The moment arrived half her life ago and ended before she could take her next breath, but Shelby Buckley will never forget the eye contact she made with her father, a connection that boosted her to become the only girl from a Trinity League school to win a state cross-country title.
An undersized freshman at Rosary High School in the fall of 2004, Buckley found herself at the starting line of the Division 3 race, crouched beneath the elbows of mostly older, more experienced runners.
As rain continued to drench the off-road course at Woodward Park in Fresno, the gun popped to signal the start the 3.1-mile race.
Two of the runners in the lead group were seniors from Northern California who had vast experience on the course, and had produced faster times than Buckley throughout the season.
Buckley’s father, Tim Buckley, prudently kept that information from his daughter.
“He thought it would kind of intimidate me,” she remembers.
The plan worked, as Buckley kept herself among the leaders. With about 600 meters to go, she spotted her father along the side of the course and they locked eyes.
Buckley was looking for reassurance.
“‘Can I do this? Can we win?’” she communicated through her expression.
Tim responded with his trademark cheer, ‘Go!’, and Buckley switched gears, edging the two seniors to win by one second in 18:10, the tightest race of the meet.
Reached last month, Buckley was unaware she remains the only girl from a Trinity League school to win a state cross-country title.
“Pretty cool,” she said.
Buckley likely would have collected many more individual titles, but she transferred to Corona del Mar High after her freshman year, joining an elite group of runners coached by Bill Sumner, one of the leading trainers in the country.
Buckley won team state titles with the Sea Kings in 2005 and 2006, and then headed to UCLA on an athletic scholarship. She transferred to USC after a year, but lower-body injuries prevented Buckley from reaching her peak.
“I wasn’t happy with how my college career played out,” she said.
Buckley, who turned 28 in April, took a break from running after college, but her passion has returned. She has been competing in local road races with an eye towards something bigger later this year. She’ll also begin sharing her knowledge as an assistant cross-country coach at JSerra High School beginning this summer.
Her most impressive result came at the Mountain 2 Beach half marathon in Ventura in May of 2017. Buckley won the race in 1 hour 18:10 minutes, dropping the jaws of her and Sumner.
Runners can qualify for the next women’s Olympic Trials in the marathon if they can run 1:13 or better in the half marathon.
Buckley has decided to run her first marathon in December, choosing the California International Marathon that takes runners from Folsom to Sacramento on a net downhill course.
“We’ve had some success up north, so maybe it can happen again,” she said.
One feat that’s likely to go unbroken in the Buckley family is the 78 marathons completed by Buckley’s mother, Jennifer Buckley, who plans to run another marathon in July, followed by the Tokyo Marathon in March.
Buckley hopes her 60-year-old mother will call it quits after that, but slowing down doesn’t seem to be in the Buckley code.