Before she was a hero, Meghan Vogel was a champion.
Just an hour or so before performing an act of unselfishness for which she will be honored Nov. 17 at the National Sportsmanship Awards, Vogel upset the favorite last spring in the Ohio Division 3 1,600-meter final, running a personal best of 4 minutes, 58 seconds. She was the first girl from West Liberty-Salem High, halfway between Dayton and Columbus, to win a state title in 20 years.
Only after dealing with reporters and the awards ceremony and hoopla from friends, family, teammates and rivals did Vogel take the start for the 3,200. The race went pretty well, for three or four laps, before Vogel realized that she had emptied her tank to win the 1,600.
“She ran past me and looked at me like, ‘I’m toast,’” said Ann Vogel, her mom and head coach at West-Liberty Salem. “I turned to a friend standing next to me and said, ‘This is interesting. Meghan has never been last in a race before.’ She’d smile every time she passed me, so I thought, ‘At least she’s enjoying this.’”
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Mom was right. Meghan’s last-place finish was interesting. Vogel trailed the field on the last lap, but heading into the final straight, she saw sophomore Arden McMath of Arlington, exhausted, fall in front of her. Meghan acted instinctively and stopped.
Draping McMath’s arm around her shoulders, Meghan guided her to the finish, then made sure McMath crossed the finish line in front. The pair were next-to-last and last; Meghan finished in 12 minutes, 30.24 seconds, almost a minute and a half behind the winner.
“At the time, all I was thinking was that she fell so I probably should pick her up,” Meghan said. “I was just worried about getting Arden across the finish line and not hurting her.”
But the fans in the stands knew they were watching something special and rose to their feet. Meghan was oblivious until the commissioner of the state association approached her and pointed out the standing throng.
“To be honest, she didn’t surprise me,” Ann said. “She has a servant’s heart. What surprised me was the reaction, the aftermath, the hugging and crying in the stands.”
The immediate reaction was only the beginning. By the next morning, Meghan had 30 new Facebook friend requests, all from total strangers. The YouTube videos went viral. The phone rang and rang. In the next couple of days, Meghan and Arden appeared on “Fox and Friends” and “Good Morning America.” Meghan and Ann did phone interviews for hours each evening.
“It definitely caught me off guard,” Meghan said. “I was expecting the first week of my summer to be pretty relaxed. I was looking forward to getting away. All I could think was, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
The media attention subsided, but the outpouring of gratitude continued in more meaningful ways. Ann said she was especially touched when a Special Olympian mailed his medal to Meghan. A soldier stationed in Afghanistan who heard the story flew the flag where he was stationed in Meghan’s honor on her 18th birthday. They plan to meet at Thanksgiving.
With a few months to think about her deeds, Meghan is no longer taken aback at the response to her show of sportsmanship.
“Times are tough, and people want to see something hopeful,” Meghan said. “I think they want to know that there is something good left in the world.”
She and McMath check with each other occasionally on Facebook but seldom face-to-face. Though Meghan hasn’t been placed in another spot to shine as a sportswoman, she has shone athletically, finishing fifth this month in the Ohio Class 3 cross country championship and leading West Liberty-Salem to sixth in the team competition. She’s put off a decision on college, though she has narrowed her choices to Butler, Georgia State, Toledo and Penn State.
But she passed up an invitation to compete at the Mideast Cross Country Championship to appear at the National Sportsmanship Awards.
“No question: I got more attention for helping Arden than for winning at state, but I don’t mind,” she said. “Sportsmanship is a much bigger deal than winning a race.”