Marie Atwater is used to finishing first on the track. At Rocky RIver, she has cemented herself as the top girls track star in each of the past two seasons and has stood tall on some of the state’s most competitive stages.
But this kind of success is something new even for the schools most decorated female athlete.
On Feb. 5, the senior became the first Rocky River student – male or female – to sign with a Division 1 program on National Signing Day when she inked her National Letter of Intent to run track at Appalachian State University. Furthermore, Atwater is the first Raven female to sign with a Division 1 school in any sport.
“It means a lot,” she said. “I wanted to go down in history at Rocky River and this is something that I’ll always have and can always remember.”
It makes sense why the recruiting interest started for Atwater, who won first place at the N.C. High School Athletic Association’s Class 4A Western Regional in the 400-yard dash last season, finishing in a career-best 57.30 seconds.
Atwater went on to place third in the region in the 200 (25.57 seconds) and help the 4×400 relay team to third place, pairing with Dashalea Carter, Destine Harrington and Mya Smith to run 4 minutes, 7.50 seconds.
After her first-place finish at the regional race, Atwater carried her success to last season’s Class 4A N.C. championship, where she placed eighth in the state (58.02 seconds). She also finished just outside the top 10 in the 200 and the 4×400 relay and the recruiting letters soon followed.
The first time she received a letter – two actually came on the first day – she was excited. By the time she returned to school for the fall sports’ season, Atwater had 11 recruiting letters in total, and seven from Division I schools, but ultimately settled on Appalachian State, a place she knew was home with, as she said, its sense of family.
Now as a senior college commit, Atwater is ready to build off her strong junior season. She said she hopes to repeat her regional title, compete for an individual state title and help the Ravens, who have a young contingent of talented runners, take the next step as an up-and-coming team.
But this sort of success wasn’t always in the cards for Atwater.
When coach Antoine Sidberry arrived at Rocky River two seasons ago, he noticed the then-sophomore right away for her untapped talent on the track. But, Sidberry said, he knew things would have to change if she was going to become what she has.
“When I first got here she would just go through the motions.” Sidberry said. “From the first time that I saw her I said ‘this girl has some talent but she doesn’t know how to use it.’
“I went to her and would talk to her about stepping up her work ethic. I spoke to her parents and told them if she does what I’m trying to get her to do, she can write her own ticket – she can do whatever she wants to. It took a little while, but she got there.”
Atwater admits that Sidberry pushed her to change her work ethic, something which she was resentful of at first.
“She didn’t like me at first – she hated my guts, actually – and she’ll tell you that,” Sidberry said.
“I had to tell her, ‘I’m trying to get you where you want to be.’ The ability to run was always there, but it was just knowing how to run the races that she was lacking.”
While hesitant at first, Atwater said she heeded the advice and began working harder than she ever had.
“I knew that I needed to practice the way that I wanted to perform and I had to step up my practice a little more,” Atwater said. “I really want to go to the Olympics, that’s my ultimate goal, and I knew what I was doing wasn’t going to get me there and wasn’t going to get me a scholarship so I had to step it
“He was right,” she continued referring to Sidberry. “Now, I love him – he’s my favorite coach ever.”
Once his star pupil increased her training regimen and began picking up on the nuances of preparation, Sidberry said the results soon followed.
“Something clicked, she dropped three seconds really quickly,” Sidberry said. “In that sophomore year, she went from 1 (minute) 2 (seconds) to 59 (seconds) in two weeks. (That year) she finished fifth in the region – one place from making it to states – so she was a little bit down, but I said ‘Don’t worry about it – our goal next year is to make it to states and run a 57. If you do that, we’ll get to states.’”
And Atwater did just that. After hovering around the 59-second mark for much of her junior season, she plateaued when she needed to, running her fastest times at the end-of-year events.
While Atwater is certainly poised for a big senior season, to this point at least, it hasn’t exactly gone as planned. During cross-country season she suffered a hamstring injury that sat her mostly out of that season and limited her in the indoor track season this
But she’s recovered from the injury and is back training at full strength.
“She looks stronger than ever, she’s running well,” Sidberry said. “Our goal is 55 seconds this season, which would knock another two seconds off. She’s training to do that and finish within the top three or four in the state.
“The expectations are pretty high for her. We have a lot of talented freshmen and it’s her senior year and her last hoorah, but it’s my expectation that she succeeds on the track and also as a leader for this program. The girls see what she’s been able to do and I want her to show them what hard work can bring you.”
And the time away from the sport has Atwater anxious to get back to running and taking the Ravens to a new level.
“I’m so ready to get back on the track,” she said. “It still hasn’t clicked yet that I actually won regionals, but I want to run 55 in the 400 and I want to win regionals again. But really I’m just ready to dominate my senior season.
“I want to go out big and even though I’ve already signed I do have things to prove. I want the schools who were looking at me to look at me again and see what they missed out on and I want to help this program get to the top.”