Drawing on her heritage

Franklin senior Michelle Donadio's American Indian background plays a significant role in her life, including her love of running.


On the day of a race, Franklin High School's Michelle Donadio has a few good-luck rituals. She eats French toast for breakfast. She listens to techno music, using the pulsating beat to get into a smooth-running rhythm. And most importantly, she inks a few simple American Indian line drawings on her ankles.

"It's our family symbol," said Donadio, who is of Comanche descent on her mother's side.

Her American Indian heritage influences much of Donadio's life, including her sport.

After four years of steady achievement in cross country and indoor track, Donadio has had a breakout senior season in outdoor track in all three of her individual events. She was undefeated through the county championships, finishing first in the 800 meters (2 minutes, 20.3 seconds), the 1,600 (5:07.02) and the 3,200 (11:08.4).

At the state finals this weekend, she also captured the 3,200 title with a time of 11:08.91. She finished fourth in both the 800 (2:19.90) and the 1,600 (5:07.45).

She is also a member of Franklin's strong 1,600 relay team, usually running the anchor position. The relay team finished in fifth place at the state championships, with a time of 4:08.77.

Even though her mother, Mary-Jo Wolf, is the Franklin boys track coach, and her older sister Brittany, now 20, ran for the girls team, Donadio came to running relatively late.

"She wasn't ever a runner," Wolf recalled. "I was lucky if I got her to walk the dogs."

Donadio, 17, was turned on to the sport by the work of the Sacred Run Foundation, a national organization that uses the American Indian tradition of distance running to bring attention to the community's issues.

Now she is an enthusiastic and talented runner who seamlessly melds her competitive nature with a community-minded sensibility.

Donadio, who was just 4 feet 11 as a freshman, has grown to 5-4, and the extra leg length has boosted her speed. But Franklin coach Bob McIvor also credits her increasing confidence and maturity.

"I couldn't get two peeps out of her for three years," McIvor said. "Now she'll finally joke back with me."

Though soft-spoken, Donadio has always been a team leader.

"She's a superstar, a work ethic like no one else," said Matthew Surber, Franklin's sprinting coach. Surber predicts that her influence will endure past graduation: "She's set the ground of what's going to be a great team."

Team-building fits perfectly with Donadio's American Indian values. Like many runners, she enjoys the solitary nature of the sport - "I really liked having the individuality of it" - but also uses it to reach out to teammates and opponents alike.

"I've heard her cheer other teams on," her mother said. "[After winning], she'll pick up someone at the end, kids with tears streaming down, and say, `Nice race.' Those people helped her run a good race."

This sense of fellowship extends beyond fellow runners. One of her good-luck symbols is the medicine wheel, a circle with a cross inside that symbolizes the unity of all living creatures, both human and animal. "Sometimes I think she runs like an animal just to prove it," Wolf says.

Donadio also enjoys the chance to commune with nature while running. "I love the courses," Donadio said, citing the Bull Run course at Hereford High School as a particular favorite. "It's nice to have an outlet."

Another outlet is her artwork. Donadio is also an accomplished artist, and her work has been displayed in several local galleries.

"Her art is very much like her personality. Her touch is the same," said August DiMucci, a Franklin Middle School art teacher and mentor to Donadio.

American Indian imagery figures heavily in her work. Recent pieces include a still life of a moccasin and a portrait of her younger sister Katie in full Comanche dress.

Ever the nature lover, she also does landscapes. "I think she's drawn to distance running to find new places to draw," Wolf said.

Building on the model of the Sacred Run Foundation, Donadio uses her art as a form of activism.

"I want to bring awareness to the difficult situations [American Indians] face," said Donadio, noting the high rates of alcoholism, infant mortality and suicide that afflict the community.

She also uses her work to explore her mixed heritage. "It deals with the two worlds people live in," she said.

Donadio takes a simpler view when discussing her approach to running.

"I run wild, a lot of people say," she said. "I try to stay in front, that's my only strategy. My mom said to run as fast and as long as I can and it started to work this year."

Next year, Donadio will continue running at Towson University on a combined academic and athletic scholarship. Tigers coach Roger Erricker said he has grown more and more excited about having her at Towson after watching her progress this season.

"She's a front-runner. She likes to go out hard," Erricker said. "If she takes care of the front end, we can work on the back end. I think there's a lot of room for improvement still. I think she's going to be a great college runner."

Donadio plans to major in biochemistry, with an eye toward becoming a science teacher. She also plans to coach track.

"Michelle is definitely thinking of coaching already, to give back," Wolf said.


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