BREWER, Maine — Rachel Craig is a typical 14-year-old.
The Brewer High School freshman is fairly shy and quiet, a diehard Boston Celtics fan, and steadily becoming one of the best sprinters in the Eastern Maine Indoor Track League.
But what not too many track followers around Eastern Maine may know is that Craig has a sodium deficiency.
Craig, who broke Brewer’s freshman record in the 55-meter dash earlier this winter with a 7.87 clocking, was born with the condition, which dehydrates her very quickly.
“Basically, my body loses salt very quickly and I get dehydrated very fast,” said Craig, who also has asthma.
Treating the deficiency is fairly simple. Craig usually takes medication before school every morning, every night before bed, and has to load up on salt on her meals, even having to put it in milk or water.
“My mom gives me extra medicine to keep me through the meets because if I don’t I just pass out,” Craig said. “I can overdose on salt pretty much.”
She said the deficiency doesn’t keep her from eating certain meals.
“No, I just really have to pump on the salt, all the salt I can have,” Craig said.
However, Craig’s deficiency limits what she can do in practice on a daily basis, as she normally only does half of what her teammates do, and she generally has to drink as much water as possible during the school day.
For example, if the Witches are running six repetitions of 60-yard sprints, Craig will generally run every other rep and go outside to catch her breath after running a portion of the workout.
“I have to take a big rest in between [reps], then I’ll run 100’s or whatever the workout is,” Craig said. “My breathing is a really big problem.”
When she was younger, Craig would generally attend doctor’s appointments in Portland or Boston, which she says was “a big climb,” but to quote a lyric in a Miley Cyrus hit song, “It’s always going to be an uphill battle,” and it’s one that Craig is conquering with determination and heart.
A fresh start
Before high school, Craig participated in Brewer’s USA Track and Field 14-under Junior Olympic Summer Program under former Brewer High coach Dave Jeffrey, and while she was always interested in track, basketball was her first love.
She participated in the city’s Police Athletic League basketball program and took her talents to the middle school hardwood, but suffered a knee injury.
“My knee really kind of changed my opinion or point of view on basketball,” said Craig, who tore her anterior cruciate ligament. “I learned that basketball, it wasn’t right for me really.”
When she arrived at Brewer High this fall, Craig decided to sign up for indoor track and she has blossomed for coach Matt Collins’ Witches, becoming the team’s fastest sprinter.
Craig cracked the 7.80-second barrier in the 55 for the first time this winter at a meet last weekend at the University of Maine in Orono, winning the event in 7.78 seconds, giving her the fifth-quickest time in Eastern Maine, lowering her freshman record, and checking off one of the seasonal goals on her list.
“When I was younger, like in middle school, I wasn’t thinking I was going to run track in high school, my big dream was always basketball,” Craig said. “My friends were always pushing me to play basketball, but my parents were saying track, so I might as well try it, and I guess it worked.”
Craig has impressed coaches and competition alike, as her 55 time puts her right in the same company as accomplished Eastern Maine sprinters like Destiny Kanu of Mount Desert Island and Old Town’s Katie Deshane and Kayla Brooks, along with fellow freshman Grace MacLean of Bangor.
“She’s a horse of a different color for sure. She has these amazing traits,” said Danielle Lainez, who coaches Brewer’s sprinters and jumpers and was an all-state standout for Brewer and Bangor.
Track is also less stressful for Craig and easier on her breathing. In basketball she’d be running up and down the court for long periods of time, as opposed to in track where the longest race she runs is 200 meters.
“It was a lot of pressure and a lot of stress, because I was one of the [better] players, you could say,” Craig said. “They were really hard on me [in middle school] but here, they’re not as hard on me.”
Even though a lot of her friends know about Craig’s situation, it’s not an easy subject to comprehend.
“It’s kind of hard for them to understand it, because I have to have salt in my water, because my body doesn’t produce as much as other people’s,” Craig said. “They just can’t comprehend it. It’s very rare.”
Craig’s condition has forced her to grow up quickly.
“It has made me a stronger person and it’s taught me to grow up a little, I guess,” she said. “I’m more mature when I’m running because I have to listen to my body more, and learn that you have to take it one step at a time and one race at a time.”
Craig has to go outside to cool down after finishing workouts in the halls of Brewer High or meets at the UMaine field house, and the air at either indoor facility doesn’t bother her too much.
“Once I’m done with the workout [here] I immediately go outside,” she said, “but when I’m in the field house it’s just one sprint and then I’m done, or making finals and them I’m done.”
Normally in the 55 meters, Craig will run her trial heat and then have 30-45 minutes to recover before coming back for the finals.
While some of the workouts come fairly naturally for Craig, the one that is most difficult for her is “ins and outs,” in which a sprinter will run a certain distance while breathing in and out after hitting certain points.
“They’re very difficult,” she said.
Blazing a path to success
The daughter of Judy and Garrel Craig is surprised how fast she has emerged into one of Eastern Maine’s top sprinters.
She only ran the 55 in Brewer’s first couple of meets, but was entered in the 200 dash for the first time in a meet on Jan. 8, the first time Craig had run it since middle school.
“I wasn’t sure how to run it,” she said. “At the end I was worn out. I wasn’t sure if I was going to react to it because of the sicknesses I’ve had.”
But that’s where a coach with the experience of Lainez, a former sprinter, hurdler, triple jumper and pole vaulter, came in handy.
“She asked me how she should run it and I said you should run your fastest, run what feels comfortable,” Lainez said. “She was a little scared but it wasn’t a 400, it was a 200, and she knew could contain her asthma if she had to.”
Craig wound up placing third in her initial 200 behind Brittney Chapman of Bangor and Ashten Hackett of Edward Little, two of Class A’s best sprinters.
She prepares for her races somewhat differently than most athletes in the EMITL, who generally have Ipods tuned to music before starting a race or during a warm-up jog.
“I just kind of zone out,” she said. “Fifteen minutes before a race I’m totally focused and I don’t talk to anybody, and I just think about how I should run it, how I should start.”
Athletics run in Craig’s family. Her father played football at Brewer and was a teammate of Andy Nickerson, who coaches varsity basketball at the school, and her mother was a cheerleader at Bangor.
Craig has already accomplished one of her goals for this winter, breaking the 7.80-second barrier in the 55, but there’s still one more out there.
“I’m hoping to hit a 27-point in the 200, but all I’ll have to do is keep on pushing,” Craig said.
Craig is emerging at the right time, as the Witches graduated a lot of points in sprinting events from their back-to-back EMITL championship teams.
Even though Craig is no longer a basketball player, one of the athletes she looks up to is one of the top players in that sport.
“[Kevin] Garnett is my absolute favorite,” said Craig, wearing a white T-shirt with the Celtics’ superstar’s name and number on it. “I love his inspiration and heart for everything. He doesn’t let anything hide.”
Garnett and Craig have something in common in terms of overcoming obstacles in their athletic careers.
“Last season he had the knee injury, so I was kind of relating to him,” she said. “I would read all his quotes on the Celtics’ Web site and all that he’d say to reporters.”
Craig is surprised yet happy with the way she’s running so far, and it has been helpful for her to have Bangor’s MacLean in virtually the same events for a variety of reasons.
“She kinds of makes me feel a little bit better. I’m not the only freshman. She’s in the same boat as I am,” Craig said. “We can kind of relate to each other.”
Craig will next be in action at a multi-team EMITL meet this afternoon in Orono while the league championships are next weekend.