Moments That Changed Wolverine History: Part Four of a 12-Part Series Looking Back at Events Which Changed the Landscape of Woodruff Athletics
By Garrett Mitchell, Staff Writer
Maggie Rhodes emerged from the backstretch into the view of spectators lining the race course at the South Carolina Equine Park in Camden during last fall’s state championship cross country meet, laboring noticeable as she made her final push to the finish line.
Closing fast was Chapman’s Emma Whittaker and as the gap narrowed to a razor thin margin, Rhodes made one final, painful push to the finish line, lurching across the tape just mere seconds in front of Whittaker before collapsing both out of relief and exhaustion.
For Rhodes, who has spent the past six years as the star runner of the Woodruff High School cross country team, it was her fourth consecutive state championship. She had won every title since her eighth-grade year, and despite painful shin splints, was not going to be denied this time.
It was yet another hallmark moment in a transcendent career that has seen Rhodes become the most decorated individual athlete in school history. Running towards the record books since she was just a young girl, she has etched her name among the pantheon of cross-country greats in the state of South Carolina.
It is history still in the making and has been for a very long time.
“When I was in second grade, I participated in a Woodruff Stone Soup Storytelling Festival run and I did really well and beat my sister,” recalled Rhodes. “I ran the whole time and I talked to Coach (Steve) Ramey after and he told me about the cross country team. I think that’s when I realized that I would be a runner.”
It was not long before Rhodes was running all the time, even as a second grader hanging out with high school runners more than twice her age. She was not intimidated then, nor has she ever backed down from a challenge. It is a trademark that has defined her career as a runner.
“I started training with the team, just like coming to summer practice and running with the girls a little bit but not actually against them because I couldn’t yet because of the age limit rules,” said Rhodes. “I have been running with the cross country team in some way since the summer going into third grade.”
Biding her time and honing her craft, Rhodes was able to officially join the varsity cross country team during her first season of eligibility. In the seventh grade and only 12 years old, she was named the lead runner on the girls’ team.
Rhodes ran well that season, with high finishes in both the county and state championship meets. The next year, as an eighth grader, Maggie broke through as the 2016 2A individual state champion.
“I always wanted to win state at some point, but I always thought it would happen my junior or senior year,” Rhodes admitted. “I really was just running to get better and I had no idea I would win state that year. That has always been a goal since seventh grade. I was really shocked that I won but after that the pressure just kept building every year to win again.”
Every year, pressure aside, Rhodes has risen to the challenge.
Each season, new competitors emerge and fresh rivals have challenged Rhodes at every turn. Maggie concedes that it is a constant battle against herself, the elements, and the runners around her in a state rich with cross country talent.
“It’s constant,” she said. “In my head I think, I have state coming up. Am I going to skip this workout or am I going to go outside and run? It’s always in the back of my mind because each year is different. Some years are easier than others to win but last year was very hard. It’s different circumstances.”
As her career has evolved, so have Rhodes’ goals. For Maggie, there is much more to running than just winning championships. She has done that many times over. For herself, she is always striving for something greater.
“With each (championship) it shows me that state isn’t everything and it gives me different goals related to different races,” she said. “Time goals, and goals not even related to running, just life goals, too. Having different goals gives you a different perspective on life.”
Rhodes is more than just a cross country runner, too. During the spring, as a distance runner on the Woodruff High track and field team, Maggie has won three individual titles in the 3,200-meter race and once in the 1,600-meter event.
Between cross country and track, Rhodes has won eight state championships in a career that is still ongoing. That staggering amount of championships ensures Rhodes will graduate as the most honored individual athlete in the history of Woodruff High School with twice as many gold medals as any other, in any sport, in school history.
It is immortality happening live in front of everyone who lines a course or track to watch Rhodes run.
In such a career heaped in greatness, however, there are moments that stand out as favorites.
“When I won cross country last year, that was a really important one because it was such a close race and it showed me what I could do even though I was injured,” she said.
Rhodes’ personal best race time is 18 minutes 45 seconds, ran at the state championship meet her sophomore season in 2017, as she captured her third consecutive championship and second since Woodruff moved back to the 3A ranks.
Years of training and running have taken their toll, however. Battling debilitating shin splints since last year, Rhodes has also spent time in a walking boot this season due to a stress fracture. Chapman’s Whittaker bested Rhodes in several races, and Maggie understands that winning a fifth state championship presents a monumental challenge. Still, nobody will ever underestimate Rhodes’ will to win and defy the odds.
After all, she has done it since she was seven years old.
“I know I still have to train hard,” she said. “It isn’t going to be easy and that’s ok. It doesn’t need to be. I am working to get healthy and focus on my running style.”
The gym at Woodruff High School has been described as a living museum to one of South Carolina’s greatest high school athletic programs. There are dozens of photos representing championship teams spanning across decades. There are also hundreds of plaques inscribed with the names of past athletic stars and their various accomplishments.
Among those plaques are those with the names of several hundred athletes who have been immortalized in the Woodruff High School Athletic Hall of Fame. If you look at those markers, one sport is conspicuously absent.
Whether or not Rhodes wins a fifth championship this fall, or adds to her track and field accolades in the spring, does not predicate her place among the greats. Rhodes has already planted that flag at the top of the mountain.
Perhaps reaching the pinnacle is easier than remaining there, but it should be a forgone conclusion, and rightly so, that Rhodes will be the first Hall of Fame electee on behalf of Woodruff cross country when her requisite five-year post-graduation waiting period has passed.
“It really is unbelievable,” said Woodruff cross country coach Ty Skinner. “Sit back and think about it, the amount of work it takes to get to the top of the mountain one time and to continually do it across multiple seasons and sports. When it’s all said and done and Maggie’s time is done here, however long we are talking about it, her name will have to be in the conversation as the most driven and successful athlete we have ever had at Woodruff.”
And yet, added Skinner, Rhodes remains the humble superstar. In fact, said Skinner, you may not even be able to pick Maggie out of a crowd if you did not already know her.
“Maggie is special,” Skinner said. “I say that all the time but it’s not just cliché. When you coach long enough you have great athletes from year to year, you have special athletes, but you don’t have many who have the mental makeup or that remain humble the way Maggie does. She’s so unassuming. If you came out and watched us practice and I told you that we had a four-time state champion out there, you would probably have a hard time picking her out of a crowd. That is just another aspect, at least in my mind, of what makes her so special.”
Anonymity is usually hard to achieve for decorated athletes, but if Maggie Rhodes never lived one second in the limelight, that would be just fine with her. She will always be remembered for what she has done on the race course, but if it were up to her, Rhodes would prefer to be remembered for how she prepared the Woodruff cross country program for success even after she graduates.
Born to run, yes, but Rhodes was also born to lead. She continues to succeed overwhelmingly at both.
“I want our younger runners to know, especially the ladies, that even if you are a lady you can still win,” said Rhodes. “Do whatever you think is important. God gave me this gift and I work hard because he gave me this gift. I want to show our younger runners that if they push themselves, not just running, but in every aspect of life, they can be successful if they work hard for it too.”