NAPPANEE — Good health is a blessing.

NorthWood senior Riley Hershberger has learned that during her four year high school career. 

Through her own adversity and a serious illness affecting her sister, Hershberger has maintained the desire to compete as a track athlete.

Talent and desire made Hershberger an instant success as a freshman. 

She began her track career by making it to the state finals in the 100-meter hurdles and 300-meter hurdles. 

Just being there wasn't enough for Hershberger, as she showed to others she could compete with the best in the state. She finished sixth in the state in the 100-meter hurdles (15.06) and placed 15th in the state in the 300-meter hurdles (46.05). 

"The thought that I had back then is that it's going to be a fun four years with her," said NorthWood girls track coach Mark Mikel.

 The outlook changed a year later one night on the basketball court.

Hershberger suffered a torn ACL and MCL on her left knee. Her athletic season was over.

"I was running down the court on the fast break and a teammate threw me the ball and it was a little behind me," said Hershberger. "I tried to stop and turn at the same time and that didn't work."

What followed was surgery and a year of intense rehab. Three hours after school and on the weekend at home, Hershberger worked tirelessly to get her knee back to full strength. She did weight lifting, jump roping, rode a bicycle, walked, ran and did the elliptical.

"I had to relearn everything," Hershberger said.

Hershberger knew if she returned as an athlete if would be just for one sport. 

"I wanted to get back into track," Hershberger said. "Basketball was a secondary sport for me. I did it for fun. I wasn't going to play basketball again. It was hard to quit the team. I loved the team. But felt like my love for track was above playing basketball."

Another change also came for Hershberger. The knee injury prevented Hershberger from regaining her form as an elite hurdler.

"That was an adjustment and really upsetting for me," Hershberger said. "The hurdles were my favorite events and I knew things weren't working for me when I tried to do the hurdles again. I sat down and talked with my parents and coaches and we all felt that in the future that being a sprinter would be the best option for me."

The decision was made last year in mid-April that Hershberger wouldn't race again the hurdles.

"She worked hard at the beginning of last year in the hurdles," Mikel said. "But her knee wasn't responding. I saw a young lady that was getting frustrated."

Hershberger became a sprinter and runner in the 400-meter relay.

"I think her best event is the 200," Mikel said. "It combines her strength and speed."

She quickly adjusted to her new role on the team and made her coach look smart for suggesting other events. She finished fourth in the 200 meters (26.55) at the Kokomo Regional.

"She came close to going to state," Mikel said. "That wasn't bad coming off a serious knee injury."

Hershberger also admits that she wasn't 100-percent healthy last year.

"Honestly, more towards this year, I felt more confident in myself," she said. "Last year, it was only a year after my injury and I was struggling mentally.

"My health is amazing right now."

But it still hasn't been easy for Hershberger to have her complete focus.

There are now health concerns with Hershberger's 20-year old sister Azure. The 2017 NorthWood High School graduate is dealing with Guillain-Barre syndrome.

"My sister has been in the hospital for a little over a month now," Hershberger said. "She has a disease where the immune system thinks muscles and nerves are intruders so it attacks them. It eats at your muscles and nerves and you lose function. From like the neck down you're paralyzed. 

"After going through multiple treatments she's made a lot of progress. She's in rehab now. She can move mostly her arm and neck. She can't walk on her own. She can wiggle her toes and move her ankles. Normally, everyone who has this gets back to full strength, but it can take days to years to recover."

Hershberger, who has signed to run track next year at Bethel University and major in exercise science, was thinking of her sister last Tuesday at the Northern Lakes Conference Meet at Warsaw High School. 

She placed third in the 100 meters (12.76) and 200 meters (26.49) and was part of fourth place (53.13) 400-meter relay team with teammates Reagan Hartman, Emma Martz and Karli McBrier.

"It was definitely hard on me, especially when she was really bad," Hershberger said. "We're really close. She's missed my senior year and my signing (at Bethel). Half the time after practice I go visit her at the hospital (in South Bend). My dad has taken videos of me and sent them to her.

"It has been hard for me to focus. I just run my race and whatever happens, happens. I know I'll always give it my all. My sister's strength motivates me."

A trip back to the state finals would certainly being a perfect ending to Hershberger's athletic career. 

"That was one of my goals coming back from my injury," Hershberger said about returning to the state finals. "Having my goal achieved would be great and fulfilling."

The journey to Indiana University begins this Tuesday at Warsaw High School.

"We're fairly certain she can qualify for the regional in the 100 and 200 meters," Mikel said. "Also, we're hoping for a fast enough time for her and her teammates to qualify for the regional in the 400 relay."

Hershberger's impact on the program goes beyond the results.

"When standing on the track and watching her the comment I hear from the other girls is that Riley is such a stud," Mikel said. "They know what she's gone through to get back on the track and excel at this level. They realize the impact she's made as a role model and leader. It's invaluable what she's meant to the program." 

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