BIRMINGHAM, Mich. – When Audrey DaDamio crossed the finish line last fall at the Foot Locker Cross Country National Championship race, she had difficulty containing her emotions.
As one of the top girls cross country runners in Michigan, DaDamio capped her junior season that day in San Diego as a top 20 runner in the nation. Crossing the line in 18th place with a time of 17 minutes and 59.0 seconds, DaDamio proved she could compete with the nation’s best in a 5-kilometer race.
“I was kind of crying a little bit when I crossed the line,” DaDamio said. “It was just such a dream of mine.”
It was a major accomplishment that only few high school runners ever get to experience. However, DaDamio’s journey to that point was more extraordinary that most.
When DaDamio was in seventh grade and just beginning to tap into her talent, she suffered a knee injury that nearly ended her running career just as it was starting to take off. Instead of giving up, however, DaDamio spent over a year and a half in slow rehab and conditioning, allowing her to return in time to burst onto the scene as a freshman at Birmingham Seaholm.
Now a senior, DaDamio remains one of the nation’s best runners as her season-best 5k time of 17:16.4 ranks No. 3 in Michigan and top 40 in the United States, according to Athletic.net. So far this fall, she has six first-place finishes and just one runner-up finish.
“She’s super talented, but she has a really strong sense of resolve,” Seaholm coach Craig McCardell said. “When she sets her mind to something, she’s pretty bound and determined to try and make that happen.”
DaDamio began running competitively in fifth grade at St. Regis during the Catholic Youth Organization track season. The youngest of three children in a family of collegiate runners that spanned three generation, DaDamio’s older sister, Rachel DaDamio, was the 2014 Division 1 runner-up runner up at Seaholm.
“It was always the joke that Audrey would come and break everyone’s records,” Rachel said. “But that wasn’t really something that we were even thinking about. It was just kind of a joke.”
Not afraid to go for three or four-mile runs in fifth grade, running was no joke for little Audrey. Her talent did not take long to reveal itself as she became a dominant runner among her peers through the first year and a half of middle school. By the time she was in seventh grade, she claimed the CYO cross country individual title.
Then, everything changed for the worse a few months later while Audrey was out enjoying a day of sledding in February.
“It still baffles me that it happened,” Audrey said, recalling the day her running career ended.
After getting tossed from her sled, Audrey felt immediate pain in her knee. As bad as it hurt, however, she did not realize how serious the injury was.
“I ended up tearing my meniscus off my bone, so it was a little bit more severe than the typical meniscus tear,” Audrey said. “Obviously, it is definitely a weird thing for a 12-year-old.”
After getting evaluated by doctors, Audrey underwent successful surgery but suddenly faced a long road of recovery and rehabilitation if she was ever going to run competitively again.
With plenty of competitive running experience herself, Rachel knew her younger sister was facing a possible worst-case scenario.
“I honestly didn’t know if she was going to be able to run at a high level ever again,” Rachel said.
Audrey’s hopes for a strong seventh grade track season were dashed over the next few months. Then, eighth grade cross country season came and went without her being able to run. Eighth grade track season was a wash as well.
Initially hoping she would follow the best-case timeline of one year away from running, Audrey’s rehab took longer than expected.
“I definitely had a lot of ups and downs in recovery, but I had a lot of good help from teammates and my physical therapists and doctors,” Audrey said. “I was out for all of seventh grade track and then all of eighth grade … It was definitely a long road.”
When Audrey entered high school, she was able to join the Seaholm cross country team. While she was able to run, she was very limited in her training and did not compete right away.
It was difficult for Audrey to watch her teammates train at full capacity while she was only getting comfortable with running a handful of miles again. Starting from scratch, Audrey was initially restricted to alternating laps of running and walking on a 400-meter track – which is basically a quarter mile of running at a time. Even when Audrey was in fifth grade, that type of running was beneath her.
While the recovery was difficult physically, there were the mental challenges too. Used to being one of the best runners everywhere she went, Audrey had to watch her Seaholm teammates thrive in races and workouts.
“Once you’re clear to run, you just want to go back to 30 miles a week like you were doing, or however many,” DaDamio said. “But for the long term, it’s just really important to take it slow. It was really tough freshman year to see my teammates running a lot more miles than me. I’d have two or three (miles) and they’d have six. I would be going to spin class when they were all doing a workout. I just had to trust that the swimming miles and the biking miles and all that would add up with the stuff I was doing in the weight room.”
Through patience and dedication, Audrey discovered the benefits of cross training. In a quick amount of time, she had become a cross training master.
“She’s just really, really regimented to be in tune to her body and to avoid injury,” McCardell said. “If I had to talk to the one thing that makes her unique as a trainer, is she mixes up her training and takes the rest that’s necessary and she does not flirt with injury.”
Audrey’s first cross country race since seventh grade was on Sept. 30 of her freshman year, nearly two months after the high school season started.
She did not compete in the varsity race, getting a crack at competition against reserve runners from other teams. After not racing for nearly two years, Audrey came in first place by over a minute with a time of 19:53.99, which was good enough to be the fourth-fastest runner on her team that day.
Just like that, Audrey was back in the mix. After finishing all-region less than a month later, Audrey was a varsity member of the state-qualifying team that placed seventh overall, with Audrey crossing the line as Seaholm’s third runner in 62nd place with a time of 19:00.7.
As impressive as her times were in such a shortened freshman season, Audrey demolished those efforts as she continued to progress through her high school cross country and track seasons.
In her freshman track and field season, she qualified for the state championships in both the 1600 meter and 3200 meter runs. Her sophomore year, Audrey earned all-state honors in cross county and in the 1600 and 3200 runs in track. As a junior last year, she was fifth at states in cross country. Then, the coronavirus canceled her junior track and field season.
Audrey vs. Audrey
Now up to 35-42 miles per week while still implementing cross training, Audrey is performing at a level that is rarely ever witnessed by most high school coaches and teams.
At Seaholm, however, the last decade as been filled with juggernaut runners, including Audrey’s older sister, Rachel. However, the fastest of them all was a teammate of Rachel’s, and her name was Audrey Belf.
Not only is it rare for one team to have two girls capable of running under 17:20 in its entire history, Seaholm has had two in the last six years — and both are named Audrey.
“Having run with Audrey (Belf) for four years and then having the amazing teammates I did at Notre Dame … I see a lot of similarities between my sister and those girls,” Rachel said. “I think in terms of the whole Seaholm legacy, it’s the term iron sharpens iron, although she never ran with Audrey (Belf) or me.”
Belf’s school record in cross country is 17:02.8, a mark that was set back in 2013. This September, it appeared Audrey broke Belf’s record with a time of 16:52.8 in a race against Oxford. However, it was later determined the course was 133 meters short of a true 5k.
Despite the disappointment, Audrey remains optimistic about her chance to break the 17-minute barrier this season.
“I still think I can break 17 on a different course and hope that I’ll get the opportunity this season,” DaDamio said. “Definitely disappointing, but it’s just kind of another weird thing this year. This has been a very strange year with COVID and everything, so I just keep trying to stay positive about it and keep looking forward I guess.”
A Bright Future
Although Audrey will have the option to run on scholarship at whatever university she wants, she is keeping her options a secret. Aside from her eventual college decision, Audrey tries to avoid putting to much pressure on herself when it comes to running.
With her injury a thing of the past, Audrey is just grateful to be able to perform the way she has throughout her high school years.
“It just took a lot, but it also made me grateful for just being able to run because I know how it feels to not be able to do it for a long time,” Audrey said. “And having to find other things separate from running that made me happy.”
Also involved in Marching band and teaching religious education, Audrey said going through the injury helped her find more things to appreciate in life and she has plans to possibly go into healthcare.
The whole experience has helped her grow into a more well-rounded individual.
“She definitely knows that running is not everything,” Rachel said. “She has other things in her life that she is really excited about. I just think that’s so important because you never know what’s going to happen, where running will or won’t take you. She’s just a good level-headed person.”
Whether or not Audrey breaks Belf’s records or claims a state championship, McCardell also says there is so much more to Audrey, referring to her as the “alpha” of Seaholm’s team in performance and leadership.
With her sharp perspective, McCardell believes Audrey is the perfect leader.
“She’s just a joy to coach,” McCardell said. “And the one thing to me that makes her stand out that makes her so fun to coach is that she is genuinely a happy kid. A lot of these high performers are super intense, and that’s just not Audrey.
“Audrey is just a pleasure to be around and it’s a pleasure to have her around. I don’t think that comes around too often.”