Bontrager overcomes adversity for first win

By Paul D. Bowker
Posted 9/18/21

When Hillcrest Academy runner Leah Bontrager noticed the path was about to go down, down, down, she knew it was go time.

But maybe not for just this race held on a warm September afternoon at …

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Bontrager overcomes adversity for first win


When Hillcrest Academy runner Leah Bontrager noticed the path was about to go down, down, down, she knew it was go time.

But maybe not for just this race held on a warm September afternoon at Knoll Ridge Country Club in North English.

For so long, Bontrager’s path has been uphill.

Three stress fractures. Months and months of pain followed by recovery and training.

Then, a bout with mononucleosis.

So when Bontrager found herself running stride for stride with Belle Plaine’s Breanna Cook halfway through a cross country race on September 14 at English Valleys, it was go time.

“I knew the downhill was a good time to get ahead of her because I love just using gravity and going hard down the hills,” Bontrager said.

What a moment it was. Despite making it to the Class 1A state championship meet three times and making All-Southeast Iowa Super Conference three times, Bontrager had never won a race.

Afterward, she laughed at that fact.

But on this day at Knoll Ridge, Bontrager the distance runner turned into Bontrager the speed demon. She pulled ahead of Cook and didn’t look back until the final yards of the race, you know, just to make sure.

“I wanted to know how close she was,” Bontrager said.

Bontrager won the race with a time of 24:07.42, defeating runner-up Charlotte Brown of Wilton by more than 20 seconds and third-place finisher Cook by 26 seconds.

Finally, sitting down near the finish line, she took off her shoe and revealed a bloody sock. She laughed. Probably just a toe nail.

It beats a stress fracture. Or in Bontrager’s case, three of them.

One year ago, Bontrager was running on those stress fractures although she wouldn’t know it until after the season. She finished eighth in the Southeast Iowa Super Conference championship meet. She was third in a state qualifier in Ottumwa. She finished a career-best 52nd in the 1A state championships.

And this all came after throwing every pitch in every inning in every game during summer 2020 for the Hillcrest softball team.

“She obviously has a lot of determination that I think is just a lot of joy from participating and doing it,” said Marty Gingerich, her cross country coach at Hillcrest. “I see that more than determination because she’s just out there doing it and enjoying it while she’s doing it.”

Which is exactly why the injury hurt so bad. She was in a boot for 12 weeks in the midst of a pandemic. No running. No softball. No soccer. Nothing.

“It was difficult. It was a tough time,” Bontrager said. “I had a lot of doubts about the season and what was to come. I knew that God had a plan and He healed me.”

During the entire time, Bontrager was surrounded by family, friends and Gingerich. That, and her faith, made a difference.

“It was great to have everyone to help me stay positive,” she said.

She played a bit of soccer last spring. Then, in the summer, mono hit. Another setback. Another test.

“She loves to run,” Gingerich said. “She just wants to be out running.”

There is little question about that. While others grimace and grit their teeth as they climb hills in a cross country race, Bontrager smiles. It isn’t a determination, as her coach says, as much as it is a sheer enjoyment.

She laughs it up with teammates before a race in the starting area while remaining focused enough on the task at hand.

And the same for after a race. Especially on this day. Her first win.

“Look at her now. She’s got a grin ear to ear,” Gingerich said, pausing to watch his star pupil.

“It’s great to see her win. She finished the evening with a smile. It’s wonderful.”

And it’s wonderful to not run in pain.


News columnist Paul Bowker can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @bowkerpaul.


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