By Matt Williams
---- — Catarina Rocha doesn’t run away from things. She runs to them.
Tomorrow, the Peabody High senior is running towards the end of a remarkable high school cross country career. She’ll be taking part in Foot Locker’s Cross Country National Championships for the third time. As a returning All-American and the Northeast Regional champion, she is among the favorites for the girls national title.
The 17-year old Rocha landed in San Diego yesterday, one of 40 girls and 40 boys to qualify from around the nation. The girls championship race will be held tomorrow (12:15 p.m. Eastern time) on the 5K course at Balboa Park.
“I’m nervous, but also excited to be able to go again and experience that race day atmosphere,” said Rocha. “Mentally, I think everyone’s a little nervous. I don’t think anyone can say they’re not at a meet like this.”
Rocha finished seventh last year as a junior and would love to improve on that tomorrow. Her ultimate goal is to earn a second All-American honor by finishing in the top 15 and said she isn’t feeling any pressure to win it all.
“Catarina doesn’t get too high and that’s what makes her who she is,” said Joe Rocha, Catarina’s father and coach for all three seasons at Peabody High. “Her approach is always the same.”
Those that know Rocha say her focus and mental toughness are second to none. She has an unwavering ability to concentrate over a variety of distances, which has led to Massachusetts state titles for her in cross country, the mile and the 2-mile.
“Incredible strength,” junior teammate Samantha Allen said of what sets Rocha apart. “I try to think about that extreme toughness that it takes to run ahead of the pack, by yourself, and keep pushing yourself. She’s so strong.”
Rocha has smooth, even running style. She has speed — a Mass. All-State indoor meet record 4:50.38 mile time — and endurance in the form of a Bradley Palmer State Park record of 17:22 in the 5K.
“She’s a smart runner. She knows her strengths and weaknesses and uses that. The quality of her running is unbelievable,” said Joe Rocha.
MORE THAN A RUNNER
It’s easy to look at Rocha’s agenda and wonder where she finds the time for long training runs. She’s been Peabody High’s class secretary all four years, and spent the afternoon before flying to San Diego scouting sites for the senior prom. She’s a National Honor Society member who ranks in the top 10 percent of her class.
Rocha is a peer mediator and participates in a sports program with special needs kids weekly. She made her dad beam with pride when she returned to the cross country course shortly after a race to make sure special needs students knew which way to run.
“It’s a lot for her to juggle, and we’re very proud of her for those things,” said Joe Rocha. “The middle school kids really look up to her; it’s unbelievable to see little girls lining our trails to watch them run.”
The Division 1 All-State team championship won by Peabody this fall — the program’s first in 20 years — is closer to Rocha’s heart than any race she’s won on her own.
“They’re my motivation. That support from the girls, and the boys, on the cross country team is what made me fall in love with track,” said Rocha, who was craning her neck to see how her teammates were doing while answering questions from reporters after winning the Division 1 All-State race at Northfield Mountain in November.
She’s a team-oriented performer who brings out the best in fellow runners, while also having the best in her brought out by them.
“Catarina’s fun to be around. She’s funny, outgoing, she’s always laughing and really opens up around the team,” said Allen. “She’s a great person and is very humble. That’s one of her best qualities.”
Rocha is certainly a Division 1 collegiate runner, but keeping her options open while living in the moment and trying to get used to being a nationally known running commodity. She’d just as soon be known as a regular kid who runs.
“It’s great to be noticed as a runner, though I am still getting used to that,” Rocha said.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Rocha comes from the first family of North Shore running. Her dad ran at Foot Locker Nationals in 1982 (finishing 15th) and is in the Hall of Fame at Boston College. Her mom, Gina, ran at Foot Locker in 1985 and is in the Peabody Hall of Fame, as are uncles Fernando (the Peabody High boys coach and a BC Hall of Famer) and Helder Braz (a UMass-Dartmouth Hall of Famer).
The pressure with living up to a legacy like that would be enough to crush a lot of student-athletes. But Rocha’s parents always made sure she cut her own path.
“Some kids in her position might take that the wrong way, (but) Catarina has embraced it,” said Joe Rocha. “Growing up she didn’t know much about our running, and we always wanted her to be herself. It’s been amazing to see her do it.”
Rocha remembers being at track practice as a young girl while mom and dad coached. She grew up picturing life as a soccer player, and started in that sport for Peabody High as a freshman. She fell in love with track in indoor and outdoor that year, however, and never turned back.
“I watched the meets when I was little and they were awesome, but I never imagined myself as a runner,” Rocha said. “It’s really neat how that changed. I remember looking up to the girls who ran because of the guts they had.”
Some 20 years after her parents met at Boston College and the Braz family set a new standard for running in Peabody, it’s Rocha that’s blazing the trail for this new generation.
“It’s very emotional for us. She’s not doing it because she has to, but because she deserves it,” said Braz, paying Catarina the greatest compliment of saying she sometimes looks like her mom when she runs.
“The way Catarina carries herself, post race and pre-race, is what Gina was. They’re both people with tremendous gifts that never took them as God-given, but worked for them and made it look easy.”
Rocha’s name is on the school record board for the 800, 1000, cross country and several relays. Her cousin Evan held the boys’ 1000 for a time, and uncle Fernando still has several Tanner marks.
“It’s pretty cool to see my name and be able to see their accomplishments,” said Catarina Rocha. “But that’s not really important for me. The most important thing is team first, then family, and then some individual things.”
With one cross country race left and another two seasons of high school track, Rocha is already one of the most dominant runners the North Shore has ever known. She’s won both Division 1 and All-State championships in five consecutive seasons of track, with six total Eastern Mass. titles on her resume.
No matter how many records she sets, Rocha might best be remembered for the humble and even demeanor with which she approaches every race. That and her quiet, yet burning, intensity.
“Her will is unforgiving. When she sets her mind to something, athletically or academically, she doesn’t know any other way,” said Braz. “Her drive is comparable to any athlete I’ve ever been around, especially a high school runner.”
When Rocha says she didn’t expect to win the Northeast Regional title, which she did by a wide margin in New York two weeks ago, it is genuine. When she says she’s happy to be in the top 40 nationally, it isn’t lip service. It’s a tremendous accomplishment to go a regional and finish in the top 10 to qualify three times.
Running for a national title is not pressure for Rocha; it’s a gift. That measured, gracious approach is how she was raised.
“The discipline she has, I believe comes directly from her parents,” said Braz. “Some of her physical traits may be genetic, but her internal drive is from her parents. They’ve given her amazing values and she believes in them.”
That drive may push her to take over sometime during tomorrow morning’s race. She hasn’t been tested much this fall, and she’ll be fresh. Her times have been 30-40 seconds better than last year on comparable courses and an effort like that tomorrow would likely put her near the top of the field.
If that strength carries her to victory, she’ll feel fortunate and will celebrate with a humble smile and with pride. First for Peabody, then for her team, for her family and lastly for herself.
Just like her mom and dad.