 9:54.22. Prioritizing is hardly a problem for Aisling and accordingly Aisling passed up this year’s national Junior Meet, because it conflicted with her graduation ceremony. Fans at Hayward field may have missed another stellar performance, but young Ms. Cuffe recognizes what is most important. Then again the daughter of one of her coaches graduated in that ceremony and Aisling considered this as well, when contemplating passing on the US meet. Aisling has a bevy of very solid marks through the years, which need not all be recounted. In the end no matter how one looks at Ms. Cuffe, she is a champion among champions, but more importantly she is a quality person to boot.
The young 2011 grand marshal of the Cornwall Independence Day Parade has her priorities straight.
When approached about serving as grand marshal, Aisling Marie Cuffe asked if she could still run in the Main Street Mile. And only when she was assured that she could compete in the race, which starts at 4:35 p.m., and get to the staging area in time for the start of the 5 p.m. parade, did she agree.
Aisling is a runner. Not just any runner: Aisling is the nation’s premiere long distance high school female runner.
And while she may not mind the attention as grand marshal on Monday, July 4, she would mind not being able compete in the race she has won the last three years. So, she’ll be running against herself, trying to improve her time, and set a new record.
Aisling is focused. She is driven. She is also happy. The smile adorning her freckled face is sweet, genuine, and constant.
“She has many gifts,” wrote Nate Getman in New England Runner, “but Aisling Cuffe is so clearly well served by her sense of joy. “
“Hers is an incandescent spirit that brightens the atmosphere for everyone around her,” said Leo Collins, who has covered Aisling’s races for ten years for Youth Runner and now Milesplit.
Aisling has competed in some 175 races during her high school career. The five-foot-four, one-hundred-pound runner has been at or near the top of every race she enters, all over the country and abroad.
She says her best accomplishment was winning the Foot Locker Cross Country National Finals (5k) Dec. 11, 2010 in San Diego; it had been her goal for three years. She was named the Gatorade girls' cross-country runner of the year in February. Aisling has won two U.S. Junior National track titles and has a handful of state records and top national rankings. She has set many cross-country course records along the east coast.
Aisling has been an ambassador for Cornwall Central High School, the Town of Cornwall and the Village of Cornwall-on-Hudson, where she lives. She was born in New York City and came to Cornwall-on-Hudson when she was five. She is an inspiration to young and old, with people all over the country rooting for her and over 2,000 fans following her career on Facebook, set up by a friend.
“All this support makes me feel really happy to be living in my town,” she said in 2009. “I just feel so thankful for everything that everyone is doing for me. It’s nice to know that no matter where I go for a race, my community is rooting for me.”
But it can be tough when meets limit her hanging out with friends.
“I’m the friend that’s never there is the ongoing joke.”
So, why does she run five miles a day throughout the running season? Why does she train two hours a day?
“Running makes you feel healthy. I never knew you could feel this fit. It makes me wonder why others don’t want to warm up or play a game.”
Her high school coaches Dave Feuer and Brian Creeden have meant everything to her Aisling said.
“They’ve changed my life. I wouldn’t be where I am without them.”
“She is just really a student of the sport,” Feuer has said. ”She knows what everybody is doing in her events, so she knows what she has to do to stay ahead.
"We are talking about one of the greatest runners in American history.”
Aisling likes where running has taken her.
“I have a whole new personality. I have more people in my life. I’m confident, accomplished.”
Her family is very supportive. One or the other if not both of her parents, Ronald Cuffe, a cardiologist, and Marie O’Hanrahan, a native of County Roscommon, Ireland, try to attend every race. Her brother Conor and her running sister Dara also cheer her on. Her parents taught her not to do anything halfway.
“I never want to settle for anything less than my best. It’s a waste not wanting to reach your potential.”
The 17-year-old senior has maintained an A average throughout high school and ranked third in her class. Interviewed several days before graduation, she said she already missed her high school. She will be off to Stanford University, a highly competitive academic university and one of the best running schools in the country, on an athletic scholarship in the fall. She’ll study mathematics and science. Some day she would like to represent the United States in the Olympics.
And so today the Cornwall community proudly salutes one of its greatest stars before she enters another galaxy.
- Brendan G. Coyne