WHEATLAND, Iowa — It requires hours of preparation and training. It demands coordination, flexibility and technique. It can be mentally and physically grueling.
For Noelle Steines, those descriptions fit her two primary passions.
The 14-year-old freshman from Calamus-Wheatland has burst on the high school scene this year as the top-ranked cross country runner in Class 1A. She is the fastest distance runner in the school — girl or boy — and has won seven of her nine races this season going into Thursday’s Tri-Rivers Conference meet.
While running in the Olympics is her lifelong dream, Steines has another love: Baton twirling.
“I wanted to be a tap dancer when I was younger, but when my mom tried to sign me up there was no more room in the class," Steines recalled. "So she was like, 'Do you want to do this thing called baton?' I had no idea what it was, but I went to my first lesson and my first teacher, Savannah Necker, just made me fall in love with the sport.”
Steines, this week’s Iowa Pacesetter, has been twirling for about nine years. Every Monday, even in the middle of cross country season, she’ll head to Iowa City after school for practice at Ambition Baton & Dance as she is part of the Diamond Competition squad.
“It is definitely one of the hardest sports out there,” she said. “You have to worry about pointing your feet, technique and how you throw things and then catching it. It is definitely just as hard as cross country.”
Baton twirling, Steines admitted, is more for fun. It serves another purpose, too.
“When I’m anxious, I always twirl my baton,” she said. “You’ll see me everywhere I go just fiddling with my baton because it takes all my stress away.”
In August, Steines was crowned Miss Clinton County Outstanding Teen. Her talent was baton performance.
Steines can juggle or do spins and flips under the baton.
“The baton is like a fidget spinner to her,” said Jessica Steines, her mother and Cal-Wheat's cross country coach. “We’ve talked about bringing her baton to races so it can get her mind off it.”
Competitive running creates more nerves for Steines, but it hasn't shown in her results.
Steines, the only varsity girls runner on the team, ran a school-record time of 18 minutes for 5,000 meters on Sept. 11 at Monticello.
She has broken 19 minutes in six races this fall, including a 25-second triumph over 4A fifth-ranked Ashlyn Keeney of Iowa City Liberty in the season opener at Iowa City.
Last week at the Jim Hetrick Invitational in DeWitt, she crossed in 18:38 — a 63-second victory over Davenport Central’s Lois Blackman. It also was 17 seconds faster than Cal-Wheat's top boys finisher, Jackson Riedesel.
“Running is just my happy place, an escape even when it is hard,” Steines said. “Even when I’m running in that second mile and I say to myself, ‘Why do I keep coming back to this sport? It is so hard.’ Then when I get done, it was all worth it and I’m like, ‘Let’s do it again.’”
Running is in Steines’ bloodlines.
Her father, Tait, was the first state cross country champion at Cal-Wheat in 1996, still holds multiple school records and later ran at Iowa State University. He was the torch bearer in Cedar Falls for the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Her mother, Jessica (Huff), was an 800-meter champion at the Drake Relays in high school for Marshalltown and then the 2004 Drake Relays champion in the 1,500 for Iowa State.
Her cousin, Chase Knoche, starred on recent Cal-Wheat running teams.
There are visual reminders of running success throughout the Steines home, including framed Iowa State cross country jerseys.
Still, Tait and Jessica never forced running on their daughter. Steines just gravitated toward it.
“I’ve basically grown up around running,” Steines said. “My childhood was always running little road races. I just went along with it because I love running.”
She won her first road race in the girls one-mile at the Rustic Run in Lost Nation as a fifth grader. The success continued with back-to-back junior high state cross country titles.
Steines has excelled every step of the way with minimal training. Coach Steines said her daughter runs approximately 20 to 30 miles per week.
The most miles Steines has logged in one workout is six.
“My mom believes right now I should not be training a lot because it will take the fun out of running,” Steines said. “I did not train at all in middle school; I just went out and ran the race.
“I don’t want my peak to be now in high school as a freshman. I want that later in life so I can use it to my advantage a little more.”
That thinking also stems from Jessica’s experiences. She was limited her freshman and sophomore seasons at Marshalltown because of injuries from excessive training.
“I’m very hypersensitive,” Jessica said. “If something is not right, I totally back off because of what I’ve had to deal with and injuries.
“We’re not a high-mileage family. If she doesn’t want to run, I’m not going to fight with my kid to run. They have to be the conductor of their own train. We want her to accomplish what she wants to accomplish.”
Her competitors might have a better mileage base. Her advantage is between the ears.
“I’m not worried about all these other kids running a whole bunch more miles than me because I know I have a strong mindset,” she said. “I don’t know if I got that from my either one of my parents, but it started when I was really little. I never walked during a race.
“I always told myself, ‘You got to keep going; I’ve got this.’”
Steines is attempting to finish the season with a flurry.
After Thursday’s conference meet, she has the state qualifier next week in Cascade and likely the state meet in late October in Fort Dodge.
She'll be favored in all three races.
“You don’t want to put pressure on your kid, but it isn’t surprising what she’s done,” Jessica said. “I always tell her, ‘You’re the best; don’t forget it. You might not be the best that day, but you’re the best.’
“She just has that drive she just wants to see how good she can become. Like any kid who watches the Olympics, you want to be there. That’s what drives her.”
The fervor for running filters to other aspects of Steines’ life — baton twirling and representing Clinton County as its outstanding teen.
Her platform is “Keep Iowa Beautiful One Piece of Trash at a Time.”
Steines was part of a Wapsi River cleanup day last month. She’ll be involved in other volunteer projects in the coming year.
That means more to her mother than any medal won running a race.
“We’ve always told her, ‘If running went away for whatever reason, it is not who you are, it is just a part of you,’” Jessica said.