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Off she goes

Nationally ranked runner to enroll at Air Force Academy

Lara Shegoski led the pack at the NJ Group Four State Championship on Feb. 28, but finished in second place by one-10th of a second.
Lara Shegoski led the pack at the NJ Group Four State Championship on Feb. 28, but finished in second place by one-10th of a second.

Many track clubs employ a “winged foot” as their emblem. Such a symbol is even more appropriate for Lara Shegoski, a scholar-athlete senior at Montgomery High School in Skillman.

The highly accomplished medium-to-long-distance runner will face a new kind of challenge this summer as an incoming cadet at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

She won’t have much time to rest on the laurels she’s achieved at high school on the track and in the classroom; she reports to the academy just four days after graduation in June.

As a track star, Lara has been rated as high as seventh in the nation; at press time, she was preparing for the National Scholastic Indoor Championship at the New Balance Track and Field Center in the Bronx. “It’s been a good season,” she told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview.

Lara took up track in sixth grade and also played soccer before deciding to focus on running once she entered high school. “I love my team, I love training, and I like winning, too. It was a good choice,” she said.

She was recruited by several colleges, but when she attended summer seminars at the Air Force academy, she said, “I fell in love with it there: the atmosphere, the training. I love the challenges, academically and physically, the people, how everyone was deeply driven.

“I want to be an engineer, and Air Force is one of the top programs in the country. Everything just kind of fit together for me,” said Lara, who sports a 92 average.

An education at USAFA comes with some additional costs: four years of post-graduation service, with the possibility of serving in combat zones.

“I don’t mind that,” Lara said. “I think it’s a great thing to do. If I get called to serve, then I’ll serve. That’s what the Air Force does. We’re here to defend our country.”

Is this any kind of life for a nice Jewish girl?

Her mother, Heidi, “like any Jewish mother, is hesitant about me going into the service,” Lara said. “She likes the idea of the Academy; she’s just kind of hesitant about the ‘after,’ but she’s definitely warmed up to it. My dad pretty much says, ‘It’s your decision; you know what you’re getting into.’”

Her father, Marc, was also a runner throughout his high school and college years. A member of the board of directors and executive committee of United Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks, he is also a board member of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Mercer.

While none of Lara’s family members, including her three grandparents — all her grandparents survived the Holocaust — is thrilled about the possibility of her seeing action, “everyone has been really supportive, and they understand my decision and are all really proud of me that I went after what I wanted to do,” she said

The Shegoskis — who live in Belle Mead — attend The Jewish Center of Princeton, where, Lara said, the notion of giving back to the community was emphasized. She’s active in SMOOCHY, a group for Jewish high school students based at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough.

Knowing there would be a Jewish connection in Colorado had a lot to do with her decision, she said. Her mother called the rabbi at the Air Force Academy to make sure her “host” family — students are matched with locals with whom they can spend their limited time off — would be Jewish, so she could celebrate the holidays while away from home.

Lara seeks to compete in other venues: She qualified for the 2009 Maccabiah Games in Israel but couldn’t participate due to scheduling conflicts. Another goal: the 2012 Olympics. “We’ll see how training goes in college. I definitely have the ability to get there if I can continue training the way I am.”

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