Each morning for six weeks during her junior year at Mishawaka (Ind.) High School, Anna Rohrer had started the day by guiding her wheelchair into the classroom of her mother, Katie Rohrer, a special-needs teacher at the school.
There she briefly joined handicapped students, who also were in wheelchairs, before she headed for her first class.
One year earlier, the 5-foot-6, 110-pound superstar had reached the pinnacle of running by winning the national Foot Locker Cross Country Championship. Now, however, she couldn’t even walk because she had stress fractures in both of her feet. It was a very humbling time in her young life and could have crushed someone with less inner strength.
“Initially I got really mad at myself,” she told Sports Spectrum, “because I was in this only temporarily, but some of these kids will never walk. God has a plan for me and I’ve got to accept it.
“I had no idea when I was coming back. I had to go to all these meets and watch my teammates. It really brought me down. God has given me all this talent. I love it so much and didn’t know why He would take it away so early. My faith pulled me through.”
Five months passed before she could run again and she gives credit to God for bringing her back stronger and better than ever.
So strong, in fact, that she completed her brilliant high school career with six state championships and five national championships. This spring she was named Gatorade National Female Cross Country Runner of the Year after again notching the Foot Locker national crown as a senior.
In addition to her pair of national Foot Locker crowns, she won the 2014 New BalanceOutdoor National 5,000-meters title with a time of 16 minutes, 16.9 seconds (No. 10 all-time for a high school girl); the New Balance Indoor National 5,000-meters in a national indoor record of 16:10.7; and the Brooks PR Invitational 2-mile outdoor title in 9:59.96.
At the Indiana level, she won state titles in cross country twice and holds the 5K record of 17:08. In track she won the 3,200-meter state title three times, setting the state record with a 10:11.2, and she won the 1,600 meters in 4:52 her senior year.
Looking back, Anna says she never dreamed of having such an outstanding high school career. “I thought I could be the best at my high school and make it to state, but never national.”
Her mother, Katie, concurs. “It was a crazy surprise. We had no idea she had that ability at all.”
Her father, Wendell, recognized before her sophomore year that she had “power and huge aerobic capacity” on their long family hikes in Colorado.
Older brother Alan went on some 12-mile runs with her—but he wisely rode his bike.
Anna called the Gatorade award “definitely a real honor—a huge trophy and all those names. It was really cool to have my name with all those (famous) people. I hope I can get to their level.”
Being a candidate for the ESPY girls national award “was amazing, really. It made you feel special. It was a lot of fun meeting all the athletes and walking the red carpet. We are the future of professional athletics.”
Anna is soft-spoken and rather quiet outside of running—a far cry from her toddler days when she was nicknamed Tyranna Anna (after a T-Rex dinosaur). Her older brothers may have teased her a little too much, making her mad. Then they would build Lego towers and let her destroy them to vent her anger.
She had been asked to run a mile in fifth grade, but declined because she didn’t think she could make it without having to walk part of the way. However, in seventh grade she did run 14 miles (slightly more than a half marathon) with her brother, Alan, and one of his friends. Only her muscles hurt, but the boys were worn out.
She basically was a volleyball player in elementary school and early middle school. As a seventh grader, however, she scored so high in a fitness test that teacher Lesley Hay encouraged her to try track.
Anna always had used running, basically, to get in shape for volleyball, but as the eighth-grade season approached, she asked a friend, Taylor Nelson, what she should do and was told to choose the sport which would most help the school.
Cross country and track won out, but it wasn’t that smooth.
Mishawaka coach Chris Kowalewski first saw her running in a park and quickly noted that she “had a very unusual running gait. She was over-striding, almost like bounding from foot to foot. She was using a lot of energy going from one foot to the next. She was using a lot of arm motion, going all out but she was not a fast runner at all. She was leaning on the outside of her foot and putting so much (unneeded) pressure on her foot.”
He put her on a training program to strengthen her body and form and recalls, “It took about a year and is still a work in progress. Patience and perseverance were the key issues there. She has learned a lot over the years. It was not easy.”
Today he looks at his young star, now on scholarship at nearby University of Notre Dame, and exclaims, “It’s almost completely surreal—an amazing transition. Did that really happen?”
Injuries first struck Anna as a freshman when she broke her right foot and was sidelined for four months.
She recalls, “Obviously, I was very upset, but I knew injuries happen. I tried to keep my head up. I always knew God had a plan for me, but didn’t grow in faith or lose any at that time.”
During her sophomore track season she missed a month due to a torn muscle.
She really arrived as a legitimate star during her sophomore cross country campaign.
In her first meet, she won the Viking Stampede in Dowagiac, Michigan, with a time of 17:47. Kowalewski called it “a mind-blowingly fast time.”
Freelance writer Tim Creason pin-pointed the red-letter day when she stunned defending state cross country champion Ashley Erba of Warsaw at the prestigious New Prairie (New Carlisle) Invitational.
He recalls, “Anna was running with her (early in the race) and all the people in the crowd were wondering ‘Who’s that crazy girl?’ They disappeared into the woods. Guess who came out first? There were gaping mouths and they were asking ‘Did she (Erba) get hurt?’ She (Anna) ended up winning by 11 seconds.”
Anna did lose to Erba soon after, but beat her later for the state title and suffered just three losses in her entire track/cross country career.
Kowalewski points out that Anna “rarely ever took what we would call an off day. She always did some cross training (biking, swimming, etc.). She usually ran five days a week. That’s just who she is. She thought to be good, she had to give her best effort.”
He illustrated her competitiveness by pointing to her last high school race—the Brooks PR Invitational 2-mile in Seattle, Washington.
“They don’t think I can win,” she told her coach.
He pointed out, “Her goal was to break 10 minutes. If you challenge her she is ready to fight. She won in 9:59.9.”
She claimed being a rare underdog “kind of got to me at first, but I used it as fuel to the fire.”
Anna’s celebrity has brought her more than 2,800 followers (and growing) on Twitter and the same number on Instagram. She related, “It’s pretty cool that they are interested in what I do. But I’m not really big on social things.”
She also, of course, is quite popular in her Mishawaka neighborhood, whether she’s running, biking or just headed for the grocery store. While running she hears the constant honking of horns as cars pass.
Fox28 TV sports director Dean Huppert, who lives near Anna, says, “She’s one of those special kids. People actually come out of their garages to watch her (as she passes by). The neighborhood really embraces her.”
Huppert’s wife, Chris, enjoys running and one day she shocked him when she said, “I passed Anna Rohrer…I was going in the other direction.”
Anna’s future now lies with Matt Sparks, second-year associate head track and cross country coach at the University of Notre Dame. Anna, who had a 4.43 GPA in high school and was No. 6 in her class, has her eye set on being a doctor some day.
Her immediate future, however, lies in chasing an Olympic gold medal—probably in the 10,000-meter run—and a lifetime of using her athletic platform to honor God and her Savior, Jesus Christ.
Sparks, former head coach at Southern Illinois University, says that Anna “had the most impressive credentials in the country. It was excitement and relief at the same time,” to sign her. “She is so much about business. She wants to be a national champion and be on a national champion team.
“She’s excited to have elite females to train with. She’s got to work on leg speed, but the components she does have are focus and strong mentality, and she expects success. The key thing is we just have to keep her healthy.”
Anna chose Notre Dame over national champion Providence and Stanford.
“It (religion) really was a big part of it,” she notes. “I wanted to go where people had similar beliefs. The whole atmosphere on campus is really different, and I felt comfortable there.”
She’s already spoken to groups on nearly 30 occasions since she was a sophomore and is going to be a great Christian role model.
“It’s something I take very seriously,” Anna stresses, “because I know the impact people had on me when I was little. It’s important to set a good example to people all the time. I know I have a really big influence on people, and I say a prayer before (every time she speaks).”
During her freshman cross country season at Notre Dame this past fall, she earned All-ACC with a runner-up finish behind senior teammate Molly Seidel at the ACC Championships in Tallahassee, Florida, to help Notre Dame to a third-place finish (behind winner Virginia and runner-up N.C. State) in a field that featured five nationally ranked teams.
She followed that with another runner-up finish behind Seidel, this time at the Great Lakes Regional in Madison, Wisconsin, where she earned All-Region and helped Notre Dame finish second and qualify for the NCAA National Championship.
At nationals in Louisville, Kentucky, Rohrer was again spectacular. She earned All-American with a sixth-place finish, not far behind Seidel who won the national title, and helped Notre Dame to eighth overall.
She also started fast this indoor track season. In her first meet, she became the third-fastest performer in Notre Dame history after running 9:17.87 in the 3,000 meters at the Notre Dame Invitational on January 23.
The performance propelled her to a fourth-place finish and All-American honors after running 15:54.53 in the 5,000 meters at the NCAA Division I indoor nationals in Birmingham, Alabama, in March.
The possibilities for the talented freshman seem limitless.
Kowalewski believes that the faith that carried Anna through several crippling injuries will produce a dynamic platform.
“Faith played a very big role,” he stresses. “It gave her strength and perseverance when she was doubting. She can be an inspiration to others. She saw this (injuries) as a challenge and opportunity to help others who were going through tough times. It kind of gave her a clear purpose –a rock or foundation that she could hang on to.”
So, armed with God’s strength and grace, she says confidently, “My endurance is really good. Often I think I can run for hours.”
By Dave Krider
Dave Krider, a freelance writer who lives in Indiana, has worked for USA Today, SI.com and other publications. He was inducted into the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame and National High School Hall of Fame in 1997. This story was published in Sports Spectrum’s Spring 2016 print magazine. Log in HERE to view the issue. Subscribe HERE to receive eight issues of Sports Spectrum a year.