Jessica Harris never ran track before she arrived at Mount de Sales, but the junior has run the third-fastest time in the country by a high school girl in two events this winter — 800 meters (2:14.14) and 500 meters (1:16.24). Her 800-meter time ranked No. 1 when she ran it in December.
An All-Metro first-team selection last spring in track and field, Harris holds three individual school records in indoor track and has helped set three relay records. She's the defending Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland champion in the 800 meters both indoors and outdoors. On Saturday, she will run in the Montgomery Invitational and also plans to run at the Kevin Dare High School Invitational at Penn State on Jan. 19 and at the New Balance Indoor Nationals in New York in early March.
In addition to running track and cross country for the Sailors, Harris, 16, was president of her sophomore class and is the junior class secretary. She's also involved in Teens for Catholic Action and the Maryland Right to Life movement. Last summer, she did construction work in Appalachia with the youth group from her home parish, St. Joseph, in Cockeysville.
The daughter of Congressman Andy Harris, she has a 4.37 GPA and is considering several career options, including following her father into medicine and politics. She hasn't decided whether she wants to run in college.
You had never run before your freshman year, so what drew you to track?
I came to Mount de Sales and I couldn't play any other sports — I never had gotten into soccer or tennis — so I joined cross country hoping to meet some other girls, because I was the only girl who came here from my middle school.
When did you realize that you were pretty good at track?
I guess freshman year when my competition times were like the seniors’. I didn’t know what were good times and what were bad times, but I was on the same level with the seniors, so I figured I must be doing something right (laughs).
What's your favorite distance to run indoors?
Freshman and sophomore year, it was probably the 800 and then sophomore outdoor season, he (coach Steve Weber) started putting me in the 200, and I really like those, just because they're short and fast. But the 500's good too. I like them all, except for the two-mile and the mile.
You like the shorter distances best?
I'm a sprinter at heart, but I'm a middle-distance runner. I love the shorter, faster ones, the 200, the 300. I'd probably rather run a 5 (hundred) than an 8 (hundred).
Why do you enjoy the relays?
When I’m running my individual races, I am motivated to succeed, but then when I’m on a relay with my teammates and we’re all working so hard for a common goal, we all want to do so much better to lift each other up. Then we get fantastic times on relays and when a relay does very well, it boosts the whole team just a little bit more which is really nice.
What do you like most about running?
The Mount de Sales team. My best friends are all on the team. If we had a different team dynamic or the coaching style was different, I don't think I'd be coming back. I like running, but it's not something I would like to do on weekends by myself if I weren't on the track team.
Why do you enjoy student government?
I think it's getting to know my peers. There's so many different girls in the class and with my social life, I only have time to spend with my closer friends, but being in student government activities, I really get to know all of them and interact wth everybody.
Might politics be in your future?
Absolutely. Growing up in a political household, it's impossible to leave and not want to make a difference or continue the legacy. You grow up in it and you can't ignore it. We grew up in it and we know everything about it (laughs) and it's nothing that we can just ignore.
How about political office?
What's it like for you as the daughter of such a public figure, because every congressman has his critics?
I think we've been very well sheltered from it. It doesn't really affect us (Harris and her four siblings) much. We're definitely involved in the politics of campaigning, but he does try to keep us out of the ugly comments and everything. If we do hear things, we ask him about it and he'll explain things. It's not a problem. We have family dinner discussions about political topics.
Did you work in his last campaign?
We've worked in every campaign since I was born. This last one, now that he started running for Congress, it's been a little bit less local because his district is bigger. We've been mainly doing family things, going to functions with my dad, sign waving, phone calls. When he did the (state) Senate campaign, it was different, a little bit smaller, a little bit more grass roots. We'd go door-to-door.
How did you become involved in the pro-life movement, and why is it very important to you?
My mom (Cookie Harris) actually is a big pro-life leader in the Maryland community and so always when we were growing up, we'd be involved in pro-life events. It does get to a point when you have to make a decision, like whether I would want to keep doing things with her or find my own cause, and it's something I feel very strongly about. I love living, I love life and so I want to help others celebrate it. This is the best way for me to do that.
Why do you think it's important for teenagers to be politically active?
I think that teenagers especially teenagers like here, the girls that are Catholic who are pro-life, they do have stances on political issues and it's important that we show that this next generation does stand for something and that we think those things are worth fighting for, because we're not the ones who are going to make the changes right now. If we don't stand by what we believe right now, it could be taken away from us. A lot of changes are happening now and we can't wait until we're of voting age or of age to run for office to affect those changes. If we're going to make a difference, we have to do it now.
Who do you look up to?
My parents. They have just been strong role models for me in every area of their lives. My dad is always working so hard for things that he believes in and to support us as a family and I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as he does. That’s something I always try to imitate. And then my mom, even though she’s busy with our family, she always finds time for her work in the pro-life movement and for her friends. She always has time for other people, even if that means taking time away from herself.
What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
Our team chaplain during cross country, Sister Amelia, gives us little phrases before our cross country races and my favorite one was, “Be not afraid.” She explained to us that it’s found 365 times in the Bible, once for every day of the year, and that’s something that I took out of cross country for everything I do.