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Faith drives Crusader to victories

Keswick Christian's Christa Benton attributes her highly successful high school career to God-given ability.

By BOB PUTNAM

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 23, 2001


Today, Christa Benton will travel to Orlando to accept her award as the Florida Athletic Coaches Association's female cross country runner of the year.

She will receive a trophy, her list of accomplishments will be read and the crowd will politely applaud. But there will be no big acceptance speech. Instead, Benton will smile, give thanks and point triumphantly to the heavens.

Though Benton is the state's biggest high school cross country sensation and is looked up to by many, she is preoccupied with praising a truly supreme being.

"I give all glory to God," she said. "He makes all things possible."

It is a mantra that might have borne repeating throughout her high school career, which recently ended with her graduation from Keswick Christian.

She is one of four girls in Florida to have won three state cross country titles. In addition, she has won two state titles in track in the 3,200 meters.

Benton trains hard and displays incredible endurance, appearing to be fully recovered seconds after running a long race while others are gasping for air.

But to those closest to her, the reason she stands out in the world of running is she is truly blessed.

"To Christa, it's not just the arm of flesh. It's God working through her," said her mother, Janae. "That is who she relies on to receive her strength. And he has given her a gift.

"That's what makes her feel humble toward her achievements. There's nothing to stand up and boast about when you're giving glory to him."

Benton's faith goes back many years but was tested early. When she was in fifth grade, her father, Rodney, had lymphoma that was in remission but reappeared in more aggressive stages.

The cancer started to attack his abdominal area, and his kidneys started to fail.

Rodney spent time in a nursing home before the family decided to bring him home for his final days. He died at home.

"Faith grows onward. And it was always strong, even during that time," Janae said. "It's always hard when a child loses a parent, and it's very traumatic to do so at an early age. It was a real trying time, but Christa faced it pretty well."

During that time, Benton developed a passion for her first love: music. She was testing various instruments and auditioned in front of her father. He said his favorite was the oboe.

Although she has learned to play seven instruments, Benton remembered her father's favorite and will concentrate on the oboe when she enrolls at South Florida in the fall.

Faith also has guided Benton along her unlikely path to cross country prominence.

She didn't start running until eighth grade, but it became apparent she was no ordinary runner after she won her first competitive race and finished the 3-mile course in 19 minutes, 45 seconds.

Soon, she started to break farther away from the pack. Her big leads sometimes became a hindrance early in her career, when she would get lost on unfamiliar courses. So she started scouting each course. If she continued to get lost, she always knew where she could turn.

"Somehow, the Lord was always going to work things out and show me where to go," Benton said.

Once she was on the right path, there was no stopping her.

She won almost every high school race she entered, and her long, wavy hair she tied into a ponytail soon became a guidepost for other runners, the only marker they had to determine how far she was ahead of them.

Her faith has shown her how to make commitments, and she always has stayed the course. During the winter, Benton had a chance to go to Vancouver to run in an international race.

She declined because she had committed to perform a solo as part of an ensemble, for which she received a superior rating.

In the spring, Benton was among a group of musicians from school invited to play at Carnegie Hall. Benton decided to stay here because it would have conflicted with her running in the Bay Conference track meet.

"She always has a lot of people depending on her, and there are a lot of choices and sacrifices she makes," Janae said. "She always seems to stick to the plan."

Benton is as grounded and solid as a redwood, and she has emerged as a quiet leader who exudes maturity.

"She's an inspiration to everybody," Keswick coach Lance Lipham said. "Her teammates see her run hard and never complain, so they try harder in practice. They want to emulate her."

Her award today officially ends her high school career. For Lipham, who will be in Orlando, it's tough to see her go.

"God only gives you a Christa Benton once in a lifetime," he said.

CHRISTA BENTON THROUGH THE YEARS

NOV. 13, 1997: Benton beats Northside Christian's Erin Giesa at the Class 2A, District 5 cross country meet, her second win over her rival in four races.

NOV. 22, 1997: Giesa gets revenge and beats Benton by 10 seconds to win the Class 2A state cross country title.

MAY 9, 1998: At the Class 2A state track meet in Gainesville, Benton wins the 3,200 meters for her first state title. She finishes second in the 1,600.

NOV. 21, 1998: Benton, who swept Giesa during the regular season, beats her rival for the final time at the 2A state meet. It is Benton's first state cross country crown. She also sets a course record (17 minutes, 59.53 seconds), which lasts only two hours. Gainesville Eastside's Hilary White wins Class 4A in 17:25.

MAY 7, 1999: Benton is held up on Interstate 75 by a wreck and shows up a few minutes before the 3,200 at the 2A state track meet in Gainesville. She finishes eighth and loses her state title to Giesa, a senior who wins in 11:33.49. SEPT. 23, 1999: At the Rebel Invitational, Benton laps the girls field and wins the race in 17:59. Her time is faster than 80 percent of the boys field.

NOV. 20, 1999: Benton repeats as state champion in cross country, winning in 17:50. Her time is the fourth fastest since girls began running 3 miles in 1997. Her teammates celebrate by tossing her into the Atlantic Ocean once they return to their hotel.

NOV. 27, 1999: By finishing sixth at the South Regional meet in Charlotte, N.C., Benton is one of three girls from Florida to qualify for the national cross country championships.

DEC. 11, 1999: At the national championships, Benton finishes 25th, the highest finish of any Florida runner male or female. She beats White for the first time in her career and covers the race in 17:58.9, making her the only girls runner in the state to break 18 minutes.

MAY, 5, 2000: Benton wins the state track title in the 3,200 and breaks the Class A record by finishing in 11:18.11.

MAY 27, 2000: Benton finishes second in the 3,000 meters at the Golden South Invitational in Orlando.

SEPT. 16, 2000: Holding off Fort Myers Cypress Lakes' Jill Gerber at the finish, Benton wins the USF/Jesuit Cross Country Invitational for the first time in her career. Her time of 17:38.60 is 36 one-hundredths of a second better than Gerber.

NOV. 11, 2000: At the Class A region meet, Benton becomes the first Florida girl to run a sub-17 minute 3-mile (16:55).

NOV. 18, 2000: Benton wins the Class A state cross country title and becomes just the fourth girl to win three state titles. Her time of 17:25.74 is the fastest of any girl in all classifications, but she does not break White's 1998 record of 17:25.33.

NOV. 25, 2000: Benton wins the Foot Locker Southeast Regional in 17:56, the only runner to finish the 5-kilometer course in less than 18 minutes and the first Florida girl to win in the 22-year history of the event.

DEC. 9, 2000: In the only cross country race she does not win during her senior year, Benton finishes 12th at the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships National Finals in 17:42.

MAY 4, 2001: Benton sets personal records in the 1,600 (5:15) and 3,200 (11:11) at the Class A state track meet but finishes third and second, respectively, in the events.

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