BOONTON _ While in eighth grade, Boonton's Elli Joinson had surgery on both knees, putting her ability to run competitively in jeopardy.
Joinson couldn't imagine not being on the course and the track so she diligently did her physical therapy after the arthroscopic procedures to repair her meniscuses and resumed one of her greatest passions.
"It was horrible," said Joinson, now a junior at Boonton High School, of the unfortunate circumstances and subsequent rehabilitation. "My doctor didn't know if I'd be the same. I had to work really, really hard."
Since then, Joinson literally has gone the distance, getting stronger and stronger, and, ultimately, becoming the first BHS female cross country runner to qualify for the Meet of Champions in 30 years. She made the trip to Holmdel on Saturday, Nov. 19 and deemed it a "terrific experience."
"Going to the MOC means a lot," said Joinson before the presitigious event. "I'm glad I qualified and have the chance to represent Boonton."
Joinson earned her spot in the MOC with an eighth-place finish at the Group I Meet with a time of 20:52.08. Although it wasn't a personal record, it was sufficient. Her previous best this fall was 20:37. Joinson's PR, attained at the Tourne, is 20:12.
"Elli far exceeded our expectations," Bombers coach Bob Bongo said. "Having her get to the Meet of Champions was not on our radar. What she did at the group meet was a huge surprise. It's a tough thing to do. If it was easy, everyone would be at the MOC every year."
Joinson, the first girl to qualify since Vicki Scozzafava in 1986, enjoyed what Bongo called "the spectacle of the day." Her male teammates - she is the lone girl on the squad - came out to cheer her on and painted their chests with the letters of her first name. Flags bearing school names and mascots were held by spectators lining the course, making for vibrant scenery.
She loved being in the race and noted that "there were so many runners." Scozzafava, now a coach, was there with Mountain Lakes, a contender in Group II.
Bongo felt the course at Holmdel Park suited Joinson well, especially the downhill portion near the end. Her goal, as always, was "to go out fast and finish strong."
"Going downhill isn't difficult for Elli," Bongo said. "The half mile at Holmdel is downhill until you pop out onto the grass. Elli was 13th going into the woods at Holmdel for the group race. She was ninth coming out of the woods."
Her objective for the Group I race was simply to be in the top 20. Everything, however, came together.
"I felt really, really good that day," Joinson said. "I got in back of the lead pack and stuck with them. I surprised myself."
She might not have begun running if not for her cousins, Amanda and Brad Joinson, both BHS graduates. Their involvement influenced her and she joined the Montville Track Club when she was in fourth grade. She found that running "was relaxing and cleared my mind." Joinson, who works out at the Tourne five or six days a week, was devastated, of course, when her knees began to nag her and slow her down.
Undergoing surgery and enduring rehab was difficult yet was worth it because it enabled Joinson, who competes in the 1,600 and 3,200 in the spring, to keep pace and move forward. Her left knee never bothers her. She sometimes has a bit of pain in the right one, which is usually taped.
Any discomfort, though, is forgotten once Joinson is in motion. She feels fortunate to have the backing of the boys team. Assistant coach Pat Hancock has been one of her biggest backers. Hancock's parents, Bob and Patrice, are at many meets, urging her on.
"I get so much support from my coaches and the boys," Joinson said. "Coach Hancock's parents come out and they scream for us when we're out on the course. The boys have taken me in. They encourage me. I run with them. It's nice that they're always there."
Joinson plans to build on her success in the spring and senior year. She aspires to establish a PR under 20:00 next fall. A student in the Gateway Academy, she is unsure if she will pursue running in college, where she hopes to study civil enginering. Joinson finds math and science interesting because she enjoys solving problems.
Bongo lauded Joinson for being a fierce competitor.
"Elli is polite, kind and gentle," he said. "She comes off as a quiet, sweet little girl. In a meet, she's different. She's ferocious on the course."
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