West Ottawa's Olson Aims to Add XC Title to Growing List of Achievements

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com

August 24, 2022

HOLLAND – Arianna Olson won her first individual state title when she outran the field in the 3,200 meters at last spring’s Lower Peninsula Division 1 Track & Field Finals.

West MichiganLess than three months later, the West Ottawa senior standout is gearing up to accomplish the same feat on the cross country trails.

“That was my first state title in running, but it was something I wasn’t completely sure of because there’s a lot of good girls in the state,” Olson said. “Since I started running, the 3,200 is more of my event, and things went really well for that.” 

Olson has blossomed into one of the most talented distance runners in the state and garnered three top-10 finishes in three years at the Finals.

She finished runner-up as a freshman and eighth as a sophomore, and was among the favorites again last year on the way to placing third at the LPD1 Final at Michigan International Speedway.

She was unbeaten during the regular season, setting a new personal record (16:45), and she also won a Regional championship.

“I think last year at state I was prioritizing more of the postseason, and my big goal was to qualify for nationals, so that was a few weeks after,” Olson said. “That was the priority in training, and I tapered before state, but it wasn’t the best training the week before. I knew I had more chances after the state meet.”

Olson’s performance, coupled with freshman Helen Sach’s fifth-place effort, helped West Ottawa finish as Division 1 runner-up behind Ann Arbor Pioneer.

“Third is still excellent, but the goal was to win an individual title and a team title and we came up short on both sides,” Panthers cross country coach Kyle Barnes said. “There were a combination of things that went into that, but she hasn’t won a cross country title so that is certainly on her radar. Michigan has a lot of good runners, so she is going to have her hands full to do that this year.”

A month after last fall’s Finals, Olson set out to prove herself at the national level, and did just that in San Diego. Olson competed in the Eastbay Nationals, which featured the top 40 distance runners in the country. She placed fourth at a Midwest qualifier in Wisconsin to qualify. 

Olson finished 13th in California with a time of 17:43.04 to gain All-American honors.

Arianna Olson rounds a corner during another 2021 race. The following month, Olson was named as the Gatorade Michigan Cross Country Player of the Year.

She was the first West Ottawa athlete to earn the prestigious honor, which also recognizes academic achievement and exemplary character off the field.

“That was cool because it doesn’t only take into account athletics, but also the academics and service side of it,” said Olson, who carried a 4.0 GPA.

“I was really happy about that because it wasn’t just about athletics, it was recognizing the whole part of being a student-athlete.”

In June, Olson took part in another national event. She traveled to Seattle to compete in the Brooks PR Invitational and placed seventh in the 3,000 run.

“It was another good opportunity to race at a national-level meet, and I think at both national events it was good to get to know some of the other girls that I’m competing against,” Olson said. “It’s getting harder to find competitive races that have big pack running, and sometimes you have to be creative to find that in the regular season. Nationals is a good opportunity to push myself with the other girls and see what I can do.”

Barnes said Olson has benefited from competing against elite competition.

“All of that is valuable information, and getting those types of experiences and running against that level of competition is invaluable for her,” he said. “We talk about if she banks that information and learns from the positives and negatives, then she will continue to get better.”

Barnes took over the West Ottawa program when Olson was a freshman, and knew her potential after she set several middle school records.

“She works her butt off, and she was one of the first athletes to come through the program when I took over,” he said. “She has helped to build a culture within our program. She does all the right things, and the results speak for themselves.”

While Olson is aspiring to finish up as a champion in November, she’s taking her final season in stride.

“Cross is my favorite over track & field, so it’s about making the most of it with one more year with my team and just pushing really hard,” she said. “This season won’t necessarily be based on my times, but just running the courses to the best of my ability and knowing that at the end I’ve given my full effort.”

Olson, who is undecided on her college choice, will run her first race with her teammates Friday at Grand Rapids South Christian.

Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for five years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties. 

PHOTOS (Top) West Ottawa’s Arianna Olson approaches the finish during last season’s LPD1 Final at Michigan International Speedway. (Middle) Olson rounds a corner during another 2021 race. (Top photo by Run Michigan; middle photo by Laura Veldhof Photography.)  

Grand Rapids Speedsters Dominate Division 2 Girls Cross Country Final

November 4, 2023

BROOKLYN — Emily Tomes of Grand Rapids Catholic Central might be the first MHSAA cross country champion to go all season without winning a meet until it mattered the most.

There are two good reasons for that.

First, she runs in the Grand Rapids area, which is a hotbed for high school cross country. Her biggest league rival, Selma Anderson of Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills, was the runner-up in the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Final on Saturday.

Second, she was adjusting all season to a significant change in her training volume.

Natalie VanOtteren leads Grand Rapids Christian's team title run with a fifth-place finish.As a result, she had five second-place finishes in nine races and didn’t run faster than 18:25.5 until her conference and Regional meets.

“I ramped up my miles, so my legs felt tired for a lot of my races,” Tomes said. “So, that’s why I recently started running sub-18. My legs started to get used to the mileage. I was just trying to wait until this meet. This is when I was going to try to run my best.”

Tomes was the Division 2 champion, running a time of 17:31.4 on a Michigan International Speedway course that yielded fast times all day.

She won a kick down the stretch against St. Joseph senior Gail Vaikutis, who took second in 17:33.6.

“I feel like I do rely on my kick quite a bit, but I just knew it could help me pass those girls and it gives me a lot of confidence moving forward, ” Tomes said. “I have a couple postseason meets, so I’m really looking forward to those.”

It was anyone’s race when a pack of five runners reached the two-mile mark within one second of one another. It was a two-runner race coming down the straightaway, with Tomes passing Vaikutis in the final tenth of a mile.

“I don’t normally run in packs,” Tomes said. “This season kind of started off slower for me, so I wasn’t used to racing with these girls. I know they know how to run really fast. If I could just let them carry me along, it would help me out.”

Grand Rapids Christian won the team championship with a score of 112 points. Last season’s champion Otsego was second with 131.

The Eagles won their seventh MHSAA championship and first since 2014.

Senior Natalie VanOtteren, who defeated Tomes by 17 seconds at Regionals, led Grand Rapids Christian by placing fifth in 17:58.2. Sophomore Lilah Poel was 20th, sophomore Ellie Scholma 30th, senior Payton Holtz 31st and senior Naomi Nelson 65th for the Eagles.

Click for full results.

PHOTOS (Top) Grand Rapids Catholic Central's Emily Tomes, left, breaks away from St. Joseph's Gail Vaikutis during the closing stretch of the Division 2 Final. (Middle) Natalie VanOtteren leads Grand Rapids Christian's team title run with a fifth-place finish. (Photos by Dave McCauley/RunMichigan.com.)