Jenna Mulhern was a swimmer who was looking for a way to stay in shape when she wasn’t in the pool.
The West Chester native thought she might give cross-country a try when she was in seventh grade, thinking that it might keep her legs strong and cardio fine-tuned for when she got back into the water. Little did she know then that running would become more than a conditioning routine.
It became her passion.
"I fell in love with it,” said Mulhern, a freshman at West Chester Henderson. “It quickly developed into something I enjoyed doing more than I enjoyed swimming.”
Mulhern’s success on land developed quickly, too. She shocked veteran cross-country runners in the fall by winning girls’ championships at the Ches-Mont League (18 minutes, 32.3 seconds) and District 1 (17:41.40) races. Then she blasted past all 228 rivals at November’s PIAA Class 3A cross-country championship to win in 18:42.
State College senior Kileigh Kane was second in 18:55 at the state race, and West Chester East junior Allyson Clarke was third in 19:05.
“Obviously, she works hard in cross-country, but she also has natural talent for it,” said Henderson coach Kevin Kelly, who has known Mulhern since her days as a middle-school swimmer. “She’s pretty single-minded. She came into the season with some goals, and she worked hard in order to reach them.”
Mulhern’s early success is rare. She is the first freshman since Pennsbury’s Sara Sargent, in 2009, to win the Class 3A state cross-country championship and the first Henderson girl to win a cross-country state title since Kim Saddic in 1987.
And there is more. Thanks to her historic high school cross-country season, Mulhern became the first Henderson girl ever to qualify for the Nike Cross Nationals. She placed 44th in 18:01.3 in Portland, Ore., in December. Katelyn Tuohy of New York won in 16:37.8.
“I never thought I’d accomplish as much as I did this season," Mulhern said. "I never thought I’d become a state champ. But it’s so amazing and encouraging. I have so many goals, and I just want to keep working to see how much better I can become.”
Mulhern was part of an impressive Henderson girls’ cross-country team. The Warriors won the Ches-Mont League title, were second to Central Bucks West in District 1, and finished second to North Allegheny in the Class 3A team standings at the state championships.
Three of Mulhern’s teammates finished among the top 33 individuals at the state meet. Senior Courtney Kitchen was 19th in 19:53. Senior Courtney Alexander was 21st in 19:59, and junior Emma Teneza was 33rd in 20:18.
Three other runners were among the top 168 in the state race: Junior Megan Baker (21:18) was 117th, junior Allie Lister (21:49) was 149th, and sophomore Liesl Scherrer (22:03) was 168th.
“My team and coach are amazing," said Mulhern, who races with many of the same girls on the spring track team. "I couldn’t have done all of this without them. We spend so much time together as a team, working hard and getting through tough workouts together, so we’ve become really close. You can’t do it alone.”
Mulhern’s goals for the spring track season, she said, are getting through the 3,200-meter run in 10:30 and breaking 5:00 in the mile.
After high school, Mulhern said she wants to run in college. As for swimming, well, that might be nice for vacation.