By Ryan Murken
Your Prep Sports
IOWA CITY – Gabby Skopec's official return to cross country came last October at the state meet in Fort Dodge.
In her first race in nearly a month, Skopec placed 58th at the 4A state meet to help West High to a fifth place team finish.
That performance at state will go down as Skopec’s formal return from a heel injury that caused her to sit out 30 days during her junior season.
The real Gabby Skopec returned last week.
Skopec won her first race since sustaining the injury on Oct. 1 last year, cruising to the individual title at the 18-team Cedar Rapids Invitational last Thursday at Seminole Valley Cross Country Course.
“It was special because I kind of feel like I took (winning) for granted last year,” Skopec said. “It was special for me to get back to that level.”
Skopec won the Cedar Rapids Invitational title in 18:56.81, nearly 20 seconds in front of runner-up Hannah Frazee of Cedar Rapids Prairie.
She took the lead early and cruised to her first win in more than 11 months.
“It felt really good, I wasn’t expecting to go in and be leading for that much of the race so I was really happy with it,” Skopec said. “I was not expecting to win and definitely not by that kind of margin. I thought I could win but I wasn’t expecting to.”
The victory by Skopec helped West High to a team title in a Cedar Rapids Invitational field that featured seven ranked teams.
West High finished 11 points in front of runner-up City High.
“This is what we expected from Gabby all the way through the year last year,” West High coach Mike Parker said. “She is a year older, a year more experienced and I think that year of extra training has allowed her later in race to just put the hammer down. Last year she was good but really there wasn’t a point in the race where she just put the hammer down and left people and she is doing that this year.”
Skopec appeared to be on her way to a special season last fall.
She won three of the first six meets she competed in, including a win at the Southeast Polk Invitational on Oct. 1.
That’s when Skopec first felt discomfort in her heel.
“I was running the race and it was hurting but I didn’t know how bad it was until after I finished,” Skopec said. “I was walking around after the race and it hurt really bad.”
A week of rest provided no relief so Skopec went for an X-Ray and was diagnosed with a stress fracture in her heel.
The only treatment – rest.
Skopec went 30 days between competitions after suffering her injury, returning only for the state meet.
“You could go to any meet if you are really good after sitting out four weeks but you can’t go to state where all those girls are good,” Parker said. “It broke my heart when I had to watch her struggle at state when I knew she was one of the best girls in the state.”
Skopec returned from her injury in time for track season and trained through the summer.
She entered her senior season poised for the breakthrough she expected last year.
“I tried to go into the offseason with a mentality that I wasn’t going to take any steps back,” Skopec said. “I’m just going to move forward from where I am.”
Skopec has picked up right where she left off before the injury.
The impressive win in Cedar Rapids vaulted Skopec to the top spot in the Class 4A individual rankings released by the Iowa Association of Track Coaches this week.
“She knows this is a short season and she commits to the time that it takes to get ready for the next practice after a challenging practice,” Parker said. “I think that will benefit her as we go through the season. As we mount all these miles the people that don’t prepare for practice that’s what really starts to drag them down. I think she will be as prepared as someone can be when we get to the state championships.”
Skopec’s return has helped West High climb to No. 2 in the 4A team rankings behind top-ranked Johnston.
Skopec joins juniors Bailey Nock and Claire Ronnenbaum as West High runners ranked in the top 11 in 4A.
West High will go head to head with Johnston on Saturday at the Heartland Classic at Iowa State.
“I think we can win state but we need to keep working hard so we can catch up to where Johnston is at,” Skopec said.