A year ago, Tanner Norman of The Classical Academy had a plan to rule the state in cross country, and he was the only person who truly believed in his plan. He was a hungry underdog, a determined dreamer, an unlikely champion. He was unburdened by any expectation, except his own.
On Saturday, Norman stepped to the starting line at the Norris-Penrose Event Center as a defending state champion. His vision from a year ago had come to life. He was, on this hot morning, burdened. He was the prohibitive favorite to triumph.
This is not one of those stories of sports disaster. Norman, a senior, cruised to a convincing victory in 3A cross country, running 15 minutes, 44.8 seconds to easily defeat Faith Christian's Cole Sprout (16:10). As the state meet approached, Norman worked with the same intensity of a year ago. He always kept his burden light.
All season long, Norman ran with an imaginary target on his back. He imagines the target being there, and he knows fellow runners imagine there's a target there, too.
During his sophomore and junior seasons, Norman targeted superior runners. They ran faster, smoother, better. He studied them, determined to someday pass them.
As the 2015 4A state meet approached, Norman realized he could rule Colorado. This was, in a way, his own little secret. Yes, he was expected to finish in the top five. He was not expected to cross the finish line first.
"The week before the race, it was horrible, just emotionally," he said Saturday. "I wanted it so bad, and it was so up in the air. Last year before the race, I felt I wanted to cry."
He wasn't crying when the race ended. He won the 4A title after a dramatic duel with Golden's Alec Hornecker.
The drama for this season was reduced in the offseason when TCA's cross country team dropped from 4A to 3A. The drop meant Norman would not battle with 4A friends/rivals Widefield's Maximilliano Martinez, Montrose's Ian Meek and Air Academy's Ethan Powell.
The drop meant Norman was a virtual lock to rule 3A, but in his perfect track world, he would have stayed in 4A. He wanted to keep getting pushed, and to keep pushing, Martinez, Meek and Powell. (Powell won the 4A title on Saturday.)
"I would have loved to race against those guys one more time," Norman said.
Norman declined to relax. He continued his intense runs through the Air Force Academy on the Santa Fe Trail. No genuine 3A rival ever emerged, but he never surrendered to the assumption he would easily win. His caution makes sense. He had surprised the state in 2015. He knows all about upsets.
"I trained just as hard, exactly the same," he said. "Mentally, I came in with the same attitude. There were just as many butterflies."
As Norman sprinted into the Penrose grandstand, he was utterly alone. Sprout is only a freshman, and he will have his day, but he was out of sight.
TCA coach Alan Versaw watched the moment with joy.
"He's his own biggest motivator," Versaw said. "There's just a whole lot of satisfaction to see somebody who has worked that hard have that kind of success."
A year ago, Norman surprised everyone, except himself. On Saturday, the former underdog surprised no one, including himself.