WOODLAND — It was not just any regular root beer. It was draft root beer.
Julia Stepper figured she could enjoy it, just this once.
In a lapse of judgment, she ordered it during a Woodland team dinner the night before the Class 2A state track and field meet last spring.
The drink was delivered to her table, and it looked amazing. She reached for it with anticipation.
Only, one of her coaches got to it first, picked up the mug, and gave it to another person at the table.
“Drank it right in front of me,” Stepper said.
It got a little awkward.
Stepper was frustrated, miffed — dare we say, ticked? — at her coach. It was practically the end of the season. She had earned that root beer, that draft root beer. One soft drink could not possibly make a difference.
But deep down, Stepper knew her coach did the right thing. Deep down, Stepper did not want that drink after all.
While she is not perfect with her dietary goal — she is entitled to have a few jelly beans around Easter, for example — Stepper long ago gave up “bad” sugar, the stuff that can drag down an athlete.
That weekend — you know the days right after the saga of the stolen root beer — Julia Stepper earned medals in four events. She finished second in the 200 meters and second in the long jump. She took fourth in the 100. And she was part of the sixth-place 400-meter relay team.
Sure, that one drink might not have changed any result. But Stepper, now a senior, is convinced her diet has made positive changes in her life, and not just in athletics.
“I don’t get headaches. I feel healthier. I feel happier,” Stepper said. “I feel better about myself.
“When I changed what I ate, I changed my mindset. It made me think differently,” she continued. “I’m maturing. I feel like I’m an adult. I don’t have to rely on anyone. I can make decisions on my own.”
Stepper absolutely loves sugar. She never figured she could walk past a candy jar without taking a little something. Never thought she could say no thanks to a friend handing out a chocolate bar.
“This is definitely a big sacrifice for me,” she said.
No pop. No candy. Instead of Skittles, it is granola bars, trail mix, or perhaps an apple. Yes, there is sugar in fruits but Stepper says there is a difference. She also enjoys honey sticks before a race.
She started learning better eating habits earlier in high school but did not yet fully commit herself to a change. While always a talented athlete — she has made it to state all three years of high school and expects to return later this month — she did not care for how she was performing by the end of her sophomore season.
She wanted more from herself.
“It’s made me more responsible,” she said. “I have to plan out what I’m going to eat, how much, and when I’m going to eat it. If I want to get better, I have to sacrifice.”
To be fair, though, even before the diet change, Stepper was a fantastic athlete.
Woodland head coach Melanie Holmes noted the team has now won four consecutive league titles. She went back in the history books to see what happened the previous year. Not so many team points.
“Why?” Holmes wondered. “Oh, that was Julia’s eighth-grade year. We didn’t have her on the team yet.”
Stepper now is ready to peak in her final weeks of high school sports. So close to first place in three events last year has her thinking about a big finish. But she is not putting too much pressure on herself.
“As nice as it would be to get three first-place titles, if I get at least one, I’ll be a happy camper,” she said. “If I get one … I’ll feel accomplished.”
She already is accomplished, though. She will be attending Seattle Pacific University to continue with her education and athletics.
Not bad for someone who rebuffed the sport when she was first approached by a coach. That was in the fifth grade, when Stepper thought track and field was “completely boring” without giving it a shot.
Years later, in eighth grade, she did give it a shot.
“This is fun,” she recalled thinking. “You get statistics. You can see how you are improving.”
She loves how the sport demands accountability. Who is at fault for a bad performance?
“You can’t blame the blocks. You can’t blame the officials. I just didn’t run fast enough,” she said.
Holmes said the program will obviously miss Stepper but she does not anticipate a huge drop-off in production because the program has been able to build throughout Stepper’s career. It is easy to attract athletes to a successful program.
Plus, Stepper enjoys recruiting for the sport, as well.
Anyone, she said, can try track and field. There are so many options. There is a coach for anyone. And a new-to-track athlete has months to find a niche.
“You don’t need skills to come out there. You learn the skills once you are out there,” Stepper said.
The very best also figure out how to give themselves an edge. Julia Stepper chose a better diet, and became a healthier, happier athlete.