FORT BENNING, Ga., (Dec. 11, 2013) -- The top male and female runners at Columbus High School, senior Bo Bridges and junior Raja Gonzalez, weren't always the best runners at their school, but their teammates and rivals helped them to succeed.

For Raja, a military Family member, her mom signed her up for 5K runs beginning in third grade. She won many of her races, she said. By sixth grade, she had joined the cross-country team where she placed third at her school. She became good enough that in eighth grade, she won all of her local meets for Faith Middle School.

Bo also ran in elementary school. He said in middle school, he played most sports, including track, but it wasn't until seventh grade that a friend introduced him to cross-country running. By eighth grade, he was the fastest distance runner at his school, he said.

However, their paths to first place were different. Raja started out in fifth on her high school team as a freshman, she said. In her sophomore year, she had progressed into becoming the school's top female runner.

"I'm very competitive and so the fact that we had a state champion on our team made (me) really goal-oriented," she said about wanting to prove herself as a freshman.

Bo wasn't sure of his path but loved running and hanging out with his teammates, he said.

Although he never considered himself to be a fast runner, he said in his junior year he realized there was only one person faster than he was. By the end of the season he was first in his school, and at the state championship he finished in 26th place overall.

"Growing from freshman year (and) having that group of people who were always supportive of you … by them running faster than you and seeing how great they were --it kind of made me want to do well," Bo said.

Competition is key, both said.

"It's hard to motivate yourself without picking out someone to run against," he said. "Because if you are just looking at the clock and running, it can get depressing."

Bo said he often picks out those who are a bit faster than him.

Raja said although her teammates help her stay competitive, she also looks at other schools for motivation.

"Without having people on your own team who aren't … a lot faster than you, it's hard to (stay competitive)," she said. "And for me as a junior and not really having that, it's more like friendly rivalries with people from other teams."

"I have to make myself go for a place and a time in the race that I think is doable but that I also really want to get," Bo said about this year's state championship. "I didn't care about what my time was … I just wanted to get that medal and get up there on the podium for top 10."

Although the team has kept the school the city champions for several years, this year they didn't do as well at the state championship. Bo said it was because he was not as mentally and physically prepared as he wanted to be.

Raja felt the same. She said, she felt more in shape for soccer versus running. She said she felt she didn't do as well at state this year either.

Nonetheless, both said the closeness with their teammates helps keep them going.

"Whenever we go to invitational meets … even when we don't win, we're always the loudest team." she said about her school's team spirit. "That's our team -- and I love it."

Raja said she will continue to run cross-country and hopes to do better than she did as a freshman. She was 22nd in the state and second as a freshman, she said.

"Since that year," she said, "I haven't done as well at state."

Raja said she also wants to maintain first place on her team and wants the entire team to do well in the future.
Bo is planning to attend college and hopefully continue to run.

"Now that I've spent so much time and had other motivations earlier on … I definitely don't want to just quit and have wasted all that time to not even try," he said about trying out for cross-county in college. "Who knows what can happen