Remembering Valerie McGregor, a young champion gone far too soon

We're coming up on four years now since Valerie McGregor died, and the memories are as painful as ever.

I didn't know her all that well. I had watched her and her fraternal twin sister, Emily, compete in track meets for Marana Mountain View High School against my son's Amphi team. I even wrote a cover story about them for this paper ("Track Twins," May 8, 2003). The twins were most entertaining—goofy, fun-loving, silly. But they had a competitive streak in them as deep as the Mariana Trench. They were, at once, each other's toughest competition and biggest fan.

It was hilarious to interview them. Like a married couple who had been together for 50 years, they not only completed each other's sentences; they would go through entire sentences, seamlessly, with one girl saying the first few words, then the other jumping in, then the first finishing it off. In many ways, it was too perfect to have been rehearsed.

After trying a variety of sports during their middle school years (with comically disastrous results), they settled on track and cross country. They dabbled in hurdles and sprints, but eventually settled on distance-running. They ran cross country in the fall and track in the spring, consistently finishing among the best in the state in the metric versions of the mile and two-mile races (the 1,600 and 3,200). Valerie also won the Class 5A state championship in cross country her senior year. Somewhat oddly, Emily posted faster times throughout the regular season, but Valerie found something extra and nipped her sister at the wire to win the regional title, then repeated the feat a week later to nab the state crown.

For their efforts, they were both awarded athletic scholarships to Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

Emily never took to the cold of Fort Collins and eventually transferred to the University of Arizona, where she resumed her running career. Valerie stayed behind in Colorado. The separation was tough on both of them, but they spoke pretty much every day.

They endured a shared heartbreak in 2005 when their mother died from cancer. And a year later, the unimaginable happened.

Valerie was engaged to her long-time sweetheart, Sam Zawada. The two were going to finish up the school year in Colorado, then drive back to Tucson to be married. On Interstate 25, somewhere outside of Albuquerque, N.M., Valerie lost control of the vehicle she was driving. (She had never smoked or used drugs or alcohol, so it was assumed that she either fell asleep or got white-line fever). The car left the road, and she was killed instantly.

Badly injured, Zawada was still alive immediately following the crash, but succumbed not long after. At the memorial service, the preacher said that Zawada died shortly after learning that Valerie hadn't survived. The funeral was held one day before the planned wedding date in the same church where the two were going to get married.

On the long list of unfair things I've witnessed in my life, her death is right at the top.

Emily tried to persevere. She ran for the UA for a while, but eventually settled into her studies. She got her degree; somebody told me that she's working at the Veterans Affairs hospital as a dietician.

While Valerie is gone, she is certainly not forgotten. Her high school track coach, Dennis Hansen, started the Valerie McGregor Scholarship Foundation, dedicated to "honoring the memory of a beloved student, leader and teammate through financial assistance to outstanding females who intend to continue their post-secondary education and who best exemplify Valerie's qualities and ideas that guided her life."

Two kids—one from Rio Rico, the other from San Manuel—are already attending college with the help of scholarships from the foundation. Hansen plans to see to it that many more get that opportunity over the years to come.

The foundation is holding its annual fundraiser in a couple of weeks, on Friday, April 30, with the proceeds going to fund scholarships. It will be a silent auction and raffle at the Quail Canyon Golf Course, at Rudasill and Oracle roads. Among other things, there will be music, appetizers and a putting contest. For more information (or to make a donation to the Foundation), please go to invalsmemory.org.

As a coach, I've met all kinds of people, including a whole lot of adults (parents, coaches, officials and administrators) who are in sports for the wrong reasons. Fortunately, most kids are in sports for the right reasons, at least at first. They want to try something new, test themselves and forge bonds with teammates. It can be a wonderful experience, and for those fortunate few who are able to excel, it can hold a mirror up to one's character. Some kids don't respond all that well to success, but others embrace it, absorb it and refuse to be changed by it.

Such was Valerie McGregor, a champion gone far, far too soon.

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