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Running strong


Following a decorated career as a sprinter in high school and a distance runner at Boise State, Kayleen Strong will become the youngest inductee into the Forest Grove Athletic Hall of Fame

Kayleen Strong has been talking to a lot of people about being named to the Forest Grove High School Athletic Hall of Fame.

During those conversations, the 25-year-old finds herself asking one question over and over:

“How can I be in the Hall of Fame? I’m so young still.”

Strong, a 2005 Forest Grove High grad, has packed a lot of accomplishments into her young life, though.

The former Kayleen McDowell grew up playing soccer and basketball. She enjoyed basketball, but when she stopped growing at 5-foot-2, she quickly realized that she was not going to have a future in hoops.

“I’m 5-2, so I knew I wasn’t going to go to college and play basketball. I loved it growing up. But, I’m so short that basketball really wasn’t my thing. I knew that once I got into high school.”

While she continued playing basketball at Forest Grove, Strong focused her attention on soccer and running. Soccer was always her first love. But, one day, during elementary school, Strong got a piece of advice from her physical education teacher.

“You’re really fast,” the teacher said. “You should run.”

“That stuck with me,” Strong says. “I always liked running and I ended up being good at it. That’s when it took off.”

Playing defender on the soccer pitch, Strong was first team all-league in 2004 and 2005. The track was where she really shined, though.

Strong’s top times as a prep included 12.3 seconds in the 100-meter dash, 20.94 seconds in the 200 meters and 56.92 seconds in the 400 meters. She was all-state in each of her four varsity seasons and was the Co-Athlete of the Year in the Pacific 9 Conference in 2004 and 2005.

During her junior year, Strong began receiving letters from colleges and realized that she could have a future as a runner.

“When all those letters come from the colleges, then you realize that this could be a future,” Strong says.

Strong looked at several colleges, but there was something special about Boise State. Having lived in Forest Grove her whole life, Strong liked that Boise was a bigger city, but that it still had the small-town feel she loved.

“I went on several recruiting trips and I kind of just looked at my options,” Strong says. “I had lived in Forest Grove my whole life, so coming here (to Boise), it just felt like home in a way.

“There are endless trails and places to run here. It just stuck with me out of all the trips and all the things that I looked at. I felt that it was a good choice for me.”

While she was primarily a sprinter as a prep, Strong had always been told that someday she would start running longer distances.

“Right away I knew I was fast so I loved the short distances,” Strong says. “Then I was always told, ‘Well, you can run the 100 and 200 now, but I guarantee you’re going to keep moving up.’”

Those predictions turned out to be prophetic. When she got to college, Strong soon began running the 800 meters.

“It did take me a while to like those longer distances, but I realized I was better at them,” Strong says.

In 2005-06, Strong took eighth place in the WAC Indoor Championships in the 800 meters with a time of 2:18.70 and finished third at the WAC Outdoor Championships in the 800 with a time of 2:11.32. In 2006-07, she again finished eighth at the indoor championships (2:16.29) and she finished second at the outdoor championships (2:09.89).

And in 2007-08, her final season as a Bronco, Strong finished second at the indoor championships (2:13.13) and won the 800 meters at the outdoor championships with a time of 2:10.60.

Perhaps even more importantly, Boise State was where she met her husband, Darren Strong, who she married this summer on July 28.

Darren Strong, a year Kayleen Strong’s senior, was also a distance runner for the Broncos. They met during her freshman year at Boise State.

“I guess it was meant to be that I came here,” Strong says.

Darren Strong was one of the main reasons that Kayleen Strong decided to stay in Idaho after she finished college.

The year after she graduated, Strong was a volunteer assistant coach on the Bronco track team. Strong then began coaching at Bishop Kelly High, where she helped the team win two state championships.

“That was really a good experience for me to jump on coaching and right away win a state championship,” Strong says.

Strong now teaches physical education and coaches cross country at Jefferson Middle School in Caldwell, Idaho, which is close enough to Boise that she is able to commute to work.

“I keep dropping down,” Strong jokes.

Coaching children rather than prep or collegiate runners took some adjusting for Strong.

“Last year was my first year coaching at the middle school and it was a huge transition,” Strong says. “You’re used to high school and college and they know what they’re doing. But, if you yell at a middle school kid who has never raced before, they’ll turn and stop and say, ‘What?’ instead of continuing to run.

“It’s definitely a different intensity level. You have to learn what they’re capable of.”

Strong has enjoyed working with the youngsters, though, because it allows her to pass along her love of running to them.

“Most of the kids, it’s their very first time out there,” Strong says. “It’s really fun to be able to introduce something that you love to a group and hope that they take that on and continue.”

Not only does Strong help the middle school children understand the proper way to run, she leads by example. She recently renewed a contract with Oiselle, a women’s running store out of Seattle Wash., which sponsors elite female runners.

“I still race competitively,” Strong says, pride filling her voice.

Even with all that she has accomplished and all that she continues to accomplish, Strong still asks herself how she could be entering the FGHS Athletic Hall of Fame just a few years removed from her prep career.

While Strong is unable to answer that question, she does know that it is an honor that will stay with her for the rest of her life.

“To get honored at this young age, that’s going to be there always,” Strong says. “If I have kids someday, I can bring them back (to Forest Grove) and show them this is where I went to school, and yeah, I’m honored right here.

“It will be a really great thing to have for the rest of my life.”