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A Sisu Sisterhood

Updated: Oct 25, 2019

by SYDNEY CLIFFORD - Westfield Cross Country runners reflect on their training, racing, and the word “sisu.”

WESTFIELD, Ind. (Sep. 30, 2019) - It’s written on their arms during races. It’s always in their captions to their Instagram posts. It’s their word of choice during the fall. To the typical person, the word “sisu” may not mean much. But to the Westfield Girls Cross Country team, it’s more than a word.

Originating in Finland, the word doesn’t directly translate into English. Google Translate spits out “go,” “spunk” and “grit.” To the Fins, this is a lifestyle, and for each girl on the team, sisu has a special definition. Kyla Curtis (12) has known this word since her freshman year, and throughout her time on the team she’s kept the same definition.

Sophia Brown (11), Sarah Coates (11), Sydney Klinglesmith (9), Sydney Clifford (12), Sophie Porter (11) and Julia Clark (11) celebrate a second place finish at the Plainfield Relays. photo courtesy of Joe Houck

“My favorite definition of it is ‘stubborn determination,’ ” Curtis said. “It’s sticking with something even when the going gets tough.”

Beyond just having determination for one’s self, other girls focus their definition on their teammates. Cross country is both a team sport and an individual sport. The top five runners score for their team. The closer the runners are together, the lower the score, and ultimately the better the team will do. Julia Clark (11) knows this and uses this idea of sisu in her racing.

“Sisu to me is that grit and determination even when things are difficult,” Clark said. “I think of sisu when my mind and body are telling me to give up. But I know that deep down, if I give up, I’m not giving my all and becoming better for my team. It’s strength for our team so if you’re way behind your group or time, it’s pushing through that and pushing through all the pain that you’re feeling and doubts.”

When he became head coach in 1996, Coach Scott Lidskin wanted to implement an ideology into his program. He looked for something unique--something that had never been used before.

“The idea of toughness is essential to our sport,” Lidskin said. “I knew that, but it seemed sort of a boring concept to say, ‘Be tough. Be tough. Be tough.’ I was looking for something a little gimmicky, to be quite honest. I heard about [sisu]. It goes beyond just toughness. It’s determination. It’s moral courage, as well as physical courage. And that seemed to be something that interested me as well. We tried it out and it worked.”

Back in 1996, the team was five strong, but the program has grown exponentially since then. This year, the team had over 60 girls. Although much has changed in over 20 years, the idea of sisu has remained strong, like when Westfield won its fourth state championship or made the state meet in 2016. Curtis, who was on that state-qualifying team back in 2016, uses this idea of stubborn determination every time she runs.

“I have endurance, and I’m not speedy,” Curtis said. “I cannot sprint for the life of me. So sisu for me was being able to stick with people for as long as I could when they were dead sprinting. It was being gritty and sticking with it even when I didn’t think I could. It was like, ‘My legs can’t move any faster than this, but I will not let this gap get any bigger.’”

Although the foundational philosophy of the team has remained the same for over 20 years, this year has been completely different for the Westfield Cross Country girls. This year had more of a focus on strength and speed with supplemented endurance training.

Julia Gabennesch (11) moves through packs at the Wildcat Classic at Indiana Wesleyan University. photo by Joe Houck.

“We’ve really picked it up from last year,” Clark said. “We were slow to build up speed. It was more about building endurance than going rapid fire speed [last year]. So this year, it’s still building endurance. But we’re going longer distances but at faster paces, even faster than how we would normally go in our races. Our VO2 one thousands are pretty difficult because they are faster than what we’d normally race at. Then we know when we finish [in a race], we can go just as fast as we were going before.”

The team also focused on strength conditioning in the weight room. With the addition of Coach Terry O’Neill, the team has been able to gain strength that it never had before.

“O’Neill has been so awesome,” Clark said. “He has been such a great addition to our team. I have never felt this strong. Usually with strength, we start really strong in the summer, and it tends to peter out towards the school year as we focus on running. But we have been nonstop strengthening. And not only like the buff, like benching as much as you can. But strengthening muscles so that we don’t get injured. It’s a variety of everything so that we really are all around stronger, not just in our legs and our lungs.”

This change of training has reaped incredible benefits for the team this year. The team consistently improves each week, especially because of its interchangeability. If some of the top girls are not racing their best, other girls step up to execute a stellar performance. This is exactly what Curtis did at the HCC Conference Meet. She credits her results to her training.

“I am running faster times than I was compared to previous years,” Curtis said. “I am running faster than probably what I was doing my freshman year at this time in the season, so it has been really nice because I haven't been there since freshman year.”

The season of 2019 has been a breakthrough compared to the past two underwhelming seasons for the Westfield Girls Cross Country team. Even though the training has been more intense than in recent years, sisu helps the team prevail.

Emma Trompen (11), Ava Zellers (11), Margaret Barnett (11), Hannah Fife (12), Morgen Houck (11), Isabel Manley (11) and Lizzie Hirschfeld (9) begin their race on the opening straightaway at the State Preview Meet. photo by Joe Houck.

“There’s really no difference in the sisu through the generations: the ‘90s, the 2000s, and even into the 2010s,” Lidskin said. “If you were at practice in 1998 or 1999, I think you’d see the same spirit, the same pushing through discomfort, the same sort of team belief that toughness and determination is really important. I don’t really think that has really changed. I know that it’s almost like time warp, like nothing has changed. Sydney Clifford could have been on the 1998 team and fitted perfectly well just like Coach Bevins [former Westfield athlete] could have been on the 2019 team. There’s been that belief in that word.”

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