During the next 10 days, track-and- field enthusiasts from around Arizona will be treated to a display of sheer will and athleticism rarely seen in this sport or in these parts.
The McGregor twins, seniors at Marana Mountain View High School, will attempt to deliver to their school--as a parting gift upon their graduation--a Class 5A (big schools) girls state championship in a sport that, like many others, has long been dominated by schools from Phoenix.
Blonde and tanned, whippet-thin and steely tough, the twins will compete in as many as four grueling events each this weekend in the regionals, and next week at the state championships, as they close out stunning prep careers that have thus far brought them numerous accolades, college scholarships--and a legion of fans that includes a whole lot of high-school boys who show up for the meets out of something other than sheer love of sport. They are a unique duo, each serving as the other's fiercest competitor and greatest fan. These next two weekends could well become the stuff of legend in local prep sports.
We'll just call it Emily and Valerie's Excellent Adventure.
FIRST OFF, THEY'RE fraternal twins, and unless you're one of those people who think that all white people look alike, it's fairly easy to tell them apart. Valerie is actually bigger, especially through the legs. But with the shocking blonde hair and the signature sunglasses that both wear while competing, it can be difficult to identify which is which, especially if they're running.
They have an identical running style, powerful and straightforward with an economy of motion and an odd, almost complete absence of strain on their faces or in their body language.
They've dominated distance running in prep track and field the past couple years and added first- and third-place finishes at last fall's state cross country championships. But now comes the biggest test of all, in front of the biggest audience of all. (Cross country titles are generally won in front of a handful of parents and whoever just happened to be in that particular park that particular day.) The state track championships, which will be held in Tucson at the University of Arizona's Willie Williams Track Complex on South Plumer Avenue, draw huge crowds--and the McGregors will be center stage.
The two are looking forward to the challenge, and they talk about it in an animated and most entertaining manner. Whereas many sets of twins are stereotyped as Persons 1 and 1A, having the same taste in clothes and music and boys, and knowing each other so well that they even finish each other's sentences, the McGregors have taken those stereotypes and raised them to the fourth power.
They don't finish each other's sentences; they talk at the same time. They talk about two totally different things, with neither raising her voice or appearing to be particularly annoyed by the other. It's like watching an old episode of Moonlighting with Cybill Shepherd on a rant and Bruce Willis weaving double entendres in and out of the conversation.
It's unnerving and exhilarating at the same time. They will talk as though the other isn't even in the same room, and yet somehow, at the same time, be quite respectful of the other's presence and point of view. It's like Emily will be talking like this and then Valerie will be talking like this and then all of a sudden they will say the same thing, like this. They're somehow able to talk and listen at the same time. Occasionally, one will convince the other of something, or maybe she will say something that strikes a note of remembrance in the other. They will both pause for an instant and then, in perfect harmony, say, "Yeeeaah!"
(There was an old blues song called "Graveyard Train" on the Creedence Clearwater Revival album, Bayou Country. In the song, during the instrumental breakdown, two haunting harmonicas follow different paths and tempos for several bars until they suddenly come together at the end and hit the same two notes in unison with stunning effectiveness. This is an obscure reference that will probably be understood by about 12 people, but it's the perfect analogy to what these two kids do.)
When I met them at the Mountain View High Library, they (most disconcertingly) coughed at the exact same time. It's been a mild spring in Tucson with the temperatures rarely getting above the mid-80s. The reason for this is a seemingly endless series of Pacific storms that dumped record snow in Colorado but always whipped just north of us, bringing only high winds and relatively cool temperatures. Unfortunately, it was on one of those windy days that the McGregors competed in a meet and apparently inhaled a whole lot of dust and other wind-blown junk. They coughed throughout the interview and drank from a shared bottle of water. (Equally disconcerting was the fact that they never reached for the bottle at the same time; they always alternated drinks; and each was careful to screw the cap back on tightly after finishing. I kept hearing the theme from The Twilight Zone in my head.)
"I hate coughing," they said in unison, then continued in McGregor-Speak, "It was really windy and we had to run in several events and we just breathed in all this stuff. We were coughing really badly before but it's getting better now. I think it'll be all gone by the time we get to regionals. We need it to be gone by state. That's real important. (Pause) Yeeeaah."
They had to have seen the look on my face, so they made a concerted effort to speak one at a time.
"We want to go out on a high note, " said Emily. "We want to do our very best at state."
"We don't make predictions," asserts Valerie. "It's just not right. They hardly ever work out, plus there's a lot of pressure, anyway."
The twins live on the northwest side of town with their mother, Tucson Police Department officer Judy McGregor, who is a school resource officer for several schools on Tucson's southside. The girls' father is divorced and re-married and lives in Ohio, where the twins spend part of their summers. Their mama must have done something right, because these two are absolute poster children for good kids.
They're both A students, involved in student government--Valerie is the senior class president, and Emily is the vice president. Neither of them drinks, smokes or uses drugs. They've decided to forego the senior trip to Mexico because of the debauchery into which it will almost certainly devolve. They work weekends at the McDonald's across the street from the high school and, like all good teenagers, they have absolutely abysmal taste in music. This month they're listening to Good Charlotte and a band called Simple Plan, which, to the untrained ear, sounds a lot like Bad Charlotte.
One thing that can't be ignored is that they've attracted an army of (ahem) fans of the opposite sex. At a meet earlier in the season at Sabino High School, several Sabino football players, otherwise engaged in spring drills, lined the fence of the track to watch the twins run. And to watch them stand still. And to watch them drink out of a plastic bottle.
When one of the Sabino kids was approached and asked why he didn't go up and introduce himself to the object of his obvious infatuation, he shrugged and said, "They're out of my league. If I went after that one (Valerie), I'd never be able to catch her. Literally."
The twins laugh when told that story. Neither has a boyfriend and there are no prospects on the horizon. When they were sophomores, they briefly dated (STEREOTYPE ALERT!) twin brothers Vince and Alex Arrendondo, wrestlers at Mountain View. To avoid confusion, Valerie dated Vince, the "V" one. But since that time, they've concentrated on their studies and their sports.
"I guess it's nice if guys like us, but we want to be known as athletes and students."
"And people. Yeeeaah."
Alek Comyford, a junior at rival Amphi High who is among the favorites in the boys distance races at the regional and state meets, greatly admires the twins.
"They're just fun to watch," he says. "They don't always run in the same events, and lots of times, they're so far ahead of everybody else, you'd think they would just coast a little bit. But they have that ability to push themselves even when they're way out in front.
"Plus," he adds, "they push each other, too. They always encourage each other. It's cool."
So, what about that other thing?
"All of my track teammates have chosen sides over which one is (more attractive). They argue about it all the time."
Which one do you think it is?
"Well ... um ... I'll ask my girlfriend what she thinks."
Another teen romance saved by quick thinking.
THEY HAVEN'T ALWAYS been champions. In fact, they don't consider themselves to be spectacular athletes.
"We're horrible in other sports," Emily laughs. "Anything that involves a ball, we're disasters. I can't dribble a basketball and they always called us for traveling."
Valerie adds, "We tried soccer and weren't very good at that, either. We ran sprints and hurdles in middle school, but we finally settled on distance running."
And that's where they found their groove. As freshmen, they went to state in cross country. Emily finished a respectable 17th, but Valerie came in 42nd. At the time, Mountain View was in Class 4A, the second-highest classification. For a variety of reasons, in some sports (including cross country), the competition in 4A can actually be tougher than that of the 5A. A lot of schools on the Navajo and Hopi Reservations are in Classes 3A and 4A, and the Native American runners have dominated distance running in Arizona for some time.
In track their freshman year, they both went to state in the 3,200 meters (just under two miles). Emily finished 12th, while Valerie finished dead last. Valerie was also part of the 4x800 relay team that finished sixth in the state.
While the cross country results were basically the same the next year (Emily finished 15th while Valerie somehow managed to finish 42nd again), they leaped onto the main stage in track. Emily and Valerie finished third and fourth, respectively, in the 3,200 at state, and also finished second and fifth, respectively, in the 1,600 (roughly a mile). Valerie's relay team also grabbed a third place at state.
Thanks to explosive growth on Tucson's northwest side, Mountain View moved up to Class 5A in 2001. That fall, Valerie finished fourth in the state in cross country, with her sister coming in seventh. At last spring's state track meet in Mesa, Valerie took fourth in the 1,600 and ninth in the 3,200, while Emily grabbed third in the 1,600 and staged a classic battle with Tempe Mt. Pointe's Sally Meyerhoff in the 3,200. Meyerhoff, who got a full scholarship to Duke, held off Emily McGregor for the win.
The twins' senior year has been nothing short of spectacular. Throughout the cross country season, Emily had the fastest times in the state, but Valerie surprised everybody by winning the 5A-South regional title ahead of her sister. She then duplicated the feat the following week by winning the state championship. Emily was nipped at the tape and finished third in state.
Throughout this track season, they've been virtually unbeatable. They generally don't run in the same races. One will win the 1,600 while the other dominates the 3,200. They've dabbled in the 800 meters (half-mile), but both find it too short a distance for their liking. ("It's hard to get going in only two laps," Emily sniffs, apparently unaware that, for most of us, it's difficult to keep going after two laps.)
In regular-season dual meets, all events are run within a two-to-three-hour period during the course of the meet. This makes the 1,600-3,200 double rather taxing, especially in the Arizona sun. But regional and state meets are usually Wednesday-Friday or Wednesday-Saturday affairs, with the 1,600 being contested one day and the 3,200 the other. This will allow both twins to run both events. And while their coach, Dennis Hansen, doesn't think it's the best idea, they are also giving serious thought to running the 800. Valerie will also run in the 4x800 relay, while Emily might lend a hand to the 4x400 relay team. Conceivably, the two girls could rack up enough points in the crowded field to win the state title by themselves.
"It'd be great to win state," they chime in, "but we just want to do our best. We want to P.R. (establish personal records) in the events."
In the fall, they'll be moving on to Colorado State University, which beat out several other top-name schools for the girls athletic services.
"When they first started recruiting us, we told everybody that we would only go to their school as a pair. Strictly as a tandem. And the schools that recruited us all said that was fine.
"We were thinking about North Carolina State and Duke and the U of A recruited us, too. But, when we got to Fort Collins, it just seemed perfect. The team members were so nice and the weather was fantastic. And the mountains. We were so happy with it--you know how the NCAA lets you take a certain number of recruiting trips?--we asked if we could take the rest of our trips back to Ft. Collins."
They laugh ... well, you know, at the same time.
What about the weather?
While Emily takes a break and tries to cough out her left lung, Valerie explains, "We know it's cold. I mean, we visited in October and it was already pretty cold, but the altitude and the surroundings will be great for us. We'll both run cross country and then, in track, they figure that I'll run the 5,000 meters and Emily will run the 10,000 meters."
They plan on earning degrees that will help them in their chosen fields. Valerie wants to work as a physical therapist and/or in the field of exercise physiology, while Emily wants to be a nutritionist.
"We're both really conscious about health, "Emily explains. "We do our track practice and then we go to (a local fitness club) to do other workouts. We want to be healthy forever. We want to live to be 110."
"And we also try to watch what we eat," Valerie adds.
Oh no, don't tell me that you're vegetarians.
"No, no," says Emily. "We eat lots of fish and chicken."
"Plus," says Valerie, "we're trying to add more beef to our diet. We've done research and beef can be really good for runners."
There go the PETA memberships.
They don't, however, eat hamburgers. They work long shifts on Saturdays and Sundays at McDonald's, and they take their lunches with them.
"We usually take turkey sandwiches and apples." (By now, you should know that that's Emily.) "When it's time for lunch, we just get some lettuce and tomatoes and put it on our sandwiches. Our co-workers give us a hard time, but it's cool."
So, how seriously do you take this nutrition thing?
"We take it very seriously. Yeah, we work at it. But still, I pretty much have to eat chocolate every day and Em's favorite food in the whole world is tortilla chips and salsa."
What, then, would be the perfect ending for their prep careers? How about reaching the finish line of the 3,200 in tandem, ahead of everybody else, and then crossing line, hand-in-hand, like they would do in some cheesy, made-for-TV movie?
They laugh. "That happened at Santa Rita (earlier in the year). We were coming up to the finish line side-by side. And you know how when you cross the finish line, the judges give you a card with a number on it that says where you finished in order, well, we crossed at the same time and then Emily just reached out and grabbed the first-place card. It was funny."