Editor’s note: This is the first segment of a two-part sports feature on Saira Mehra.
However proud Saira Mehra, Class of 2020, is of her athletic accomplishments, when she initially joined the cross country team, she never reckoned that fate would get her this far.
“I didn’t know that this would be something that I would be recognized for,” she said.
Saira is continuously running, always practicing, constantly pushing herself and constantly pushing others. The amount of commitment she gives towards sports practices is unbeatable.
I always admired her.
So, when inter-house cross country came around, I just had to tell her story.
“I love sports!” she exclaimed in excitement as we walked up to school for cross country practice early on a Tuesday morning.
We always walked up together for practice, complaining about how tired and sleepy we were, but today was different. Saira was energetic and overjoyed. When it was time for the warm-ups, she was the first one to finish those high knees and butt kickers, all set to run.
As our coaches instructed us to run till Bataghat, Saira was already standing at the starting line. “OK, Go!” Ms. Kirsten Pike, the cross country coach, screamed, hoping to get us all going. Twenty seconds into our run, I could barely see her. She soared.
While I was panting, tired but eager to reach my destination, Saira was already coming back: she was cheering for everybody on the way, as she screamed, “Almost there, keep going, good job!” and giving others a thumbs-up.
“Did you always love running?” I asked her after practice.
“No, It all started in fourth grade when I ran my first race. It’s a long story,” she replied.
Grade 4: The journey begins
Saira had never played sports in her previous school back in Amritsar.
However, when she joined in fourth grade, she took advantage of every athletic opportunity available.
Most people know Saira as the fastest runner in school. However, people will be surprised to know that she never even knew what the term “cross country” meant in Grade 4.
“I was introduced to it when inter-house cross country came along, and I did well, so I chose to stick with it,” she said.
Over the years, Saira has been part of the cross country, badminton, table tennis, basketball, cricket, and football teams, being involved in most sports that Woodstock had to offer.
Vijeta Emmanuel, a former dorm parent at Woodstock, recalled, “I remember Saira was walking down to dorms after her race. She was crying so much. I thought she had come last in the race, but to my surprise, she was crying because she came first!”
When asked about why she always cried after a race, she explained, “I cry after every race if I know that I did my best, or if I try really hard.”
Grade 5: An opportunity
From that day, Saira developed a love for sports.
After inter-house cross country in 2011, Saira’s coach and physical education teacher, Shannon Schultz, became her role model. “I guess we had a lot in common,” she said.
Saira absolutely admired Ms. Shannon, who told her to continue running and motivated her to push herself every practice. Saira developed her confidence and performed to her best abilities.
“I really liked Ms. Shannon! I used to do all her Passages — including gymnastics — and I’m not flexible at all!” Saira said.
Saira felt comfortable talking to Ms. Shannon about everything and anything, from sports to homesickness to her classes.
“She helped me develop my full potential,” she added.
Grade 6: First inter-school race
Saira participated in every inter-house cross country race at Woodstock. But Grade 6 was when she had her “biggest and most important accomplishment,” her first inter-school race.
“I had run inter-house cross country before but never inter-school,” she recalled. So, when Ms. Shannon selected Saira to run inter-school, she was nervous and extremely “scared.”
She was coming in sixth place previously, however, others gave up and she didn’t. She kept going.
Seventeen minutes later, Saira broke the record for 3.6-kilometer distance up at the Chakkar for junior girls. She said, “Ms. Shannon was the happiest person for me. When I was crossing the finish line, she was jumping in the air.
“It’s my favorite picture.”
Six years later, her legacy lives on, and nobody has been able to beat her record.
Fun fact: As everybody nervously waits at the starting line, Mr. Mark tells the participants to tie their shoelaces. Everybody looks down at their shoes except Saira: “I never wear shoes with shoelaces. I’m afraid they’ll open, and it’ll slow down my time.”
Grade 7: Wynberg Allen, here she comes!
She remembered wearing black Nike shorts and a Woodstock t-shirt with a dark blue pair of Skechers shoes. Her hair was twirled with pink clips, and she was wearing a pink Minnie Mouse jacket, which she kept from grade 4 and wore for all her races as a lucky charm.
This was the first year Saira ran the Wynberg Allen race, where she set a new record yet again.
Back then, she was the only girl on the cross country team, which often allowed her to practice with the boys.
Fun fact: Now, there are 22 determined girls on the team, practicing every week, pushing themselves beyond their comfort zone. “The numbers have increased a lot. I mean, cross country is not necessarily a popular sport compared to basketball and football. But a lot more people have joined now,” Saira said.
Grade 8: Dogs along the way!
“My experience with dogs hasn’t been the best. They chase me, especially in races and it’s really scary,” Saira said. “I don’t like to sprint and escape the danger of dogs. It’s exhausting!”
Fun fact: She has a dog named Coffee.
Grade 9: Basketball added to her athletic repertoire
Starting from the sub-junior team in sixth grade, Saira moved up the ladder to junior, inter, senior, and then the Win Mumby team in ninth grade.
She realized that she never got scared while playing basketball compared to cross country: “I think I don’t feel so scared because there are people around me, and we are all in this together. But cross country is running your own race, your own path, alone.”
Saira, bearing the number 5 jersey, had a successful first year playing Win Mumby: “We lost semi-finals, but we didn’t lose hope throughout. Basketball is about supporting each other and being there for each other in good and bad times.”
Grade 10: The worst year of cross country
That year, Saira did not break any records, be it inter-house cross country or any inter-school meets. “I felt defeated. I should have pushed myself harder,” she said.
Asked about how she dealt with it, she said, “Everyone faces it at one point. I guess I didn’t handle it that well. I cry, but I try to use this [failure] in a positive way to try harder in my races.”
Fun fact: It was her own records that she could not break in the races she ran.
Grade 11: The journey continues
When asked how she manages to never stop, Saira said, “You feel like giving up so many times. As soon as the race starts, I feel like giving up. I tell myself, ‘Oh, you already ran so much, died so much, why not die a little more?’” Moreover, she added, “The faster you run, the faster you’ll reach.”
Saira was often seen lying down on the ground after every race, overly exhausted but happy and smiling. “The pain just goes away. It’s the best feeling ever.”
As cross country comes to an end for her next year, she said, “I didn’t know that this would be something that I would be recognized for. As I look at my few races being my last few ones, I’m sad that this is coming to an end.
“Never knew it would come so soon.”
Editor’s note: To read part two of this series, click here.
Shivaansh Garg contributed reporting.
Featured Image by Daeyoung Kim
Edited by Dhrubhagat Singh