DONNA — When Joselyne Gonzalez and Gloria Venegas-Villegas began their high school cross-country careers as freshmen at Donna North, they weren’t sure where it would lead them.
But after four years of perseverance, the Chiefs’ senior duo left their mark on the Rio Grande Valley’s sports scene and became trailblazers, as the Donna North teammates signed national letters of intent side by side Thursday afternoon at Donna North High School to run collegiately at Texas Wesleyan in Fort Worth.
“(This day) is so emotional. I saw all my friends sign and now it’s my turn. It feels kind of weird to be here and know that I really did it,” Venegas-Villegas said. “I actually thought it was going to be virtual, but I’m so happy that it’s actually here at school.”
It was a historic day for the Donna North duo. Gonzalez and Venegas-Villegas were the only two runners in the Chiefs cross-country program to compete all four years together in high school and became the first female distance runners to accept full athletic scholarships to compete at the collegiate level.
“I never thought I would get an opportunity like this,” Gonzalez said. “At times, you think differently when you’re alone. But when you’re with a friend, you can get comfortable with everybody else. I’m glad that Gloria is with me and that she got the same scholarship (offer).
“We’ve always had each other’s back. We were never going to leave each other.”
Gonzalez and Venegas-Villegas were unable to compete last spring after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted track and field season across Texas.
Neither were deterred, however, and both trained relentlessly on their own throughout the spring and summer in hopes they would be able to return to competition in time for their senior year.
Their persistence paid off as Gonzalez and Venegas-Villegas helped the Donna North girls cross-country squad take home first-place trophies in two out of three regular-season meets and set an example for their younger teammates.
“It felt really good (to compete again). We were really disappointed that we didn’t get to show off our hard work during track season,” Gonzalez said. “But with the pandemic happening and not being able to practice, we still worked hard. … We might not have been able to show them during track (season), but we were determined to show them in cross-country. That’s what we did … and we proved to those other girls that they can do it too.”
Venegas-Villegas prides herself on her endurance honed during some of the most grueling races available for her to compete in. She specialized in the half marathon while at Donna North but has also thrived in ultra-marathon races competing in both a 50-mile race and a 55-hour relay.
“I’m more of a long-distance runner,” Venegas-Villegas said. “When I was a freshman at 14, they were talking about this race that was 55 hours and it was a relay. At first, I was scared, but I ended up doing it and it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I’d go back there any time and do it again.
“I just want to go up there and accomplish more. My goal there is to become a half-marathon All-American.”
Gonzalez, meanwhile, thrived at Donna North, running various events but performed especially well in the 1-mile, 2-mile and 5-kilometer races.
“Overall, you can never be comfortable. You’ve always got to push,” Gonzalez said. “For every little mark of a mile, you push a little bit more. Then once you hit that last mile, you’ve got to really push and give it your all. You have to leave it all on the cross-country race. You should (feel) dead at the end of every race. That’s how you know you’ve put that hard work in at every practice and you showed how hard you competed.”
Both Venegas-Villegas and Gonzalez hope to return to the Rio Grande Valley after their college days and pay it forward by becoming cross-country coaches in the Valley, preferably coaching up the next generation of Donna North track stars.
“We did not think we would get this opportunity during this pandemic. We thought we would just have to apply to colleges and hope for the best,” Gonzalez said. “Our coach told us, ‘Just keep working hard and they’ll notice you.’ We trusted him and it all worked out. We’re so excited to be here.”
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