When Weston Ratcliffe learned that his father had signed him up to train with a running club, the then-first grader was admittedly unhappy.
“I thought it was going to be horrifying,” he recalled. “But after practice when my dad picked me up, he asked how it went, and I was like, ‘It was actually pretty good.’ So then I started going.”
Going would be an understatement. Later that year, on Dec. 7, 2019, Ratcliffe captured the boys 6-and-under 1,000-meter race at the American Athletic Union National Championships with a winning time of 4 minutes, 23.19 seconds at Victor Ashe Park in Knoxville, Tennessee.
On Dec. 11, Ratcliffe clocked in at 8:01.01 to finish eighth in the boys 7-8 2,000-meter run of the USA Track & Field National Junior Olympic Cross Country Championships at a rain-soaked, wind-whipped Bourbon County Park in Paris, Kentucky. By placing in the Top 25 among 195 of the country’s fastest runners in his age group, Ratcliffe earned All-America status, but was a little frustrated by his outing.
“I was OK with it, but a little unhappy,” he said. “I thought the weather wouldn’t be that bad. It was pretty bad, but I didn’t think it would be that bad. I expected to get third place or something like that. But because of the weather, there was a lot of mud and stuff. So it made me slip a little and slow me down a little.”
It marked the first time that Ratcliffe had not won a cross country meet. But his coach, Erin Lavelle, said he should be proud of his race.
“I know that Weston was disappointed when he finished because I think his mind was set on being the champion,” she said. “But in the end, I think after a day, he realized what he had accomplished. Being eighth was absolutely amazing because anyone in the Top 25 is an All-American. So he killed it. I think he was a little disappointed, but looking back on it, I think he can say, ‘Oh my gosh, I did an amazing job.’ He had a tough time accepting it on that day, but he did the best he could in those conditions. There was nothing else he could have done. He was moving as fast as he could. He gave it his all.”
Ratcliffe, now an 8-year-old third grader at Bushy Park Elementary School in Glenwood, is not the type to sit still. He has been playing soccer since he was 2 and recently added basketball and football to his regimen.
Running was not initially in the equation. But after watching Weston Ratcliffe make daily runs of 200 yards or more to his friends’ house in their West Friendship neighborhood, Eric Ratcliffe decided to sign his then-5-year-old son up for a Turkey Trot 1K race for 12-&-under runners at Centennial High School. Weston Ratcliffe won.
“I knew he was a kid that enjoyed running,” said Eric Ratcliffe, who ran cross country and the 400 hurdles at Salisbury and whose wife, the former Lindsay Zumbrun, played lacrosse at River Hill High School. “So I put him out there as just a fun thing to do for him, and he loved it. He did great.”
The following year, Ratcliffe signed up his son with the Eldersburg Rogue Runners — Arrows. The coach was Lavelle, who said she instantly recognized a trait in Weston Ratcliffe that she has seen in other champions she trains such as Ella Lustig, a 3,000-meter titlist at the 2021 Cross Country Coaches National Youth Championships, Josh Schamber, a 3,000-meter racewalk champion at the 2021 AAU Indoor National Championships, and Chrisoula Vourlos, a 3,000-meter champion at the 2021 AAU Indoor National Championships.
“If that kid has the determination and the drive to really want to be the best, that I cannot teach, and that is something that Weston has had from Day One,” said Lavelle, who has since formed her own club called the Freedom Flyers. “Weston has been a very kind kid, and he’s very good about being a great sportsman. But more importantly, he wants to improve. If I tell him that he needs to fix his arm, he fixes his arm. If I tell him that he needs to go out and drive with his knees, he drives more with his knees. So he is very teachable, and his determination is something that can never be taught.”
Soccer is Weston Ratcliffe’s top athletic passion. But he said he has embraced the challenge of running to see if he can break his record of 30,000 steps in a single day.
“My favorite thing about running is, it gets me faster,” he said. “Every time I run, I do something new. I get maybe faster, and some days, I’m not as fast, and when I’m not as fast, my friends at cross country practice push me, and that makes me go faster. I like getting tired out because when you get tired out, you still have to keep pushing through it.”
Because her runners range in ages from six to 13, Lavelle prohibits training sessions on surfaces other than grass or trails. She also allows only a maximum of four runs per week, and Eric Ratcliffe said he and his wife — who also have a 7-year-old daughter named Reese — agreed that their son could run twice per week.
Weston Ratcliffe described the AAU National Championships as “nerve-wracking” because of the sheer number of spectators recording the race on their phones. But he said he found a peace when he simply focused on running.
“It actually turned out pretty fun,” he said. “There was this one kid from California who almost beat me, but I had to use all of my power to get past him. Once I won, I was so excited. I ran over to hug my parents, and I was really excited and proud of myself.”
At the USATF National Junior Olympic Cross Country Championships, a narrow funnel area at the start of the race prevented Ratcliffe from taking a lead as he usually does, and he struggled with one-inch mud. But Lavelle said he flourished during a 200-yard uphill climb to the finish line.
“He turned it into second gear, and he went off, and he didn’t quit until he got up that hill,” she said. “He didn’t give up even though psychologically he wanted to be in first. If he had given up, there were plenty of other kids willing to take his place, and they were fighting for it, too. He put everything he had even when he had nothing left. That’s where that determination comes from because not every kid can do that.”
If Ratcliffe, who turns 9 on Jan. 21, competes again, he would graduate to the 9-10 race, which involves a 3K course. Lavelle said his next step is deciding whether he wants to commit fully to cross country.
Eric Ratcliffe said he will leave the choice to his son.
“Cross country is the primary sport for those top kids, and soccer was his primary sport this fall,” he said. “So we talked, and we said, ‘If you really want to get great at it, you have to commit to it,’ and he understands that.”
Weston Ratcliffe said he is leaning towards soccer, but did acknowledge he would dedicate himself to cross country if he was allowed one concession.
“If I could run with a soccer ball,” he said.