McLain sisters carry on 'legendary' family legacy
Maddie and Olivia McLain hear the question all the time.
They hear it after cross country races and after track meets.
Usually it comes from people they don't even know, people who remember the previous generation of great Pennsylvania runners.
"Are you related to Donna McLain?"
They are. The Eastern York sisters are the nieces of Donna McLain, now Donna McLain Vitacco, a 1980 Eastern graduate and the school's most-decorated athlete.
Maddie, a junior, and Olivia, a sophomore, are already making a name for themselves, though, and they're looking to add to the family legacy at the YAIAA championships Tuesday.
The McLain name can be found many times throughout Eastern York's weight room on the plaques commemorating the school's top athletes. Maddie has a couple plaques up there already for her YAIAA titles in the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs last spring.
An entire section of one wall holds Donna's plaques.
"She’s kind of a legend,” said Eastern York cross country and track coach Joel Jacobs, a 1987 Spring Grove graduate. “Everybody in York County knew of Donna McLain."
Vitacco won 14 York County gold medals in four years of track and three years of cross country. She won the District 3 title in the 1-mile and 2-mile in each of her four years of track, and she won the district cross country titles after picking up the sport her sophomore year. She also won seven state championships: one in cross country and six in track. Along the way she set state meet records in the 1-mile and 2-mile that stood for more than two decades.
“Nobody was close; there was nobody within shouting distance," recalled longtime runner Greg Cauller, who is now Northeastern's coach. "As soon as a race started, Donna was gone. She crushed everybody.”
Her success continued even at the national level. She won national AAU cross country titles her junior and senior years. She went on to run on scholarship at the University of Tennessee, before returning to Eastern York as a coach from 1989 to 2010.
“We knew when we started running as little kids that she was really good," Maddie McLain said of her aunt. "We just didn’t have the perspective until we got into middle school and started cross country. Then we realized, ‘Wow, she was really fast.’”
The McLain sisters are plenty fast themselves, and they both have ambitions of continuing their cross country careers at the college level. They run together year-round, attend camps together, and started weight training together last summer to increase their stamina.
Maddie qualified for states her freshman and sophomore years, winning a 16th-place medal last year. This year, she blew past the competition in every YAIAA meet and broke multiple course records, including a 30-year-old record at Eastern York's home course at Sam Lewis State Park. She has her sights set on winning the YAIAA title on Tuesday in Gettysburg, after placing second last season.
“She’s very dedicated to her running," Vitacco said. "She has a nice stride. I must say, when she runs it looks effortless.”
Olivia's young career includes several second-place finishes to her sister, and a sixth-place finish at last year's league meet. She qualified for states last season after a personal record run of 19 minutes, 48 seconds.
“I’m hoping some day I can be as fast as (Maddie)," Olivia said. "I always have someone to look up to and realize what I should be doing.”
Together, they've led the Golden Knights to a 35-5 record in dual meets the last two seasons.
"Aunt Donna" comes by to watch her nieces run the big postseason meets and the occasional dual meet, but she rarely gets involved in their training. She leaves that to the coaches and to their father, her younger brother, Tim, a successful Eastern York runner in his own right.
Training for distance running has become much more complicated than it was in the late '70s and early '80s, when preparing for races simply meant running for as long and as far as possible. Today's version of training is more scientific, but the abilities that made Vitacco the best runner in the state are the same one that make her nieces two of the best in the area.
"I ran everyday and I was very dedicated to it," Vitacco said. "I enjoyed it, it was fun, but I wasn't obsessed with it. There was pressure on me, but I didn’t put a lot of pressure on myself. I hope I run my PR, or whatever my goal was for myself.’”
Maddie and Olivia said they mostly feel the same way. They enjoy running, and train well beyond what their coaches demand, but they still ski and snowboard in the winter and focus on school.
The McLain name alone creates big expectations, and Maddie's putting pressure on herself to win a YAIAA title, District 3 title and place in the top 10 at the state meet.
“The top kids at the district and state levels are really good," Cauller said. "To be as good as Maddie is, you have to be that much better than the people that are working just as hard as you. It’s a testament to determination and high standards she set for herself, and Donna was the same way.”
YAIAA Cross Country Championships
Who: All 21 YAIAA girls' and boys' cross country teams
When: 4 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Gettysburg High School