Sonja Dommen takes her place at the start line, weaving through a densely packed assemblage of 214 of the best high school cross-country runners in California. She is nervous, but confident. Wrapped around her wrist is a bracelet inscribed with the phrase “I can and I will.” On someone else’s wrist, the words on the bracelet would be vapid and cliche. On Dommen’s, they are a blunt statement of truth, perfectly encapsulating who she is as a runner and as a person.
Only a junior, Dommen is already one of the most prolific cross-country runners in Burlingame history. She has run in two CCS championships, medaling in one of them, and she finished 48th in a state championship meet this year. But the journey she took to where she is today was a winding one—one that tested, but ultimately strengthened her.
Ironically, Dommen entered the high school cross-country scene as someone who had never competitively run before.
“It started as another way for me to just be outside and kind of enjoy myself,” Dommen said. “I was probably one of the slowest people. I never pictured myself as being fast, and I never pictured myself running in the future.”
While Dommen’s claim that she started out as one of the slowest people may or may not be true (she is just as humble as she is fast), by the end of her sophomore cross-country season there was no denying that she was Burlingame’s best runner. After an eye-opening performance at the 2017 Peninsula Athletic League (PAL) championships, Dommen was primed for a state championship appearance. That’s when, in the days leading up to the Central Coast Section (CCS) championship, she was hit with a sinus infection. She ended up missing the qualification for states by a few seconds.
Almost in tears, Dommen’s coach told her “If Lebron James didn’t make states he would be in the gym right now training.” The words stuck with her. That spring, she established herself as one of Burlingame’s best track athletes. Again, she was set to make a deep postseason run; again, an obstacle prevented her from doing so. Dommen strained a tendon in her calf right before finals.
“That crushed me,” Dommen said. “But it definitely lit a fire.”
Dommen trained diligently that summer, careful not to overdo it while still maintaining her fitness. She headed into her junior cross-country season more optimistic than ever before. But in early October, a pivotal time for cross-country training, Dommen’s ankle started throbbing after a long run.
“I couldn’t even run one lap,” she said. I went to the doctor and they said ‘just stay off of it until it doesn’t hurt.’”
The injury (an ankle sprain) was by far the biggest setback Dommen had experienced, as it resulted in her missing nearly all of October. She easily could have folded and accepted that the season just wasn’t meant to be, as most other runners in her position probably would have done. But she did exactly the opposite.
She replaced five-mile runs with acupuncture, and track workouts with swimming. She went to spin classes and worked on her upper body strength in the weight room. When she got the okay to run again, she eased into it, starting with slow, one-mile treadmill runs. It wasn’t easy, but she maintained her mental composure throughout the process.
“There were definitely some days I was in the gym parking lot by the pool. I was cold, I didn’t have anyone else to swim with. And then I always thought ‘just think of how you felt last year when you didn’t make it to states. If you could do this one workout and make it to states, would you?’”
The answer was always yes, and sure enough, a little over a month later, Dommen was at states. This time, there was no calf strain or sinus infection to hold her back, and she finished 48th out of the 214 runners in the race—an incredible result considering that only a month earlier she was starting her training from scratch while everyone else was months into theirs.
“Having these injuries has taught me that you just have to be grateful for the moment that you’re in and be grateful that you’re able to run, and just cherish the experience,” Dommen said.
Dommen will be cherishing every remaining second of her running career—one that could last well into the future. She currently wants to get through track season healthy, go back to states and run in college.
Above all, however, Dommen is focused on “just carrying that fire.” Anyone who knows her knows that she can, and, more likely than not, she will.