Two years ago Whangārei's Bella Earl wasn't even a member of an athletics club, but was a keen runner.
Now the 13-year-old Parua Bay School student has just cleaned up at the Year 8 girls cross country race at the AIMS Games in Tauranga on Sunday, coming first and missing out on the course record for her age group by seconds.
Earl's coach, athletics guru and Athletics NZ president Ian Babe, said he and Earl had worked out a game plan for the event and it worked to perfection, with her tackling the large hill on the course at pace to get ahead of her rivals. She finished in 11min, 6secs - 14 seconds ahead of her nearest rival, Lulu Johnson, of Otumoetai Intermediate. Olivia Hala, of Mount Maunganui Intermediate, came third.
Earl took part in the AIMS Games in Tauranga last year running in bare feet so, her father Adrian said, she slipped. But this year she was back in running spikes and made her mark.
Babe first spotted Earl running in a Park Race about 18 months ago and immediately recognised her talent, so came out of retirement to coach an exciting talent.
Under his tutelage Earl won the National Under 15 Cross Country Championship in early August against girls up to two years older.
Babe said they had a plan for the AIMS Games course.
''It's a tough course. The course record is 10.58 and Bella's plan was to run with confidence and assert herself on the race,'' Babe said.
''There was then a breakaway group of three (which contained Johnson and Hale) which ran for about a kilometre together. As part of Bella's training I've been doing some pool work, which has really helped her strength on the hills. The hill there (AIMS Games) is very long and Bella really attacked that hill.
''I talked about running the hill strong and to keep running strong over the top of the hill and floating away down the slope, and that's exactly what she did. She then got a bit of a break on the other two girls and ran away from them from there for the win.
''We talked about the hill. I said to Bella that the hill will hurt, but if it's hurting you it will really hurt the other girls as well. That's why you push up and over the hill and float down the other side.''
He said Earl put in a powerful sprint to cross the finish line well ahead of second place.
Babe said the key for the young runner to progress was getting the type of training that was appropriate for her age and not to race her too much and he has a clear plan for her future.
''Some of the other New Zealand coaches who were there were really impressed with Bella and now we just have to look after her and not over do things,'' Babe said.
Babe said he never looks at negatives with his charges and instead focuses on the positives on how they can improve. And possibly the most positive thing he can say about Earl is that she reminds him of one of his greatest charges, Northland marathon runner Mary Davies.
''For the first time last summer Bella joined an athletics club, which is fairly late for an athlete. That's like Mary, who hadn't been involved in athletics club until she was 19, so she's similar to Bella. Mary didn't have all that scientific background that you get from a club and she went on to great things.''
If Earl gets the training Babe has planned the running world is her oyster.
Adrian Earl said his daughter was determined to do well at the AIM Games after missing out last year when she slipped in bare feet.
''She's very, very chuffed. That's how she wanted it to end last year, but she slipped because she didn't have spikes. She flew up that hill she slipped on last year. There was a bit of wind, but she still recorded a great time and was only eight seconds outside the course record,'' he said.
''Just before the hill was a hurdle and Ian has been at her to get over those hurdles well and she just flew over that.''
It was back to school at Parua Bay for Earl yesterday. Her father said next year she was targeting the cross country at the secondary school championships, where she would be racing against girls up to four years older.