Chao Latest in Harrier Tradition


Madeleine Singh

As the leaders in the varsity girls’ 3-mile race passed through the tunnel of cheering spectators leading up to the finish at the Diablo Athletic League center meet on Wednesday, October 26 in Concord’s Newhall Park, some where surprised to see Campolindo’s Hannah Ruane and Isabella Chao finishing 1-2 over Miramonte’s Cassidy Haskel.  The Matador’s sophomore has been a bit of a sensation, ranked recently by as the top division 4 runner in the section.

Those who have been paying closer attention however, know that the Cougars have been cultivating their own crop of elite harriers.

Comprising one half of what some, including, consider to be the top female tandem in the state, Chao is a particularly good example of the Campolindo program’s history of developing successful distance runners.

Chao is currently in the midst of her 3rd season on the cross country team.  It is her 2nd as a varsity athlete. She has competed in 6 races up to this point in the fall campaign, averaging an impressive 6 minutes per mile.

Head Coach Chuck Woolridge attributes Chao’s success to her dedication. “In Bella’s case, she wasn’t on varsity as a freshman, and it was really through her hard work that she transformed herself into a varsity level athlete by her sophomore season,” he said.

Woolridge also noted that Chao’s improvement has been steady. “She made modest improvements over her freshman and sophomore years, and then chose to add additional mileage and invest herself a little bit more fully into the program, and, as a result, she’s had a more dramatic improvement in her junior year,” he explained.

One of the keys was having outstanding veteran athletes who modeled the kind of behavior it takes to be great in the sport. “My work ethic changed a bit, and I started to work a little bit harder because I had people like Brighie Leach to look up to when I was a freshman and saw how their hard work made an impact,” said Chao. Leach, who set school records in the 800m, 1600m and 3200m along with winning league cross country titles 3 years in a row, is now competing at the NCAA division 1 level for Princeton.

With the level of effort she’s been putting in this year, Chao admits that she sometimes wishes she had more time to relax. “I’ve never wanted to quit, but there have been times where I’ve wanted to take the day off, take a nap,” she said.

Chao started running cross country in 6th grade just for fun.  It has since grown into a passion. “I love the team and being outside with my friends,” she said.

Woolridge is proud of the leadership role Chao has stepped into after being mentored by previous cross country greats like Leach and Mary Orders when she was a freshman.  Orders is currently competing in college for North Western University. “In addition to working on her own improvement and her own goals, she spends a considerable amount of time guiding her fellow teammates, working with the coaches, and doing things for the benefit of the team,” he said.

After a runner-up finish at the prestigious Stanford Invitational at the end of September, and then a win at the Roughrider Invite on October 14, Chao is now one of the top high school athletes in the sport. “Considering the times she’s earned this early in the season, I think one of the goals that she should have is being a contender for an NCS individual title and making the podium at the state championships at the end of November. She’s performing on par with past athletes who have gone on to qualify for the Foot Locker National Championships, so I think that’s something that, if not this year, next year, should be a goal for Bella,” said Woolridge. “She’s right up there with some of the most successful athletes in the history of our program.”

According to Chao, her goals this year are primarily to race well at NCS and State.

Chao, who also has passions for sailing and cooking, recommends cross country to anyone looking into joining a team. “I would tell [someone who’s looking into cross country] to definitely give it a try. It might be hard at first, but it gets easier.”