It was near the end of the interview Tuesday, as others were talking about her, when Rylee Bowen quietly rose from her chair, walked behind Nika and started braiding her mom’s blond hair. Rylee didn’t say a word, eyes down, engrossed at the task in hand. She was doing that thing young girls do with their mother.
It was at that exact moment I knew Rylee Bowen was going to be all right, that these next four years wouldn’t capsize her. Bowen would run like the fresh breeze that she is and remain that way. Attention and accolades would not turn her head and send her spinning out of control into dangerous self-absorption.
“When we go running,” said Julia (Stamps) Mallon, the six-time Stanford All-American who put Sonoma County on the national running map, “Rylee would hop over rocks, jump in a lake. A 4-mile run might turn into a 12-mile run. She had no boundaries. Her joy is endless.”
It is rare when an athlete wears passion on a sleeve for all to see. Expectations conspire against it and, oh baby, does Bowen have those expectations. Last year, as an eighth-grader at Rincon Valley Middle School, Bowen had times in the 800, 1600 and 3200 meters that were college level. Now a freshman at Sonoma Academy, Bowen not only is poised to take her place among the great female runners from the Empire but to match — if not exceed — all of them.
“If Rylee continues to progress as she has,” Mallon said, “there’s no reason why she can’t have all my records. There’s no reason why she can’t be the top runner we have ever seen around here.”
That’s quite a compliment for Bowen, considering the company she’ll be keeping.
At Santa Rosa High, Mallon held at one time or another eight state and four national track and cross country records; she was a three-time state champ in cross-country. Montgomery’s Sara (Bei) Hall was a seven-time Stanford All-American, the Pac-10 Female Athlete of the Year in 2010 and three-time state champ in the one-mile and two-mile, the first girl in California track to win four straight titles. There’s Montgomery’s Kim Conley, 2012 U.S. Olympian.
And Casa’s Jacque Taylor and Cloverdale’s Sarah Sumpter and Ukiah’s Amber Trotter and Santa Rosa’s Trina Cox and Maria Carrillo’s Jenny Aldridge and. … well, when it comes to Sonoma County’s athletic legacy, it starts with female distance runners. Yes, the Empire gave Jerry Robinson and Mel Gray to the NFL and Jonny Gomes and Brandon Morrow to MLB and Levi Leipheimer to cycling.
But a legacy, a true sports legacy, is sustained performance over time, a body of work involving multiple participants. Our female distance runners are without peer, and Rylee Bowen, all of 15 years old, not only is well-schooled in local history, she is surrounded by it. In fact it leaves her grounded, unfazed.
Danny Aldridge is her head coach at Sonoma County, or as I like to call him, Sub-4-Danny, who once ran a mile under four minutes. Aldridge also coached Mallon. Aldridge’s assistant is Sean Fitzpatrick, who ran track with and became good friends at Santa Rosa High with Nika (maiden name Horn).
Nika was Mallon’s maid of honor at her wedding. Rylee was a flower girl. When Rylee was born, within an hour of birth, both Fitzpatrick and Mallon were holding the baby. Nika named Julia’s daughter, Ashlin. In turn, Julia named Nika’s youngest, Taylin. Nika was the very first female Empire runner to make a splash at state, eventually earning a full ride to Cal Poly. Nika, Julia and Rylee run together whenever they can. Julia has given Rylee all her running shoes, which fit.