LAWRENCEVILLE — John McCartney watched his two youngest kids, Sarah and Steven, bound around in the backyard and he knew.
“They were runners,” he said. “Just the gait they had, how they landed and carried their arms.”
McCartney was a standout distance runner at Clarke Central who earned a scholarship to Georgia and then ran professionally for Adidas, so he'd know.
“If they do pick it, and hopefully they do because I'd love to coach my kids, that they're going to be pretty good,” he said.
Sarah is a senior at Archer now, a Super Six selection and the Tigers' No. 1 runner. She was the county's top finisher in the mile and two mile at state track last year.
Steven already has jumped to the No. 2 spot as a freshman for Archer.
John is the Tigers' cross country head coach.
“He talked about running all the time,” Sarah said. “I was always around running. I wanted to run. I knew I was going to run in high school.”
She and Steven have an older brother who ran for John when he coached at Clarke Central, so the talk around the dinner table often centered on the sport. They both were part of a rec program in Jefferson as little kids. Sarah took a break from it in middle school, but knew she would come back to it once high school started.
When Sarah was coming in as a freshman, John talked to the girls cross country coach about her potential. He didn't take over as both boys and girls coach until two years ago.
“She was fifth the whole time and the coach was like, 'Yeah, she's OK,'” John said. “I said, 'Just wait.'”
Sarah struggled with injuries as a freshman and, consequently, only ran when it was race time.
“(My times) weren't really that good,” Sarah said. “I was hurt a lot as a freshman because I didn't really try to take care of myself.
“I didn't really understand about where it would take me and what I needed to do. I didn't really have any self-initiative. (My dad) would try to get on me and help me, but ….”
Healthy as a sophomore, Sarah began to make real progress. As a junior, she was among the top girls in Gwinnett, but getting beat at the county meet was a wake-up call.
“She knew she went out slower than she should have and she didn't have the kick against those other girls,” John said. “From that point on, her times dropped two seconds per meet.”
Sarah started dropping two and three seconds off her times every race from there out. By the end of track season, she'd carved 17 seconds off her time best time.
“She just took off,” John said. “She went out fast and hung on. She's a little energizing bunny. She'll go out and if you catch me, you catch me. I'm not going to wait and get out-kicked.”
“Yeah,” Sarah said. “My kick is not that great. I've been working on it though.”
“If you go out slow, you give those other people that energy and that confidence that they're keeping up with you,” John said. “That's a bad thing. Sarah learned that that's not going to happen again.”
“That was my mindset,” she said. “I felt like when she beat me, it was a wake-up call. I was probably too comfortable. Then I was PRing every race. Even state.”
She also dropped 40 seconds off her time in the two-mile and carried that momentum into summer training. Sarah and Steven ran together at 5:15 a.m., along with Archer's top boys runner, Super Sixer Myles Collins.
“A lot of girls don't do that,” John said. “She's also thinking about the future. That's the way I trained her older brother. When he went to Georgia, he was ready to run in college, had the stamina for running day in and day out.”
Steven didn't take that same break from competitive running, using middle school as a proving ground for his talent.
“There was a lot of dedication in middle school to stay in shape, stay competitive, stay at the top,” he said. “Seventh and eighth grade were really my years to change how I ran and how I competed.
“My whole life I've been waiting to get into high school so I could run with the team.”
For the last few years, Steven wasn't getting out of school until 4 p.m. and it was 5 when the bus dropped him off at home. During the winter, that meant coming up to the Archer track in the dark to train with his dad.
“I let him suggest what to do that day just to keep him vested and not be the dictator dad,” John said. “I'll tell them what I want. I'll be honest with them. If they don't do it, you know, there may be a little clash, but pretty much, I'll back off. There's never an issue at practice.”
“Sarah's been a little bit more headstrong when it comes to wanting to do it her way and that's fine. She's going to run without me after this year, but she'll have another person telling her what to do. It's always someone.
“Steven's been pretty much glued to whatever I say. But, man, he's been waiting to be with these big boys and he's gone with them, too. He's doing a great job competing with them. A real mature kid.”
Steven's first big test is coming this week at the Gwinnett County meet.
“I've raced on that course before but not the full 5K,” he said. “I've done two different parts of the course. I like it. It's a good course. I know how to race it.”
“He'll feed off his teammates a little bit, but he can't just get sucked into beating teammates and saying, 'I'm second on the team,'” John said.
“I have a strong mindset about a lot of things,” Steven said. “I've built up my mentality over the last three years in middle school and I'm hoping to make it stronger to where I make decisions based on how I feel.”
“No excuses,” Sarah jumped in to say.
“A lot of these kids in cross country are very good at academics and highly motivated,” John said. “They're thinkers. And during a race, he's been able to adjust things.”
Sarah and Steven both have benefitted from a lifetime around the sport. John used his experiences to be a better coach, for them, and for all the runners he's worked with over the years.
“Well, I certainly had an excellent coach,” John said. “We had four guys under 4:30. I had a great coach, but he killed us. All I did was show up as an athlete, a defensive back guy who wanted to hit somebody in football but wasn't big enough. I came out and anything he gave me, I could do. But they know more at this stage than I knew then.
“I know they know, of all the kids, what is an appropriate workout and when to back off. Which I didn't. I refused to back off. I was a dummy. So I was hurt a lot.”
John set four records at Georgia as a freshman and then didn't run an SEC meet the for the next three years because of injuries.
“We do it a lot smarter,” John said. “I learned from my mistakes, impart that wisdom on all my kids.”