First Baptist’s distance runner Gabrielle Jennings has racked up 38 state titles in cross country and track, but that journey’s also had its challenges also _lowres

Advocate file photo by ANGELA MAJOR -- First Baptist cross country runner Gabrielle Jennings: 'I’m a teenager who runs. Not a runner who’s a teenager.'

As has become her custom, Gabrielle Jennings wore her latest state championship medal to school Tuesday.

But if she ever decided to sport them all at once, the weight would likely be more than the senior distance runner First Baptist of Slidell could manage.

Jennings’ victory in the Class C cross country championship Monday in Natchitoches gave her eight in that sport. The first came in 2008, when she was a 4-foot-6, 70-pound fifth-grader.

“I looked like a chipmunk,” Jennings said.

Overall Jennings had 38 state titles, 19 of them coming before she was even in high school, an accomplishment that gained her mention in Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd in 2012.

And she could — and should — add six more before what is already the most decorated career in Louisiana prep sports ever, two at the state indoors in January and four at the outdoor meet in May. That would up the total 44.

“I’ll probably take a picture with all of them when it’s over,” said Jennings, who last week signed with Furman. “I used to keep my bibs and stuff stored in a box, but after a while it would get filled up, and now I just put them wherever I find a place.”

Not that Jennings is blasé about her accomplishments.

You can’t be blasé if you put in the hours and hours of training it requires to be the best at what you do. Through all the training, Jennings also manages to indulge in her hobbies of drawing, painting and writing, along with normal teenage girl activities including an obsession with excelling at Mario Kart.

“I’m a teenager who runs,” she said. “Not a runner who’s a teenager.”

You don’t endure a series of injuries and maladies that would persuade many to give it up — a hip condition when she was in the eighth grade, anemia which plagued her junior year and back in August a strained disc in her back caused when she awkwardly threw a backpack on her loft bed.

And maybe you don’t even put up with having your father as your coach for all of these years.

“When I tried to quit after my first race, he told me I wasn’t running for him, but for myself and for God,” Jennings said of her father, Todd, a former distance runner at Louisiana-Lafayette. “It’s something we talk about before the start of every season.

“If I quit or don’t do my best, I’m only hurting myself. But God gave me this talent, and I want to give it back to Him because that’s who the ultimate glory should go to.”

That’s another side of Jennings.

Although she plans to major in a medical-related field at Furman with a minor in fine arts, she’s also interested in being a motivational speaker.

Already she has influenced youngsters at her school, which she’s attended since the third grade, into following her example, if not competing in track and field into at least engaging in an active lifestyle.

At meets, other competitors have asked for her autograph and to pose for pictures, something she finds amusing.

“Gabi is so well-rounded,” First Baptist administrator Mona Nelson said. “And she’s a great mentor to all of the kids.

“At one of our junior high cross country meets, a little boy was having trouble finishing, and so Gabi went out on the course and finished with him. That’s why all of the other kids look up to her.”

Jennings has her own mentor — fitness expert Mackie Shilstone, who helped her overcome her hip injury and whom she goes to for therapy and nutrition advice.

“Gabi has the physiological ability and mental discipline to represent this country in the Olympics one day, which I believe she will do,” Shilstone said. “She has a Serena Williams-level of want to.”

Jennings sees herself in the 2024 Olympics, but in an event she’s never tried before.

At Furman, she will be running the steeplechase, a demanding event that takes the stride of a miler plus the leg strength to get over the barriers, the last of which includes a water jump.

“The coaches think I’ve got the makeup for it,” said Jennings, who will also be a miler and cross country runner. “And it looks like fun to me.”

Not to mention a way to add a few more medals to her collection.