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2009 MPA Award Winning Story: Built-in best friends for life


I’m not trying to toot my own horn, not too much anyways — but I was recently awarded third place for “Best Sports Feature” in our class by the Michigan Press Association for the 2009 MPA awards. I didn’t have the blog up and running when I published this story, on May 24, 2008 to be exact, and it was already one of my all-time favorites to write way before the award. This family’s spirit was amazing and it was a pleasure to tell their story. While it was exciting to be honored for this piece, it was much more gratifying that the Hillsdale Daily News was named the No. 2 paper in the entire state for general excellence by the MPA, the first time the HDN had placed in that category since 1994. Thanks for always taking an interest in the county and obviously for your readership. To see the full list of MPA awards click here

Built-in best friends for life

The Somerville family never backs down from challenges — in fact, they relish them.

With the strength of God and through constant inspiration from each other, John and Karen Somerville and their 18-year-old triplets Mary, Liz and Kathryn have put their stamp on the Hillsdale Academy community, especially the track and cross country programs the last four years.

Mary is the tirelessly dedicated class valedictorian with a 4.0 who was an all-state cross country runner this past season and qualified for four events in next weekend’s state track and field meet.

One of those events just happens to be the mile, which she had never competed in prior to this season. Not bad for someone who started out as a sprinter and found out she had exercise-induced asthma just as she got into running.

Then there’s Liz. She’s the outgoing one with a self-proclaimed “unique style,” who runs because she loves to stay in shape and enjoys the camaraderie of being part of a team.

Considering she was born with scoliosis, had surgery at the age of two and has one leg that is considerably longer than the other it is remarkable that she even runs at all.

And while Mary and Liz are the ones who have been crossing the finish line as part of a Colts senior class that won four SCAA titles, they say they owe a large part of their success to their sister Kathryn.

Kathryn was born with cerebral palsy, and has been confined to a wheelchair her entire life, but she has been at every one of their meets and her cheers have carried her two best friends through the good times and the bad.

She may not be able to run, but her contagious smile and fervor for life are noticeable within minutes of meeting her.

Mike Roberts, the Hillsdale Academy athletic director and track and field coach said there will be a noticeable absence come next season, with the Somerville sisters growing older and moving on.

“It’s going to be different next year without the Somerville crew there at the finish line, with Kathryn cheering her sisters on and them giving her hugs when they finish.”

Overcoming obstacles
It might sound like a script that took hundreds of painful rewrites to perfect, but the truth is that John and Karen Somerville stepped up to the initial challenge, when they found out their family size was going to double in a relative instant.

They already had a daughter named Erin, but they also dealt with the pain of a miscarriage some time after Erin’s birth.

To read the rest of this story click here.

John said the miscarriage was one of the toughest experiences he and his wife have ever endured and they felt uncertain about whether or not more kids were really in God’s plan.

“After that we honestly thought we might never have anymore children,” he said. “So when we went to the doctor and found out she was pregnant with three I thought that was pretty exciting.”

Less than a year later the triplets’ birth excited them just as much, but many changes still lied in store.

First, they needed to trade in their small Toyota for a much larger family vehicle. But more importantly, John and Karen had to learn all about cerebral palsy and scoliosis with the newest additions to the family.

“I was in shock at first, and we definitely had to re-prioritize our schedules, but it was just exciting and special to have the opportunity,” Karen Somerville said.

Taking the lead
Fast forward 12 years, 10 years after the family relocated to Hillsdale.

Roberts remembers one of his first encounters with Mary and Liz Somerville and while it didn’t relate to track and field, it certainly dealt with sports.

“I remember the Somerville girls came to me in I think seventh grade, and they both wanted to play soccer. The Academy didn’t have a girls soccer team so they wrote me a letter asking for soccer and had it signed by some kids,” he said. “We never ended up having a girls squad, but they ended up being incredible track runners and hopefully it’s been a rewarding experience for them.”

The entire Somerville family said it has proven much more than just a rewarding experience. It has helped define the triplets’ character.

Mary was mainly a 400 meter sprinter and relay team member from 7th-10th grade. But she joined the cross country team as a freshman and gradually she made the move to the 800 as a junior and the mile as a senior.

She has been able to do this because of what her mom says is an “incredibly focused work ethic, that we can’t figure out where it came from”.

When the family goes to Florida for several weeks every summer, Mary is the one getting up at 6:45 a.m. in the 95-degree heat to go train.

“My dad gets up with me and takes me to a development because my grandparents live out in the country and it’s kind of wild and there could be alligators or snakes,” she said. “It’s hard to get out of bed, but I know it’s going to pay off.”

And pay off it has: in the form of qualifying for the Division 4 state meet once as sophomore and three times as a junior.

And of course the results of her hard work have more than shown in the mile this season, where she has the area’s best time with a 5:26.9, good enough for an SCAA title as well.

“Mary, gosh, I’m so inspired by her,” Liz Somerville said. “Sometimes in practice I’m tired and just don’t want to do another 1000 (meter) repeat and she’s like, “C’mon, it’ll be fun’. Sure, fun, right.”

Mary has similar sentiments toward Liz as well. She said growing up with Liz and Kathryn was “like being blessed with built-in best friends,” and she said Liz is the kind of friend who always thinks of others first.

“She’s been a really good person to have on the team because she’s so selfless and always cheering us on,” Mary Somerville said. “She keeps getting injured but she is never negative and she’s always doing her best.”

Doing her best despite injuries has been Liz’s running career in a sense.

She didn’t start competing until her freshman year when Roberts nudged her to give it a shot and she has made many a stride since in her coaches’ eyes.

“Liz really found a passion in cross country and slowly she got into the mile for track and at our last meet she actually ran the fastest mile of her life,” he said.

Liz recalls the moment from just a few weeks ago quite fondly, but she remains humble when talking about her athletic ability and she can’t even remember the exact time of her final mile.

“All I know is I PR’ed by 13 seconds and the entire team was cheering me on and it was awesome. Ask Mary if you want the time, I’m sure she knows,” she said.

Her senior year hasn’t been without its challenges, though, as she struggled to finish out the season with hip problems. In the past she severely hurt her hamstring and last year she broke her ankle during cross country season, although she didn’t know it at the time.

“While at a Pittsford race last year I twisted my ankle in a little hole,” she said. “I was like “ow, that hurt’, but I finished the race and when I went home it was swollen and I just figured it was sprained. So I kept running on it and it turns out it was broken, yet I ran two races on it. No wonder it hurt so bad.”

Maybe Liz is just tough or maybe she is just so positive because of Kathryn’s outlook on life.

Roberts describes Kathryn as a diehard Colts fan and Kathryn has no qualms with that assessment.

“I just love to watch them run,” she said. “I just yell for them whenever they’re running and hope they hear me.”

Karen says she loves everything about the sport, except the shot-gun starts that startle her every time and Mary and Liz treat her like their own personal coach.

“She is down there cheering us on in her wheelchair and she always tells us to push through and keep going,” Liz Somerville said. “We tell her that she can run with her voice; the louder she cheers, the faster we’ll run.”

Karen Somerville said that although Kathryn is limited to cheering in real life, she certainly imagines running.

“She has never known anything else, but in her dreams she says she runs and walks and that’s pretty neat.”

Mary Somerville said despite Kathryn’s limitations she is one of the happiest people she knows.

“Even though she can’t walk she has never had a bad day and she is sad for maybe two minutes every year. She’s so amazing.”

We know not what the future holds…
While everything is upbeat and happy right now, there may be some sadness come August when Mary and Liz head down south to begin their college careers.

Mary is going to North Carolina, where she will compete on the club track and field teams, while studying English, the very subject John teaches at the college. She said she aspires to become a high school teacher and track and field and cross country coach as well.

Liz will be about six hours away, in Georgia at Covenant College, the school her dad graduated from. She’s not completely decided on a major, but is leaning toward community development, where she can learn about non-profit organizations and international missions.

Home-sickness shouldn’t be much of a factor because sandwiched between the two will be their sister Erin, who works as a school teacher in Asheville, NC.

Kathryn will continue her education at Greenfield School where she has a community of friends she volunteers with and goes bowling and movie watching with, while learning many valuable life skills.

Her sisters’ departures will be hard to comprehend, but with that she’ll have a chance to jump into the sports scene a little more.

“She has done this VIP soccer thing through the AYSO and we did it a few years ago, but her games would conflict with cross country schedules so we decided to stop and just focus on Liz and Mary,” Karen Somerville said. “So now we’re going to do that again and maybe even look into the Special Olympics or things like that.”

Kathryn will have a lot of adjusting to do in just a few months, but her sisters are convinced they’ll stay in close contact everyday.

“Sweet Dreams bought her a laptop a little while ago and she’s a whiz on the computer. She’s already trying out Skype and Yahoo! Messenger with webcams, so we’re all excited.”

Excited, thankful, inspiring and successful.

In essence that is what the Somerville family represents on their best days and the Colts athletic program is better for having had them on board.

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About rjwalters

I am what you think I am — a journalist. Actually when I was hired at my current job, which by the way is Sports Editor of the Hillsdale Daily News in Hillsdale, Mich., I applied for a position titled "Wordsmith", so at my best I'll call myself a writer attempting to be a wordsmith extraordinaire.

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