Donwerth uses her disability to drive her
By Scott Akanewich
Don’t tell Ayanna Donwerth she has a disability.
She’ll tell you herself.
“I want people to know me for my legs, not my arm,” she said. “It gives me more motivation to be the best I can be.”
The Liberty Hill junior cross country runner was born without a right arm from the elbow down, but certainly hasn’t let that stop her from rounding into one of the region’s finest athletes.
Runners use both arms to help maintain proper balance and form, but Donwerth manages to keep herself centered regardless and the results speak for themselves, said Liberty Hill head Coach Kim Holt.
“She’s certainly adapted to it and completely figured it out,” she said.
On Sept. 7 at the Panthers’ home meet, Donwerth crossed the finish line of the girls’ varsity Class 1A-4A race in a personal-best time of 11:22.7 with a winning margin of 26 seconds over runner-up and teammate Zaila Smith.
In fact, the transfer from Leander High School has improved each race of the year so far this season, finishing third, second, then first at her home event.
Call it a continued natural progression that began all the way back in second grade.
“My mom was helping set up for a Halloween 5K race and I entered in the kids’ race and won,” said Donwerth. “Also, I ran the mile in school in five-plus minutes – that was when I first realized I could be good at running.”
At the time, the Donwerths called Palo Alto, California, home, which was where her mother signed her up for a club side and that was where she really began to take off, culminating in a recent eighth-place finish in her age group at the Amateur Athletic Union national championships in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“Everything I had done to that point got me to the level I needed to be at,” said Donwerth.
Part of her regimen is to be on a strict diet to keep herself at peak performance levels, she said.
“I always have to be mindful of what I’m doing,” said Donwerth. “So, that means eating a lot of protein and things like chicken, vegetables and quinoa.”
So, what happens when she sees others her age indulging in typical teenage junk food?
“Other kids will be snacking on Hot Cheetos and drinking soda,” she said. “But, I know I can’t do that – in fact if I drink soda, it immediately hurts my stomach because I’m so used to drinking so much water. Besides, I can see myself not progressing if I had that other stuff.”
Along with her healthy training table, Donwerth also possesses an insatiable appetite for success, which for her means doing everything in her power to always be at her best, she said.
“I have no time to take a day off,” said Donwerth. “I’m completely consumed with running.”
So consumed in fact she must be careful not to push herself too hard, although that’s sometimes easier said than done, she said.
“I’ll always be thinking about how much running I’ve already done,” said Donwerth. “It’s like a mental scoreboard in my head. But, if something starts to hurt, I know I have to back off a bit.”
Donwerth spent the first two years of her high school career running in Class 5A-6A varsity races, which are three miles as opposed to the two-mile courses she now navigates as a Panther, which should seem like less of a challenge.
Or is it?
“I think it’s actually more difficult to run a shorter distance because over the course of three miles, you can afford to make a mistake and still have time to make up for it,” she said. “Two miles is more of a straight sprint, so if you go out too fast and feel like you’re going to pass out after the first mile and get passed by a bunch of people, you can’t always work yourself back into the race.”
However, Holt believes the conversion to shorter race distances has helped Donwerth more than it has hurt her.
“Ayanna definitely has the endurance and conditioning from running those longer races,” said Holt. “I think the first race we ran this season at two miles, all the newness got to her a bit, but we knew she had the ability to be on top at some point.”
Consider the first mountain climbed, but there are still many more to be scaled, especially if she wants to reach her competitive goals at the next level, said Donwerth.
“I’m going to be a Division I runner,” she said. “So, it’s especially important to win races in Class 1A-4A as opposed to being competitive in 5A/6A – that’s what the colleges are looking for.”
Regardless of distance, one element Donwerth said she loves about cross country is its ruggedness and variance.
“Every course we race is different,” she said. “It’s always exciting to have hills and if there’s mud, I jump for joy.”
Surprisingly enough, Donwerth doesn’t bask much in victory because she knows success increases expectations, she said.
“When I win a race, I’m happy for about two minutes,” said Donwerth. “But, then I realize everyone is going to expect me to beat that time every race, so I get mad.”
At the Panthers’ home meet, her sparkling, speedy effort shaved 42 seconds off her previous personal best and all after a week where she didn’t necessarily train as hard as usual, she said.
“I actually took it easy last week,” said Donwerth. “I wanted to play it safe.”
Donwerth’s adopted mother, Mayla Palomo, continues to be an inspiration to her, which in turn results in fast times, she said.
“I want to prove to her all the money she’s spent on me is paying off and it’s not wasted,” said Donwerth.
Another way she can make herself faster is by training with her male Panther counterparts, which is something only she and freshman Smith do, said Holt.
“When you have girls who are that fast, they need to be pushed,” she said. “We want them to get better, but when they run with the girls who need more rest during workouts, it slows them down.”
Increased speed is also a product of the pair competing against one another, said Holt.
“When we had Susie Kemper, there was no other girl who could match her,” she said. “So, this is the first time since we had Danielle Rymann and McKenzie King on the team we have two girls who can compete against each other. If you only have one, there’s nobody to push you.”
Holt thinks there is plenty of upside to Donwerth and what she’s capable of.
“I believe she can finish on the podium at state,” she said. “She can if she runs like she did last week.”
Rymann and King went on to compete for Dallas Baptist University and Texas State, respectively. Good company considering Donwerth’s collegiate aspirations.
So, where would she go if she could choose any school?
“Oregon, I can’t find the cool shoes the runners there wear anyplace,” she joked. “But, really, that’s always been my dream school.”
As for victory on her home course, it hasn’t taken long for the transplant to fully embrace the Purple-and-Gold.
“I had a lot of support from both sides because my old team was there racing,” said Donwerth. “But, I was representing Liberty Hill and I didn’t want to disappoint everyone. I felt like it was my moment to shine.”