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Ellensburg High School’s Gillian Canterbury competes in a 5000 meter cross country race Thursday at Rotary Park.

Gillian Canterbury knows life would be different if she hadn’t decided to join the Morgan Middle School cross country team.

Diagnosed with autism at a young age, running cross country has given her something to strive for year after year while gaining confidence and receiving ample support from the Ellensburg High School team.

“It really helped me get out of my comfort zone,” Canterbury said. “In the summer before my eighth grade year, I felt kind of shy around other people. And this helped me feel more confident around other people. If I hadn’t run in eighth grade, I wouldn’t have made these connections with these wonderful people than if I decided not to.”

Said her mother, Anna Scarlett: “I think it’s been good for her emotionally, it’s given her a lot of confidence. And early on, I think it was great for her socially because it threw her in a group of peers and it gave her a different way of interacting with people that she didn’t necessarily share classes with.”

And here Canterbury is five years later, running in her final races with Ellensburg. On Thursday at Rotary Park, she clocked a 5K time of 33:46 after her career-best at the Hole in the Wall Invitational on Oct. 12 where she ran a time of 31:25.

While she may not be the fastest, she’s achieved great strides from her freshman year when she couldn’t finish the course without stopping.

“Freshman year, I still couldn’t do it without stopping because it was still tricky,” Canterbury said. “But I did improve over time. When it came around to my sophomore year, I was able to run without stopping. I started out slower at first, but over time I began to improve. I was running slower at the time because it was my first time running without stopping and I really didn’t know how to pace myself at the time. But I got better over the season.”

Canterbury spent her first couple of years in the very back of races, but that never stopped her. Ellensburg head coach Jeff Hashimoto lauded her for her work and how meticulous she is when it comes to training.

“She’s just a really conscientious, positive kid and has been wonderful to have on the team,” Hashimoto said. “She works hard, she never complains, she always wants to make sure to do the workout properly, so if I’m telling them to do something, she’s like, ‘OK, exactly what route and what time,’ and so she does it, and she does a really good job.

“I think she’s really inspiring to a lot of kids. In a lot of years, she’s been at the back of races, you know, today she was ahead of some people. And that can be a hard thing to do, but it hasn’t seemed to discourage her. That takes a lot of strength of character.”

Even in those years where she would be the last to cross the finish line, the Ellensburg team cheered her on till the end.

One moment stood out in particular to Scarlett in Canterbury’s freshman year.

“One of my favorite all-time moments was when she was absolutely last and the entire varsity crew came out and made a tunnel with their arms for her to run through,” Scarlett said. “So, the sun was setting, and there she is running through all these girls clapping and waving and cheering. It was just heartwarming to see that inclusion.”

Running can be mentally tough at times when an individual lags behind in a race. Hashimoto makes it salient that his team cheers on not only their teammates but other runners from different schools.

“We’re all super supportive and I think makes us as good as we are,” said Ellensburg senior Madison Thompson. “We wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are today if we didn’t have the community that we do.”

Canterbury plans on attending Central Washington University next fall. And she’s going to keep on running.

“Yeah, I think I’ll continue to run for fun,” she said.

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