Isabella Marsico was 2 years old when a virus attacked her lungs.
It meant a one-month stay in the intensive care unit at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago—and it wasn’t the first extended stay at a hospital for the toddler from Lake Forest.
Marsico, a triplet, weighed a tad more than two pounds at birth. The former womb mate of Rocco and Olivia could not enjoy her first day at home until the fourth week of her life.
“Her body temperature reached 105 degrees, and it was like her lungs belonged to someone with full-blown emphysema,” Jenny Vacala, Marsico’s mother, says of Isabella’s second health scare.
“Our fear was that she would need a lung transplant.”
But Marsico’s condition improved steadily, to the delight and surprise of many. Her breathing would return to normal, coinciding with the end of her mother’s sighs of relief.
“I thought, when she was in that hospital,” Vacala says, “that there was no way Isabella would ever able to play sports.”
Fast forward to the spring of 2017. A fifth-grader and first-year track and field athlete at Deer Path Middle School in Lake Forest runs against mostly seventh- and eighth-graders in 800- and 1600-meter races at meets. Her very first clocking in the 1600 is a 6:14.
Her second time at the distance?
She wins a race, then another, then a third.
The rookie runner begins to record sub-6-minute times—all the way down to a personal-best 5:44 at a sectional meet in May, a result that would have placed her 13th against high school milers at the Class 3A Loyola Academy Sectional in May.
Isabella Marsico’s lungs are functioning quite well these days.
“My friends at school convinced me to go out for track and field,” says Marsico, an 11-year-old who qualified to race in the 1600 (against 12- and 13-year-old girls in her heat) at the Class 7AA Illinois Elementary School Association (IESA) state meet in East Peoria last month. “My family, friends, and teammates have been very supportive.”
Her race strategy is as uncomplicated as a thoroughbred’s typical plan is at the start of a derby at Churchill Downs.
“I just kind of go,” says the 4-foot-6 Marsico, who intends to try out for the DPMS cross country team as a sixth-grader in the fall.
Vacala liked to jog in front of her four bike-riding children (the triplets’ younger sister is Lola, 10), with most of the journeys around neighborhoods starting as early as 6 a.m.
Isabella no longer pedals behind her mother.
“She runs with me,” Vacala says. “At times I have to yell, ‘Slow down!’”
Marsico’s aunt, Kristy McCullough of Wilmette, has raced in seven marathons, including a couple of Boston Marathons. The upstart’s grandfather, Pat Vacala, has completed marathons, triathlons, and Ironman competitions.
Grandpa Vacala couldn’t watch his granddaughter compete at the state meet, but he called her an hour before the start of the 1600 heats to offer some valuable tips and give her a pep talk.
“Isabella’s family members—they’re all into it, into what Isabella is doing as a runner,” says Deer Path Middle School distance track coach and cross country coach Martha Sostre, who ran for Hawkeyes teams at the University of Iowa and later coached varsity boys cross country teams at Mundelein High School from 1998-2001. “What an inspiration she is, what a fighter. Man, she is fast, with such an efficient stride, and her perseverance is out of this world. What she did in that last straightaway at the sectional, the determination she showed all of us … that got her to state.
“Isabella,” the coach adds, “has this joy about her that I love. And she never complains. At the beginning of the season, I told her, ‘These [800 and 1600] are your events.’ She looked at me and said, without hesitation, ‘OK.’ She’s coachable, humble, respectful, and kind.”
She was nearly a two-time IESA state qualifier as a raw trackster, having missed a berth in the 800 meters by one second with her time of 2:39 at that sectional in May.
Marsico—a former soccer, volleyball, lacrosse, hockey, baseball, tennis, and football (at recess) player—plans to train as a runner and attend a cross country camp at Lake Forest High School this summer.
She had been encouraged by her mother, for years, to try any sport she thought she would enjoy. She flashed eye-popping speed — in all of them.
Competitive running entered Marsico’s life earlier this year, and it certainly appears Marsico has no intention to escape it. Maybe she’ll stick with the distance events. Maybe a coach will give her a shot at taking on sprinters someday.
What Vacala knows for sure: Marsico loves to scorch track lanes.
“Her first meet, I’ll never forget it,” Vacala says. “She just … took off, never looked back. Everybody was way behind her. And it kept happening.
After races, she’d run up to me with a huge smile, all excited—but in a contained way.”
Marsico’s favorite class in the 2016-17 academic year was Language Arts. She wants to be either a doctor or a full-time athlete when she grows up.
Near the end of an interview, Marsico is given a hypothetical: “What would you do with your free time if you were ordered not to run for a week?”
Marsico smiles briefly and then turns serious.
“I’d run,” she says.