GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Clara James-Heer’s dad usually starts races with her because she prefers to line up near the front, and not everyone likes seeing kids toeing the start line.
But when Clara crossed the finish line at the 2018 River Bank Run, she was alone, finishing well before her dad and winning the women’s 5K at age 11.
“I know that she’s going to leave me in the dust and that’s what happened… she took off,” Craig James-Heer said.
Clara’s finish surprised reporters and fans lining the race route.
“I didn’t expect to win, I was just trying to get a (personal record),” Clara said.
Saturday, Clara will take on the same race. She’s 12 years old now and has other competitions under her belt.
Racing is in Clara’s blood. She started before she could even walk, when her parents would push her and her brother in strollers. She did her own races as soon as her legs were strong enough to take her around a track, at 3 years old.
“I ran a few short races, then did my first triathlon when I was 4, but I had training wheels on my bike. I barely knew how to swim, I was wearing a life jacket through that whole swim,” Clara said.
By 5 years old, Clara was asking for her dad’s permission to enter her first 5K race.
“It was a handwritten note after she had done a ‘fun run,’ and it said something like, ‘That was great. Can I do a 5K?’ She left it at my desk and it melted my heart,” Clara’s dad said.
He agreed to let her do the race as soon as she was able to run the distance, which he says didn’t take long.
Clara’s brother is also a successful athlete and the whole family often competes and trains together. But Clara spends most of her time training with her dad.
Since her River Bank Run win, Clara has ended up on the podium after a number of races. She placed 1st at the USA Triathlon Youth Nationals and USA Cycling Amateur Nationals in her age group, as well as the Cross Country Coaches Youth Nationals, AAU Cross Country Nationals, and the USA Track and Field Hershey Indoor Track Nationals.
Clara trains throughout the week in the pool, at the track and on her bicycle, always looking to improve.
“I’d love to go to the Olympics in 2024. I think that’d be really fun,” she said.
Her dad thinks the sky is the limit.
“From time to time, we’ll look back and reminisce about those (early) events and think that no one had any idea that her, just barely being able to run around the track, that she was going to be able to do this,” he said.
A normally reserved Clara and her family had no idea what she started last year when she crossed that finish line first, until hours later when the text messages and facebook comments started to roll in. She remembers being embarassed by an announcement during lunch at Forest Hills Central Middle School.
“They were asking me questions when they announced my name. It was kind of embarassing with my whole grade there,” she said.
Clara doesn’t expect to win the race again this year, although she’s going to give it her all once again. She says she just wants to do her best and have fun, which her parents have encouraged throughout her journey.
“We have no expectations for her. If she’s having fun, then that’s a good thing. If she wins, great. Then we’re gonna be proud of her for that. If she’s last in the race, then we’re gonna be proud of her for knowing all the work that she put into it,” her dad said.