Always at Her Best

In a world where hyperbole seems the order of the day, what you’re about to read is anything but.
There’ll be no inflated numbers or fabricated stats. No spin, either. Just the truth. Nothing but the truth.
 
As a Collegiate School junior, Carter Hamill Backus, class of 2001, won both the VISAA and League of Independent Schools cross country titles. Then, in the three athletic seasons of her senior year, she entered eight championship races and won them all.
 
Her ascendance into the world of elite runners occurred on a beautiful autumn afternoon in 1999. A relative unknown outside the community of her team, Carter that day found herself closing fast on the lead runner in the final stretch of the state cross country meet on Woodberry Forest’s challenging 5K course.
 
By design, she had run the first part of the race with her head: aggressively but under control. She had kept contact with the leaders but had not yet played her hand. She was a competitor. She knew how to race. She knew how to finish.
 
When she crossed a paved road 1,000 meters from the end, she was in fourth place and running with her heart. As her excited teammates and coaches raced about, cheering, encouraging, and anticipating the golden moment that was unfolding before them, Carter ran – the word “eloquently” came to mind then and does to this day – as if on the mission of her life.
 
Two-hundred meters out, now in second with only flat terrain remaining, she made her move. Step by step, she reeled in Mary Hogan of Paul VI, who a week earlier had won the state Catholic League title. Victory was in sight. Yet – amazing as it now seems – Carter had her doubts.
 
“As I was inching up on the girl in front of me,” she recalled recently, “I was thinking, ‘Am I supposed to do this? Is this OK? I’m not supposed to be here.’”
 
Yet she was – absolutely – and her victory that day in 19:58 was the first giant step in a fantastic journey that culminated with her well-deserved induction into Collegiate’s Athletic Hall of Fame this past January 11.
 
“All the pieces came together those two years,” she said. “I was surrounded by supportive teammates and coaches. The team aspect meant so much. The wins were just icing on the cake.”
 
Though she had run cross country since seventh grade, Carter did not earn a varsity letter until her sophomore season or win a race until her junior year when she added the LIS title to her résumé a week after her state meet victory and led the Cougars to the team title in both championship races.
 
By the next year, every top runner knew who she was and competed to beat her. Despite the challenge of now being in everyone’s sights and of a foot injury that sidelined her for a month early in the fall, she responded by repeating her cross country titles, winning the 1600 and 3200 in the LIS indoor meet, and finishing first at the two distances in both the league and state championship competitions outdoors.
 
She ran personal bests of 5:12.30 in the 1600 and 11:43.57 in the 3200, the latter in the final race of her high school career. Her 1600 mark was third fastest in Central Virginia in 2001. Her 3200 mark was fourth fastest. Twice, she was named to the Richmond Times-Dispatch All-Metro cross country team.

“Something happened the summer before our junior year: Carter got fast. Really fast,” said Rachel Burgess, her Collegiate classmate and teammate. “There was no talk about it in advance. When asked what happened, she just said she ran a lot over the summer. Out of the gate that season, she started winning races. While we were upperclassmen and leaders, she became the true leader of the team. She was dedicated, disciplined, quiet, and kind. She led by example.

“The team was tight, and people loved to run. An individual sport was no longer individual. But more than that, I just wanted to watch Carter run. It seemed effortless and tireless. And while I’d come in a good five-to-seven minutes later, she’d be there cheering with a big smile because that’s who she was. She never sought attention, but she knew she was good and she strove to do better. She had quiet determination, and that made all of us want to come alongside her, cheer her on, and do better ourselves.”

Throughout the early part of her Collegiate career, Carter was a one-season runner. Swimming and lacrosse were her other sports of choice. With her success in the fall of ‘99, she cast her lot with the distance contingent.
 
“Some of my best memories of high school revolved around track and running, whether it was practices or meets,” she said. “I loved track: the precision of it and the team aspect.”
 
The downside of achievement, especially quantum-leap achievement, is the expectation that that achievement will continue. Managing the dynamic is often a delicate balance, even with the most mindful and intentional thinking. As she always did, Carter "found a way."
 
“Any pressure (to win) came from myself,” she said. “My coaches and teammates were always so supportive whether I raced well or wasn’t at my best. Anything was fine. It was the effort that I put forth…all those good life lessons.”
 
The lessons didn’t end on North Mooreland Road.
 
As Carter’s times improved, she began to entertain in earnest the idea of running in college.
 
“I started casually talking to coaches,” she said. “The momentum built from there. Their interest made me feel confident that I could do this. By this time, I couldn’t imagine stopping. It was just so part of me.”
 
Carter selected Amherst College, a Division III signatory located in Massachusetts and a member of the very competitive New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC). To say that she continued her success is an understatement.

From 2001 through 2005, she was a force at the national level. Her dedication, competitive spirit, sportsmanship, and humility earned her the respect not only of the Amherst faithful but of athletes and coaches throughout the Division III world.
 
During her four years – 12 athletic seasons – competing under the guidance of Coach Erik “Ned” Nedeau, she earned 18 – yes, 18 – All-American citations which included five national championships, thrice over 5,000 meters indoors and twice over 10,000 meters outdoors.
 
She ran personal best times of 16:32 at 5,000 meters and 33:45 at 10,000.
 
“Carter was, without a doubt, the most consistent athlete I have ever worked with,” said Nedeau, a five-time Division I All-American at Northeastern and a world-class distance runner during his competitive career. “She was always at her best when the meets were the biggest and the stakes were the highest.
 
“She worked very hard every day. She took nothing for granted and always did what it took to get better. This set the tone for the other members of the team. She was fierce and determined when she raced and trained yet quiet and subdued when she wasn't, to the extent people would have no idea what she was capable of when she changed from her jeans into her running gear.
 
“She is a remarkable woman and did so many incredible things on the track, cross country course, and classroom. I am honored to have been a part of that journey.”
 
Almost fourteen years have passed since Memorial Day weekend of 2005 when Carter ran her last collegiate race at the spring nationals at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.   She now lives in New York City with her husband Brad Backus and their daughters Beau and Brooke. She runs still – mainly for fitness, relaxation, and reflection – mostly around Central Park. Occasionally, she enters a 5K or 10K, just for fun.
 
So how does she put her prodigious achievements – her athletic and personal excellence – in perspective?
 
“Time is so helpful,” she said. “It (the experience) kind of marinates in your head. I think I appreciate it so much more now: all the work that went into it and all the people who cared so much to make it a reality. It’s amazing. It’s something I hold very dear.”
 
 
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