Sophia Stone is advanced for her age, and it shows.

At just 16 years old, she flew the nest a little early, skipping her last two years of high school to leave her hometown of Pacific Palisades, Calif., and attend Mary Baldwin College’s Program for the Exceptionally Gifted (PEG). She also joined the cross country team, which competes in Division III’s USA South Conference.

May Baldwin College runner Sophia Stone

Although the move to the East Coast to Staunton, Va., could have been a little daunting, the college’s program made it a little easier for Stone. PEG was established in 1985 and has 70 young women between the ages of 13 and 16 currently enrolled. PEG students live in a fully-supervised residence hall with their peers, while taking classes with the traditional student body.

“It looked really interesting and I thought it would be a good challenge academically for me,” Stone said. “I like being amongst older peers and love the college environment both academically and athletically. It has given me a lot of experiences I wouldn’t normally have. I never thought I would move all the way to Virginia for school, but I love it here.”

A double major in psychology and biology, Stone is excelling in the classroom with an almost perfect grade point average and is currently assisting with two research projects on campus.

“[PEG students] have our own advisor, and special privileges and responsibilities that are unique to PEG,” Stone said. “It provides a little more security for younger students, and a little bit more guidance and different kinds of support because it is difficult to go to college when you’re so young. You have to be ready in a lot of different areas. Once you turn 16 and have completed at least one year of school, then you’re free to live among other students on campus.”

In addition to her academic success, Stone is matching those accomplishments in her athletic pursuits. After running track and cross country for two years in high school, she was ready to try her luck at the collegiate level and contacted head coach and athletics director Sharon Spalding.

“I really wanted to continue running – it was my passion,” Stone said. “If I had gone to a larger school, I may not have had the opportunity to be on the cross country team.”

Spalding has coached PEG students in the past, and overseen several PEG students on other teams as the athletics director at the all-female institution.

“We’ve have some unique situations,” Spalding said.  “Once on the softball team we had a PEG student who was 15 and an adult-degree student in her late 30s.”

Spalding and her fellow MBC coaches are extra careful they are not pushing PEG students too much.

“That’s really important with runners, and even freshmen runners – you don’t want to overload them too much that first year,” Spalding said.

Stone’s first season was encouraging to Spalding and the coach was ready to push the young runner for her sophomore campaign. But Stone didn’t need too much of a push. She began a tougher training regimen on her own in the summer.

“I upped my mileage too much, and at the end of the summer I had plantar fasciitis [inflammation of tissues at bottom of the foot] and I couldn’t run for three weeks,” Stone said.  “I tried to bike to stay active, but I didn’t think I would run cross country this season.  My coach and trainer really helped me through that – they wouldn’t let me not join this year.”

In the Squirrels’ season-opening race in September, Stone picked up her first career victory. And, it was no fluke. Stone has finished first in six of seven races this year, including wins at the USA South Championship and the NCAA Division III South/Southeast Region Championship. Stone has set school records for the 5K and 6K this year, and claimed the USA South title with a course-record time. Her conference and regional times were almost a full two minutes faster than last season.

Nationals will only be the third time this year that she will compete in a tough race.
-- Mary Baldwin College coach Sharon Spalding speaking about Sophia Stone

“I didn’t think I would win any races, I just expected to improve my time and move up in the conference as a team,” Stone said. “When I started to win some, it was good, but I didn’t want to become overconfident. The point when I saw myself improving a lot was at the race in Salisbury, Md., where I placed second. Although I didn’t win, it was a really exciting race and I think I really pushed myself.”

The win at regionals qualified Stone for NCAA championships, which will be held Saturday at the Lake Breeze Golf Course in Winneconne, Wis. She also garnered U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Division III South/Southeast Women’s Athlete of the Year honors after the victory.

“I love running with competitive people – I think that pushes my limits,” Stone said.  “Whether or not I place or do well relative to other runners, it will test how fast I can run. I am better when sticking with someone else’s pace and there will be plenty of people in front of me that I can catch. I think that will be motivating, and the adrenaline and excitement of nationals will make everyone run faster.”

“All but two of the races she won by over a minute – only two were against really good competition,” Spalding said. “Nationals will only be the third time this year that she will compete in a tough race.”

Despite being the youngest runner on the team, Stone’s leadership skills have also been recognized. The 17-year-old Stone was named captain of the squad this season.

“No matter what year they are, her teammates look up to her,” Spalding said.  “She’s motivating to everybody.  When we finish a workout and she is ahead of everyone, she comes back and cheers on everyone, and the same thing with races.”

The model student-athlete, Stone aspires to continue balancing her two passions of science and running as a sports medicine physician. She plans to apply for medical school after finishing her undergraduate work at MBC.

“I want to work with other runners and do not want to see them injured and not know what to do,” Stone said. “I love everything about being an athlete, and I think it is important to love your career and do something that helps other people.”

“She is a very dedicated student and we see her studying all the time,” Spalding said.  “This should be her senior year of high school, and she’s doing well in all of her classes, she did research over the summer. Mary Baldwin is a unique place and she has some great opportunities to put some things on her resume. She’s a good example for our team – and she can tutor her teammates in calculus, too.”

Spalding nominated Stone for the Elite 89 award at the NCAA Division III Women’s Cross Country Championships.  The award is presented to the student-athlete with the highest cumulative grade-point average participating at the finals site for each of the NCAA’s 89 championships.