Running is seen as more of a punishment than a sport for many kids. Between its grueling nature and the dedication needed to master the craft, most kids opt to play something else.

That was never the case for Tessa Walter. The Air Academy sophomore has been running since she was 5 years old and steadily improved.

Her most recent season was her best one yet, as Walter was the Kadets’ top runner and helped them win the 5A state girls cross country title. She is the Peak Performer of the Year for girls cross country.

“It has always just been a fun thing,” Walter said.

Walter was sworn into running. Her mother is an avid marathon runner and encouraged Tessa to run from a young age.

At first, it was just about finishing. Tessa’s mother would sometimes give her small prizes as incentives for running and finishing the set amount that they determined.

“She always encouraged me and my siblings to do races,” Walter said. “There was never pressure to run fast. It’s just like, ‘Oh you get a little trophy if you finish.’ I think that’s what started it.”

But as she grew older, Tessa became fond of the sport’s competitive nature. She ran a few races in elementary school before fully beginning her competitive career in sixth grade.

“As it progressed, it got more fun to race and compete against people,” Walter said.

She also played soccer, basketball and gymnastics growing up, but eventually Walter decided she would concentrate on running — and that has paid off.

As a freshman she posted a time of 19:07.8 to finish 14th individually at state in the 4A race (Air Academy reclassified between school years). This year, Walter placed fifth individually in 5A, clocking in at 17:50.3 — more than a minute off of last year’s time.

She credited her teammates and coach, Chuck Schwartz, for helping her continue to grow as a runner.

“Having the help of my coach and obviously having such a good team pushes me a lot,” Walter said. “I think it helped to have freshman year set me up, and then we had more freshmen come in, and it pushed us even more this year.”

Though Air Academy won state this year, Walter has lofty goals for the remainder of her high school career.

She wants to see the Kadets back on the podium next year. And, of course, Walter hopes to see her times continue to drop.

Despite being only a sophomore, Walter is already a leader within the program. Schwartz believes that will help the Kadets get better every year.

“We have a really exciting group of kids we’re working with,” Schwartz said. “You can’t find better team leaders than people like Tessa and her teammates.”

She has plenty of time before then, but Walter hopes to run in college. And she plans to do everything she can to reach that goal.

Walter runs six times per week during the offseason, often running twice a day.

Running has never been a chore for Walter; it’s always been a lifestyle — and she doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.

“It’s a huge motivation,” Walter said. “Of course the team wants to go back and we have the motivation to go even faster in future years. I think all of it’s driving me right now.”

Schwartz said, “There are so many qualities about Tessa that make her so good. She’s a really consistent trainer with a really tenacious mindset. Those are great ingredients for a great distance runner.”