Grace and Lauren Ping are typical high school girls who want to have fun.
Desert Vista freshman Lauren and junior Grace find the most fun by finishing every race together in first and second place.
“This doesn’t mean to sound cocky in any way but we come in (No.) 1 and 2 in most of our races,” Lauren said. “That’s just the facts of it because that’s kind of what we do. We both want to win, so often that results in 1 and 2."
Because of their father's new Valley-based job opportunity as a financial advisor, the cross-country phenoms moved across the country this past summer from Cotter High School in their hometown Winona, Minnesota and transferred to Phoenix Desert Vista, one of Arizona's top boys and girls cross-country and track and field programs.
"From the team aspect, once we heard, there was a lot of excitement because of the high profile that the girls have had nationally, they’re well known," Desert Vista girls cross-country coach Michael Bucci said.
The Ping sisters are among the nation's fastest runners, who thrive on fun and their vitality, not sibling rivalry, to push each other.
The sisters proved that in the first meet of this season, the Desert Solstice 5K meet on Sept. 6 in Tucson, which Desert Vista won.
Lauren, 14, and Grace, 16, finished at the top two runners among 99. They clocked in at 17 minutes, 46 seconds and 18:13.35, respectively.
“In races, we just race. We don’t really think about another person," Grace said. "Obviously we have to, but we don’t think about, ‘I have to beat my sister’ or anyone.”
The Arizona Interscholastic Association transfer rules enabled them to hit the ground running to compete without an initial sit-out period.
"Because of the sensitivity to the process of transferring in, we were very quiet about that and wanted to respect the family," Bucci said. "We had taken it directly to the (Desert Vista) athletic director and their family to connect so that they go through the paperwork in the way it’s supposed to be handled by all the Arizona rules..."
There were a lot of reasons why they chose Desert Vista. The community, the academics, certainly the running program, and all of that combined. Then with social media and the way it is, we just had very discreet communication with the family. We waited to the proper time to announce it to our team and welcomed them in as family."
The Thunder girls team has won five Division I state championships, including three this decade in 2013, 2014, and 2016.
The Ping sisters join Desert Vista's supreme team with seniors Katy Clausen, Brooklyn Christofis and Madeline Shoemaker, juniors Olivia Thatcher, Quinn Boardman and Eve Boardman and new transfer Josephine Gregory from Pace, Florida.
“Where they rank in the state, certainly right at the top," Bucci said. "We’ve got a lot of talent here in Arizona like (Caroline) McCloskey out of (Gilbert) Highland is great, Katy Clausen on our team as well as Olivia Thatcher."
Neither Grace, 16, nor Lauren, 14, can remember the age when they began training with their parents Ryan and Megan Ping running on the street and competing in local 5Ks.
“Everyone learns to run at some point, right? Once we learned to run, we ran for fun and really liked to do it, so it’s turned into something that we still do for fun,” Lauren said. “It’s just more competitively and seriously."
Similar to Bruce Springsteen's memorable hit song, the Ping sisters' genetic makeup had them literally born to run and getting out fast while they're young.
Grace began to gain nationwide recognition at age 10 in April 2014 at St. Mary's Alumni Open in her hometown, notching the world age group record 5K performance of 18:02 and beat many college athletes and her own mother in the race.
She also won the Minnesota Class 1A title on her 5K personal record of 17:17.20 at the Nike Midwest Heartland Regional that same year.
The following year, Grace defeated then-junior top-ranked runner Judy Pendergast to win the Roy Griak Invitational Gold Division.
After another one-year family move to Park City, Utah in 2016 before moving back to Winona in 2016, Grace broke her P.R. in Portland by setting world age group record in the 5K on the track in Portland with a 16:25.63 time.
She received myriad accolades and titles since then including to Minnesota Class A individual state titles, a two-time All-America selection at Nike Cross Nationals, and represented the U.S. in March at the IAAF World U20 Cross Country Championships in Denmark March, coming in at No. 60.
Lauren has amassed her own list of achievements such as being a two-time Class A state runner-up in Minnesota and named a Nike Cross Nationals All-American as seventh and eighth grader at Cotter.
The biggest adjustments for the Pings to Arizona was joining Desert Vista 12 weeks into the team's training scheduled during the summer heatwave. They had to wake up at 4:15 a.m. four to five days during the week to begin practice by 5 a.m. and an evening run at dusk.
The Desert Vista coaching staff has been working with the sisters' previous coaches at Cotter to help them get accustomed to the change.
“The summers in Minnesota are super humid, so it actually feels a little bit better (in the Phoenix area) a lot of the time, but the early mornings were definitely something to get used to,” Grace said.
Plus, Grace has been sidelined by a sacrum injury since Desert Solstice and is rehabilitating to be available for their upcoming meets in late October, mid-November and December.
Sept. 27, 2019; Desert Vista cross-country runner Lauren Ping finish line at Nike Desert Twilight Cross Country meet in Case Grande, Ariz. (Photo: Michael Bucci/Desert Vista High School)
Since then, Lauren has been proving there's nothing wrong with second place for the Ping sisters. She ended in second in two consecutive meets September, setting two new PRs for herself at 16:49.08 in the three-mile race at Woodbridge High School Cross-Country Classic (Calif.) on Sept. 21 and 16:49.13 at the Nike Desert Twilight 5K race on Sept. 27 in Casa Grande, Arizona.
“We’re always doing our best," Grace said. "If we do our best and we don’t get (first), then there’s nothing more we could’ve done. There’s no disappointment in doing your best.”
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