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GIRLS TRACK AND FIELD ATHLETE OF THE YEAR: Liz Galarza, West Forsyth
Wolverines senior pushed through pain, competition for state title
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West Forsyth senior Liz Galarza poses with a picture of herself in her first year as a competitive runner at Vickery Creek Middle School on June 16, 2017. - photo by Micah Green

Liz Galarza’s state title in cross country was part of a plan. West Forsyth head coach Clayton Tillery kept pushing Galarza, making sure she believed that it was her time, her year to win a title, that there should be no other expectation.

In the spring track season, Galarza brought that same approach to the 3,200-meter run, the race that would let Galarza’s endurance win out over other runners’ finishing kicks.

Then the state championship race came around, and Galarza finished second.

“It was kind of like, ‘Ah, bummer,’” Galarza said. “But I got a (personal record), so I was still kind of happy about it.”

She had one more race to run, though, and it provided a thrilling end to Galarza’s high school career.

That race was the 1,600 meters, and Galarza’s outlook was significantly different. The 1,600 was going to be hard to win, Tillery told Galarza, because many of her competitors in that race were 800 runners, the kind with the foot speed to outkick her at the end of the race. If she couldn’t go with the lead pack, that would be okay – she should just focus on breaking five minutes. 

“I thought, ‘Okay, then I guess coach doesn’t really want me to focus on winning,’” Galarza said. “It’s going to be at the back of my head, but it’s not going to be my main concern.”

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West Forsyth senior Liz Galarza poses with a picture of herself in her first year as a competitive runner at Vickery Creek Middle School on June 16, 2017. - photo by Micah Green

The lead group set a fast pace from the start, but Galarza stuck to her prescribed pace of 75 seconds per lap, which would put her under five minutes. With just over a lap to go, the leaders started to slow, and Galarza’s group got closer. She saw an opportunity.

“It was just like, they’re all so close, and yeah, I’m hurting,” Galarza said. “But if I just hurt a little more, (then) maybe, maybe I can win.”

With 200 meters to go, Galarza neared the leaders. Down the back stretch, she was still in second, behind Elizabeth Funderburk of Colquitt County, who had beaten Galarza in the 3,200. Then the two runners were even, and Galarza saw Funderburk’s hand fall, as if she was tripping.

Galarza knew that to win the race, she’d have to be “the last go give up.” She’d done that, and she crossed the line in first place by just 19 hundredths of a second. By the time Galarza turned around, just three seconds after finishing, the top eight runners had already finished.

Galarza is headed to Georgia Tech to run in college, but her success in the 1,600 isn’t giving her dreams of middle-distance success – she’s planning to focus on longer races, like the 5,000 and 10,000 meters.

But the 1,600 will always be a memorable race, as the only individual track title of Galarza’s career and an example of the rewards of pushing through pain.

“I just kept thinking, ‘One more girl, one more girl,’” Galarza said. “’You’re a senior – this is the end of the end. The pain’s going to end! Just one more push!

“And then it happened.”