Benefield: Forward focus for Santa Rosa High School runner Aimee Holland

Aimee Holland's coaches praise her natural ability and determination to do well after surviving a fragile start to life in her native China.|

Aimee Holland doesn't typically look back.

Not when she's running, not when she's thinking about life and where she is today. Not when she thinks about how far she has come and her extraordinarily unique beginnings.

She's not afraid or ashamed to look back, but she doesn't want to be defined by “her story.” Her story says something about her but it doesn't define her. She's more comfortable eyes forward. She even runs that way - with a lean so pitched her coaches say she tilts dangerously forward at the end of races, sometimes crumpling just after crossing the line.

And of course, if she does fall, she falls forward.

Holland, a senior at Santa Rosa High School, has posted the third-fastest time for the 800 meters in the history of Panther girls track. The only Panthers who have run that distance faster are the near-legendary Julia Stamps (Mallon) in 1996 and Sadia Ibrahim in 2012. She's 27th on the all-empire list in that distance despite being relatively new to track. She finished 12th at the Meet of Champions last spring and is only getting faster.

Her coaches say she's got the natural ability - but more importantly, the determination - to lower her times in her final high school track season.

A late-comer to cross country, she finished fifth at the North Bay League meet last fall - an eye-popping achievement for a runner considered more of a sprinter by her coaches.

“She is one of the most versatile runners we have ever had,” longtime Santa Rosa High distance coach Carrie Joseph said.

Maybe that comes from her athletic background. A basketball and soccer player, Holland excelled especially at soccer, making the Santa Rosa High varsity squad as a freshman.

“She was an amazing soccer player,” said Panthers soccer coach Nikki Kumasaka.


This is the point at which Holland is asked to go back, to think back about soccer and why she doesn't play anymore, how she found track and why things work out the way they do.

Freshman year, during a college soccer showcase in San Francisco, a player came in from behind, taking out Holland's plant leg as she was striking the ball. A second player came at her from the front. Her body whipped backward. The back of her head hit the all-weather synthetic turf first. At least, that's what she was told later. She doesn't remember a thing.

“She was really out of it for a couple of weeks,” her dad, Jim Holland said. “And she is a pretty tough kid.”

Her life was suddenly confined to little beyond long hours in her dark bedroom, sleeping and eating. She had memory loss and confusion. School work - when she finally returned to campus after weeks - was a nightmare. She returned in phases - two periods a day, then four. She was given extra time to take tests, allowances on school work.

And this: she was prohibited from playing soccer.

Annette and Jim Holland felt sure that their oldest daughter should not risk her health to keep playing. A neurologist backed them up. Aimee Holland had other ideas.

“She fought back,” Annette Holland said. “It took awhile to convince Aimee that that was the best choice.”

“It was pretty hard on her,” Jim Holland remembers.

After all, she had plans. She was an elite player. She wanted to play in college. Her team was her social circle. In many ways, the sport was her life.

Aimee Holland remembers those weeks and months as a dark time - figuratively and literally. But a light was coming; she just couldn't see it yet.

That spring, still suffering from concussion symptoms, she was held out of standardized testing. She was sent to the gym while her classmates took the tests. Doug Courtemarche, the veteran Santa Rosa High track and cross country coach, was there, watching students, making sure no one got into trouble.

“He just came up and we started talking and all of a sudden I found myself telling him everything and I didn't even know him very well,” she said. “He was my first lifeline, whether he knew it or not.”

“Everything” in Holland's case is quite something.

Sure, she told him about her concussion, about how having soccer cut out of her life was devastating. But she also told him where she came from. She went back before the concussion, before soccer, before she could even remember.

“I paint a picture in my head, a constant picture in my head, of what I think it is,” she says now. “It's me, on the corner, or me in a box as a baby, on the corner of a street.”

Aimee Holland was 16 days old when a street sweeper found her in a box on a street corner in Panyu, China.

“That's all we've been told,” Annette Holland said.

They aren't certain of her birthday. They have no background on her parentage or health history.

When the Hollands came to Panyu 11 and a half months after Aimee was born, they found a skinny, undernourished, feverish girl. The wide bald spot on the back of her head told them she spent her days flat on her back in a crib with no mattress, just bamboo slats. She lacked the neck strength to hold her head up properly. They weren't sure she could sit.

“She was tiny,” Annette Holland remembers. “Her arms were just super, super skinny. Her legs were skinny. Her legs were bowed in.”

The Hollands didn't know how and if their daughter would learn to walk.

“We were very concerned about that,” Annette Holland said. “It was just, ‘Look at her and when is she going to walk?'”

And still, Jim Holland recalls an almost innocence to those early parenting days. He knew his daughter was in “rough shape,” but Aimee was their first child so they didn't know the typical milestone dates. They were too busy singing to her in the jumper affixed to the door jam.

Jim would play guitar and they'd sing and Aimee would jump. For hours. Eventually, her legs got stronger.

But still, she never crawled. She had a sort of awkward scoot.

And then she walked.

And then she ran.

Man, did she run.

“It was just running around the backyard,” Jim Holland said. “She loved to run.”

It was soccer and basketball and anything the neighbor kids were playing.

But soccer stole her heart. She played year round. She adored it.

She only turned to running because, in the gym that spring day of freshman year, Courtemarche described track - his philosophy, how he builds a team, what the sport can be to so many different kinds of athletes.

“Honestly, he is the inspiration of why I turned to track,” she said.

But the coaches didn't know what she could do.

Turned out she could motor.

A natural athlete, she didn't find her niche race until a snafu her junior year ended up highlighting her talent - and her grit.

At the massive Dublin Distance Fiesta meet last spring, Holland missed her heat in the 800-meter race that would have squared her off with runners with similar times. Then she missed the next one. The only slot remaining was the fastest heat.

Now, a lot of things could have happened in that moment. She could have wilted, given herself the very real excuse of being out-gunned by faster, more experienced runners. Or she could have toed the line and flown.

“She ran it like a pro,” Joseph said. “The four girls who beat her were like state-bound girls.”

She ran a new personal best of 2:20 - trimming a whopping seven seconds off her previous best.

“She completely ran like she belonged. She is just a kid who rises to the occasion,” Joseph said. “It was classic Aimee. That is what she does. She is a badass.”

She ran her way to the Meet of Champions final last spring and right onto the radar of the coaches at Division II Winona State University in Minnesota, where she will run next fall.

“She is fast,” Joseph said. “She is just ... fast.”

But don't mistake natural gifts for lack of effort. Running, academics, life - those around Aimee Holland say she works her tail off in everything she does.

“She has natural speed but she works her butt off,” Courtemarche said. “She works to exhaustion. She never lets anything deter her. She goes full bore and she gets everything out of every workout. She is a dream to coach.”

She also sounds like a dream teammate. She's a team captain in both track and cross country and has twice been voted by her peers most inspirational teammate.

That may be the part that gets to Jim Holland when he watches his oldest child run. Not her speed, but the grit his daughter shows for it every time out.

“I have to admit - sometimes tears come to my eyes,” he said.

She kills it on the track but is the first and last person handing out high-fives to teammates and competitors.

She's a kid who still mourns the loss of soccer in her life, but is almost thankful for a life-changing injury that turned her on to running.

“In the moment, it was probably the worst thing ever, but looking back, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said.

And she is not ashamed or embarrassed or overwhelmed by looking back, but she says her beginning doesn't represent everything about her.

But sometimes, looking back and acknowledging the moments that have come before this one give the moments to come that much more meaning.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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