Amber Gore, 18, has run thousands of races. But she can still remember the first race she ever won — at age 5. “It was the 100-meter lollipop race at one of my dad's track meets,” she recalls. “I won a little plastic medal.”

Gore has been running hard and fast ever since. This fall she will be running for USC on her way, she hopes, to the Olympics. “That's my ultimate goal,” she says. “Winning in the Olympics would be my dream come true.”

For now she'll have to settle for being the first Redondo Union High School student to win the 3.1-mile California Interscholastic Federation's state cross-country Division II championships — beating 200 runners from around the state.

Until recently, Gore had never thought of herself as a long-distance runner. Starting with the lollipop race, she had excelled in the shorter-distance races, the sprints. Gore focused on running as her chosen sport soon after that win. “I tried volleyball and softball. I wasn't very good,” she says. “But I was the fastest kid around the bases.” At age 11, her father, Brian, a mechanical engineer who ran in corporate track meets, helped her get involved in club track and field.

“When I won my first race in club track, I knew this was what I wanted to do,” Gore says. But her coaches always thought her natural speed would translate to much longer distances if she would just give it a try. She resisted with all the stubbornness that a bright, strong-willed teenager can muster.

“Freshman year I refused to join the cross-country team,” she says. “I saw myself as a sprinter. I thought there's no way I could run 3.1 miles.”

The man who changed her mind in her sophomore year, Redondo track and cross-country head coach Bob Leetch, wasn't surprised by her state title. “I think cross-country is where her real talents lie,” he says. “The marathon may turn out to be her best event.”

In March, Gore was honored with the inaugural Trailblazer award as the most accomplished runner to emerge from Redondo Union High School in the past 30 years.

Even though she is a state champion in cross-country, Gore admits she is still more comfortable in the shorter races. “I don't have to think about race strategies or pacing myself,” she says. “I just go all out from the opening gun.”

That's how she plans to handle the big step-up in competition she will face next year competing for USC. Her role model is Allyson Felix, a former USC runner who won the gold medal in 200 meters at the 2012 Summer Olympics.

“She's classy, works hard and has a positive message that you can achieve your dreams,” Gore says of Felix. “I hope people will see me that way, too.”

Her coach says Gore has already achieved that goal. “She's a superstar athlete, a star in the classroom and a spectacular person,” Leetch says. “I can't get a thank-you out of most kids anymore, but she always says thank you. She's a real throwback.”

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