Alan Dell

Lakewood Ranch's Olivia Ortiz expected to make complete recovery after surgery

For the second straight year, misfortune struck Lakewood Ranch's girls track team.

Instead of riding home triumphantly from the Class 3A state track meet, the Mustangs' nationally touted runner, Olivia Ortiz, was resting in a hospital bed in Jacksonville on Saturday after surgery for a broken femur.

Knowing Ortiz, she will be back sooner than later, but it won't be easy, and she will need some time to put together the pieces.

Some of what we learned from this we already knew, that Ortiz is as tough as they

come and please don't even think that distance running is not a contact sport.

Contact sports come in all shapes and sizes, and that foe we call pain knows them all.

Those who argue football is America's contact sport and lump all the others together didn't see Ortiz crumble to the ground in the grueling 3,200-meter run at Friday's meet.

For runners, every day is a contact day. Every time your foot hits the ground, regardless of the surface, there is contact.

The years go by, and the mileage piles up. You never know what can happen. It's the loneliest of sports when you are out there running the 3,200, high school track's version of the two-mile run.

"A lot of people would say track is not a contact sport, but in a lot of ways it is and there is a lot of risk involved," says Lakewood Ranch head track coach Mark Napier. "People who do this understand that. It's a sport where you can't hide the fact that you might not be 100 percent. In football, you can run around and get through it, but in track you've got to be on your game.

"Athletes do stuff to their bodies and get hurt. I certainly had my share of injuries. Common injuries for long-distance runners are stress fractures from all the mileage and pounding."

The most difficult thing for high school runners is tempering their enthusiasm. They want to go out too quick too soon and before you know they are spent.

It happened to Ranch's Kristin Zarrella last year, when she went out too fast in the final leg of the 3,200 relay and cramped up about 100 yards from the finish line.

Another Ranch runner, Natalie Novak, had to sit out last year's state meet because of an injury.

It's what makes Ortiz's injury a little baffling. The likeable junior takes a professorial approach to her craft and seemed to have everything down pat for the 3,200, which is her best race.

But when you are competing against yourself and the laws of nature, the best of plans can sometimes go awry.

It's the nature of the sport. The mental toughness you need to be a successful distance runner can sometimes send you beyond the caution flags. Runners try to make themselves immune to pain, which can be a signal that your body is overtaxed.

Knowing Ortiz, this will just be a temporary setback.

"She is very level-headed and an extremely tough kid," Napier says. "I expect her to be back. There are NFL guys and track athletes who have had similar surgeries and come back. The prognosis is she will be fine and back running again. Her spirits are pretty good."

After winning the state cross country meet last fall, Ortiz had her sights on finishing first in the 3,200 and besting her foe, Lily Williams from Tallahassee Chiles.

The Vanderbilt-bound senior did the unheard of, winning the 800, 1600 and 3200 runs at the state meet. She exceeded practical limits and got away with it, Napier says.

"That is the most difficult triple you can do in track and it's extremely risky. Nobody thought she could do it. It was just amazing," Napier said.

As with nearly all sports, success can be fleeting. Ortiz and her teammates on the Mustangs' 3200 relay team won the 3A state title and shattered the school record by six seconds.

Ortiz then finished second in the 1,600 run and was about to cap off a great day when her injury happened.

"Our girls really competed well, and the relay win was awesome, but to lose Olivia in what is her main event kind of takes away from it," Napier says.

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7080, ext. 2112.