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Around 6 p.m on Friday night, Sophia Gorriaran, the 16-year old junior from Providence, Rhode Island, ran alone at the Armory track in New York City. One of the fastest high school girls in the country, she still needed to do a pre-meet shakeout for the Millrose Games the next day. Soon, 27-year-old Ajee’ Wilson, six-time Millrose Games champion, joined her.
Gorriaran and Wilson were the last athletes training at the historic center before it closed for the evening. A high school girl and a seasoned professional—seemingly worlds apart—shared some words, then took turns running fast strides on the track in preparation for the 800 meter race the following day.
“I used to come to the Armory with my family when I was younger, so being at this meet is super cool,” Gorriaran says. “I would watch athletes like Ajee’ Wilson run, but now there’s actually people watching me.”
Much has changed since the teenager was even younger than she is now; Gorriaran didn’t come to Millrose to spectate Wilson this year. She, along with her equally fast peer, Roisin Willis, a 17-year old senior from Stevens Point, Wisconsin, came to compete with her.
It’s rare for high school track athletes to find themselves racing in a field that includes Wilson, Jamaican Olympic finalist Natoya Goule-Toppin, and NCAA 800-meter champion Michaela Meyer, but Gorriaran and Willis are more experienced than most girls their age: They competed in the Olympic Trials last summer; Gorriaran owns the fastest time for a sophomore ever, over 800 meters (2:02.26); and Willis owns an even faster 800 meter personal record (2:00.78), a time she achieved in a race against Gorriaran last spring.
Just getting to the start line of the Millrose Games 800 meters was a challenge for both teenagers. Despite their impressive resumés, meet director Ray Flynn initially rejected Gorriaran’s and Willis’s entries into 114th Millrose Games. He said he couldn’t justify two high school athletes in the pro 800 meters while he had many other requests from more experienced, world-class runners. But when Gorriaran ran an 800 meters just .09 seconds off Athing Mu‘s high school best, Flynn reconsidered, and Willis was accepted separately based on her own times.
This year, Willis owns the top spot in the U.S. in the 500 and 1,000 meters. At the 2019 New Balance Nationals Indoor, Mu had just set the American record in the 600 meters and returned to run in the 800 meters. Willis, a freshman at the time, overtook the future Olympic gold medalist, and chased her down on the last lap to win the 800 meter national title.
Their ability to push each other to new heights each time they race brings to mind other exceptional “iron sharpening iron”–type relationships, not unlike Olympians Sydney McLaughlin and Delilah Muhammad. Last year, Gorriaran beat Willis in an indoor 800 meters, running 2:02.44, a U18 World Record, and Willis ran 2:03.05. In another match up, an indoor 600 meters, Gorriaran won in 1:27.02, and Willis ran 1:27.20, a fourth fastest all-time finish. Last spring, Willis, a year ahead of Gorriaran, ran with her in Trials of Miles 800 meters and qualified for the Olympic Trials.
“I think it’s really nice. Having someone you know personally there is always a good feeling,” Gorriaran told DyeStat before the Millrose meet. “We always bring out the best in each other when we race.”
“It was nice having [Gorriaran] on the start line and somebody I know and am friends with,” Willis says. Both girls were excited about running in an NBC nationally televised event, and neither felt shell-shocked at professional competition—they drew confidence from the fact they were both racing. “I knew Sophia was going to run her hardest. We have each other to push ourselves.”
Gorriaran and Willis live 1,200 miles away from each other, but have found a friendship thanks to how often they’ve raced each other. And events like Millrose, where they’re racing against some women 10-plus years older than them, bring them closer together.
Last January, they teamed up for an all-star relay with Juliette Whittaker and Bailey Goggans, setting a new world U20 best for 4 x 800-meter relay. “I think that set the tone, it was really positive,” Willis told LetsRun last year.
Two weeks ago, the duo battled in the 1,000 meters at the Virginia Showcase, with Willis earning a very narrow victory, 2:43.34 to Gorriaran’s 2:43.52. Willis has never broken 2:03 indoors, and Gorriaran has done it twice.
“We have such a good relationship. We’re so supportive of each other,” Willis said. “I think that’s why we’ve been running so well, because we support each other.”
Meeting Up at Millrose
After nearly a two-year pause due to COVID, this year’s Millrose Games hosted 64 Olympians, three gold medalists from Tokyo, and these two high school standouts seeded with professionals on Saturday.
At 4:14 p.m, the gun went off. Willis got out fast. Gorriaran found herself in the back of the pack, out wide in lane two. Willis moved with the field while Gorriaran moved from fourth to seventh, mimicking a yo-yo. By the third lap, Willis and Gorriaran were stride for stride. At the bell, Willis started kicking; Gorriaran gave it her all from behind.
In the end, Wilson rolled to a victory in a time of 2:01.38, earning her sixteenth consecutive win at the Armory; Goule came in second with a time of 2:02.14. Willis crossed the line in 2:03.28, Gorriaran finished in 2:03.66; placing fourth and fifth out of seven runners overall.
“I think I was able to run my hardest,” says Willis. “I’m happy with the performance I had today. It was exciting the whole time. I had to constantly be on guard, it wasn’t like running solo,” Willis says.
Gorriaran’s mind is focused on how she can improve. “I’m feeling pretty good about it. I want to try and get a better position for my next race, since I was in lane two for almost the whole thing,” she says. “I want to do the same amount of effort but work less,” a reasonable goal that she can achieve with more experience.
Saturday’s race unfolded in a way that neither girl was used to running. Normally, both take charge at the front and stay there. But Gorriaran found herself in an unfamiliar spot next to the pros, moving up for a few meters, then being the caboose, then moving up again. She started kicking on the back straightaway and powered down the final 50 meters, running a season’s best time. Her dad and coach, Steve Gorriaran, says, “You have to stay hungry. Run the best you can run. But just have fun. You can’t get too worked up about it.”
Willis adapted to jockeying during the race, putting herself in position and moving up. “I’ve never done the one turn cut-in during an indoor 800 meters so I had to get out really fast,” she says. “I tried to stay toward the front and cover all the moves, so if people wanted to come up alongside me, I would be able to stay in contention throughout the whole race so I have a shot at running well.”
While they were shy of breaking Sammy Watson’s 2:01.78 indoor high school record, Willis and Gorriaran didn’t leave the track defeated. Both girls walked away proud of their race and optimistic about the future; what they lack in age, they don’t lack in speed nor spirit.
Eyes on the Record, Heart in the Pursuit
Going forward, both girls are within reach to break the national high school record for the 800 meters. Willis has run faster outdoors (2:00.78) and Gorriaran’s outdoor personal best is less than a second off Watson’s record. But neither of them seem obsessed with accomplishing that before the end of either of their careers.
“Last year, I was so focused on times, just trying to hit the Olympic Trials standard. I was able to end up hitting that, but it was really tough,” says Willis. “Even today, you had some people who [have run] 1:57/1:58, and they ran 2:01 in this race. So it’s hard to always put yourself up to run a time. The 800 meters doesn’t quite work that way,” she says. “I have Sophia though, and Sophia and I are definitely going to push ourselves to break that record.”
In theory, Millrose held multiple front-runners in the field to push the pace to a record-breaking time, but the race unfolded more tactically. Gorriaran tells me, “You kinda just gotta go with the flow.” She’s aware that improving upon your best and breaking a record comes down to how you approach each day; and she’s enjoying it.
For now, Willis has returned to train in Wisconsin until her next race, and Gorriaran has headed back to resume running in Rhode Island. Looking ahead, Willis says, “I want to be with good competition and go to races that I’m excited about. I want to have fun. That’s always the most important thing for me.”
Willis and Gorriaran will return to the Armory for High School Nationals in March. Both plan to run the Girl’s 800 meters, and have 2:01.78 on their mind.
The girls share a similar perspective on keeping running lighthearted and not putting too much pressure on themselves. “Especially the indoor season. There’s a lot of time left,” Willis says. Willis has committed to run at Stanford in the fall, but Gorriaran has the rest of this season and all of next year to try to set a new record.
In the end, it’s not about the time they may or may not break; it’s about what they do with the time they have. Both girls like to take risks when they’re given the chance—especially when they’re together.