BILLINGS — Some days it’s hard for Christina Aragon to believe four years have passed since she last donned a Billings Senior High track and field uniform. Other times, it seems like yesterday.
“Even now I can kind of think back on that and how cool it is to have such a big support system of people that you don't even have close contact with but who are still looking out for you, who are still rooting you forward,” Aragon told MTN Sports, referencing her 2016 senior state track meet. “I think that was just a cool moment of people from all over coming together.”
Those are moments Aragon will never forget — the ovations as she sprinted down the final stretch of her record-breaking 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs in Missoula that May, plus the ensuing applause as she took her place atop the podium following each race.
But it’s also likely Aragon doesn’t fully understand the impact she had on the sport in her home state. Fans, coaches and other athletes have their own Christina Aragon stories, and younger athletes strive to be like her, maybe even beating the astonishing marks she set.
"The thing I’ll always remember about the Aragon girls is that when they ran, it wasn’t just their winning. It was the way they ran. They were beautiful to watch run. It was just an easy motion. Those sisters were really, really great runners,” said former Montana High School Association executive director Jim Haugen, who watched Christina, Dani and Alexa Aragon during their prep careers. “We had a sold-out crowd like we always had (in Missoula at the 2016 state meet), packed house, and it was just really something to watch.
“I was always impressed with how beautiful they looked running, the striding and how easy that was. The whole family runs like that, the mother does, too. And you sure see it. She was something else to set three records like that.”
Chuck Aragon had high standards.
A former New Mexico high school cross country state champion, the patriarch of the Aragon clan became the first Notre Dame male runner to break the elusive 4-minute mile mark, was a bronze medalist at the Pan American Games and ran the 1,500-meter at the 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials where his dive at the finish line — a move that placed him a fraction of a second shy of third place and an ensuing Olympic trip — is arguably one of the most famous finishes in American track and field history.
Kathleen Pfiefer Aragon was equally as competitive as her future husband, maybe more, starring at the University of New Mexico and competing in three Olympic Trials, including those same 1984 Trials.
So when Chuck and Kathy welcomed three daughters into the world, the bar was already high. It’s safe to say Alexa, Danielle and Christina cleared that bar and raised it even higher.
Alexa and Dani own multiple championships between cross country and track, and both attended the University of Notre Dame, like Chuck, running for the Fighting Irish. For years, both assured anyone who would listen, their younger sister, “Teeny” as they called her, would be the best of them all.
It’s hard for Christina Aragon to pinpoint one significant performance as her favorite — there are far too many, from the Montana Mile titles to the Brooks PR and Adidas Dream Mile championships, runner-up honors at the prestigious Payton Jordan Invitational, not to mention the 2016 Olympic Trials — but her performance at the World U20 Track and Field Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, a third-place effort mere weeks after graduating from Billings Senior, remains the highlight.
Christina Aragon became the first American female to medal in the 1,500-meter run at the event, finishing with a time of 4 minutes, 8.71 seconds — No. 4 on both the U.S. junior and high school list.
“I’d had the Olympic Trials before that, and in my last race at the Olympic Trials, I felt like I had been a little bit intimidated by the competition and I think I hadn't got 100 percent out of myself in that last race,” she said. “That was something that I was kind of disappointed about, not even necessarily that I didn't qualify to the final, but that maybe I let fears and being intimidated get in the way of me really putting my whole self on the line.
“Looking back on the race in Poland, I remember 300 meters to go feeling like we were sprinting and wondering to myself, ‘I have no idea if I can hold this for 300 more meters.’ … So that race is special because at 300 meters to go, when I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to make it all the way to the finish at the pace we were going, I kind of just gritted down and said, ‘You know what? I'm going to do it for as long as I can.’”
Running may have made Christina Aragon a household name, but it was gymnastics that first sparked her competitiveness, leading to her Level 10 status — the highest level in Junior Olympics. She often credited her gymnastics background with her success in running and competed in both simultaneously throughout high school.
But her desire to be great was hardly limited to athletics. Aragon was an honors student at Senior, a Platinum Scholar to be exact, and welcomed the challenge of studying human biology at prestigious Stanford. She’s set to conclude that degree, as well as her pre-med requirements, next spring.
That love for academics was challenged this spring when the novel coronavirus forced school closures across the country, sending Aragon home to Billings in March.
“We didn't really have any online classes when we were out at school, so it's definitely been challenging and an adjustment, but, also, I think that Stanford's been doing a pretty good job. Some of our classes are live (online), which is fun, you get to see the faces of the people that you would be going to class with. I definitely appreciate that part of it,” Aragon said. “For some classes, like I'm taking chemistry, and it's honestly been helpful that the classes are online and recorded because I can pause it and think about it and think through things and kind of go look things up if I need to take more time. Chemistry has been always been something that's been more of a challenge for me, and I feel like it's been really helpful to be able to slow the learning down a little bit if you want to.”
“I've been missing being on campus. I mean, everyone loves being at school with their friends, being in that environment is just different than being at home,” she continued. “But I am thankful that I have the support system at home, that I have my family taking care of me right now, I’m able to come to a place where I can have access to school and also the training things that I need. I’m lucky to be in the situation that I'm in.”
She already looks forward to returning to Palo Alto and resuming her in-class education and plans to add elective classes “just for fun,” the likes of Spanish and creative writing.
And then there’s athletics. Aragon is already a five-time NCAA all-American between cross country and track, finishing as high as fourth in the 1,500 and second in the distance medley relay, running the fastest leg in the field in the latter. She was named captain of the outdoor team last season, though injuries hindered her year.
She had hoped to get back on track this spring and summer.
“We had the indoor championship getting canceled. I was going to race the mile in that, so I was pretty excited for that, but that got canceled,” Aragon said. “I've had a little bit of a hiccup with a little hip injury going on, but I'm starting to run again from that. I had to take a little bit of downtime, but I'm starting to run again after that, so right now I'm just doing some running, some swimming, a lot of strength work.
“Right now I'm trying to focus on just having a strong all-around body to help me in the next year and just help me in whatever I decide to do in the years ahead — if I want to run after school or if I want to do anything else. I just want to focus right now on having a very strong body to give me a foundation to go after my goals as we move forward.”
That’s one area Aragon has always shined — the ability to put the past behind her and trek on, likely an intangible from her father’s own experience in those 1984 Olympic Trials. The past two years — the injuries, missed marks and now COVID-19 cancellations — have been admittedly challenging for Christina, but she’s already prepping for the next step in her Cardinal career.
“I definitely would like to be a major team player in cross country next year. We have a great group of girls right now, and I think we have a group of girls that could do some really awesome things,” she said. “Cross country is always so fun. I feel like whatever season I'm in is always my favorite season, you know, but cross country is particularly special, because it's so much about the team, and I have felt that, particularly in college, it's that way. The team is just immensely more important than whatever you do as an individual, and I think that's something that's a little bit freeing, almost, and even more motivating than running for an individual goal.”
“I don't know exactly where I'll fall on the team lineup come fall, but I would love to be able to help my team do really well at nationals,” she continued. “If we could win a national championship, that would be a huge goal of mine and my team that we've had since I was a freshman coming in.”
“I do have an eligibility for a sixth year of outdoor track now, because I already had redshirted a season before we got this additional season back from not competing this spring. So I do have a sixth year, so that is an option,” said Aragon. “Depending on how the next year goes and how I'm feeling at the end of the year, I definitely want to think about whether, if I don't stay in school, whether I'd like to continue running professionally or if I'd like to pursue other job goals or other things, which I'm not 100 percent sure on all that yet. But I'm definitely looking forward to the year ahead, and I think that the year ahead will definitely provide more clarity for me, too. I'm excited to hopefully get the most out of myself this coming year.”
Each May in Montana, with the disappointing exception of this spring, track and field coaches gather for their pre-state meet meeting, discussing the ground rules, expectations and potential backup plans for the following two days. Once the serious conversations conclude, many drift down memory lane, recalling their favorite moments of state meets past. Most have a Christina Aragon story — recalling her incredible feats or being astonished by her seemingly never-ending motor — and will continue to share those memories for years to come.
It’s all humbling to Aragon, who hopes to see future Montana athletes set new standards, creating friendly rivalries much like she held with Annie Hill of Kalispell Glacier and Carly Smiedala of Helena High. She remains thankful for those moments and knows they — like the competitions with her older sisters, the strength and lessons stemming from gymnastics, and all of the challenges along the way — shaped her into the athlete and individual she is today.
“Sometimes when I start to look back and I can't even remember all the details of four years ago, I start to feel old,” she laughed. “I feel like I am where I should be at this point. I think there's a lot of growth that happens in college — a lot of emotional growth, a lot of learning about yourself, and a lot of figuring out your body and how to treat your body in the best way you can. So I think there's been definitely a lot of growth. I guess, in that way, maybe I feel definitely older than I was when I left high school.”
Still, when she's alone and closes her eyes, really concentrating, she can hear the roar of that 2016 state track crowd, see them standing in ovation, and feel the smile spread from her lips. That's a memory she hopes always feels like it was yesterday.