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Former South star McSpadden Froning found calling in middle of senior season

Tanner Cook • Apr 26, 2020 at 12:30 PM

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series, called “BackTrack,” looking at past outstanding performers in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

In track, finding your specialty race usually comes naturally.

However, in the case of former Sullivan South and Kentucky middle-distance runner Laura McSpadden Froning, switching from the 400 meters to the 800 meters in the middle of her senior season created such a scenario.

“I remember going into the state meet that I had run the 800 maybe four or five times,” she said. “I really didn’t know anyone going into the meet, I just knew I had the best time. I think not knowing my competition ended up being a good thing.”

Froning wound up winning the 1986 Class AAA championship in the 800 with a time of 2:13.8.

She also was a three-time all-state runner in the 400 after placing third in 1984 and 1985 and fifth in 1983. Her personal best is 56.01 seconds.

While running for the Wildcats, Froning was part of All-America finishes in the indoor 4x800 relays in both 1987 and 1989.

BURSTING ONTO THE SCENE

“I really discovered track in the seventh grade when I was at Colonial Heights,” Froning said. “Coach (Bob) Bingham was one of my coaches and I still think of him as the best coach I’ve ever had at any level. He was absolutely fantastic and when I see him at meets nowadays, he still calls me by my middle school nickname.”

During her freshman season at South, Froning blitzed the field at the Big 9 Conference meet by winning both the 200 (26.1) and 400 (58.7) in meet-record times.

She went on to win five more conference titles across the 100, 200, 400 and 800 events and probably could’ve won more had she doubled up her senior year.

THE 1986 SEASON

Froning was already established in the 400 and poised for a good run at the individual title her senior year at South.

“I had never done cross country in high school, so I never had much of an endurance base, but Coach (Tom) Coughenour at D-B suggested I try the 800,” she said. “I had never run the 800 before and didn’t really know what I was doing. My coaches knew that I had enough raw speed to probably win.”

Froning ended up qualifying for the state meet in the 400 and the 800 but chose to forgo the 400 to focus all of her energy into one race.

“I still kick myself sometimes because I probably could have won the 400 that year and been fine for the 800,” she said. “But looking back on it, I think I found my true event in the 800 that year and it was a diamond-in-the-rough situation.”

NOT SOUTH’S ONLY STATE CHAMP

Froning was teammates for three seasons with Lesley Whitehead, a three-time cross country state champ for South.

“I had tremendous respect for Lesley as a high school runner,” she said. “I remember the first time I ran the 800, I wanted to break the school record, which was hers at the time and I don’t think she ever broke 2:20. I ran something like 2:16 and broke her school record. We lived in the same neighborhood and I saw her out running a lot and that gave me a lot of motivation.

“There was one time when I qualified for the state meet and she didn’t, which was really wrong because she got third and they only took the top two from each region. She would’ve gotten top five at the state meet, but she came with me and roomed with me. I’ll never forget that and she actually went to Kentucky for a year and told the coaches about me. I haven’t seen her in so long, though, and would love to see her again.”

RUNNING FOR THE WILDCATS

In 1989, Froning broke Kentucky’s record for the indoor 800 with a time of 2:08.47, a mark that stood until 2002.

She was an alternate on the cross country team that won the 1988 NCAA championship on a chilly day in Ames, Iowa.

However, one of her favorite moments came in the 1989 NCAA Indoor National Championships in Indianapolis when she was the third leg of the runner-up 3,200 relay squad. The Wildcats finished second to Villanova (8:34.54) by a mere two seconds (8:36.53).

At the 1987 NCAA indoor meet, Froning anchored the Wildcats to a fifth-place finish when she ran against Wisconsin’s Suzy Favor-Hamilton, a multi-time NCAA individual champion and female distance running icon in the early 1990s.

Then the injury bug started catching up with Froning.

“I guess I just kind of got by on raw talent in high school,” she said. “I ended up getting a stress fracture in my foot and missing a whole season. I also had compartment syndrome in my feet and, looking back on it now, the problem probably came from the shoes I was wearing.”

ON TO COACHING

Froning has coached for five seasons at Oak Ridge in track and field and recently finished up her first season in cross country.

She’s still an avid runner, participating in most of the easy runs and workouts with the kids.

“It’s so much fun now and I get to see the bigger picture,” she said. “I get to see the kids grow and I can point out their signs of weakness because I’ve been in their kind of pain before.”

She is also a mother of three daughters — all of whom run — and she occasionally hears the question, “Mom, were you fast?”

“My oldest daughter is into really long-distance running and I have nothing but respect for her because I could have never done that when I was that young,” Froning said. “My middle daughter is a sprinter and is just a junior, so she’s asking questions about the 400 all the time. My youngest is just getting into running, so we’ll see where that goes.”

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