More than a decade ago, coaches, teammates, sportswriters and track fans alike would rush around the infield like crazy to follow and cheer Danielle Tauro around the oval while she was winning high school state titles, breaking records, and basically creating a sensation in New Jersey.
Now, the former track superstar from Southern Regional in Manahawkin is Danielle Barnes, married and living in Michigan, with two young girls whom she chases around the house now that we're all sequestered at home due to the coronavirus pandemic. She's a wellness coach at West Ottawa High School in Holland, Mich., who's working from home -- with occasional success.
Apparently Danielle isn't done using her track speed just yet.
"It's definitely difficult to get any work done because it's a whole other level of loud and distractions 24/7," said Danielle of caring for her daughters, 3-year-old Cara and 14-month-old Quinn.
"Having to work from home and having two little ones who are completely dependent on us has been a huge challenge. They're in day care on a normal day. Now, my husband (Kyle) and I take turns watching them and doing our work, but they're very demanding of our time. We're starting to find our routine, though. I think it's going to take time to find our new normal. We get outside every day for fresh air to break up the monotony. It's not easy but we all have to deal with it."
Before the kids, before the husband, before college, Danielle was the closest thing New Jersey had to a high school rock star in terms of athletic accomplishment. She was an eight-time NJSIAA Meet of Champions winner and national track champion while at Southern.
Danielle enjoyed an All-American career at Michigan in cross-country and track. She earned a Bachelor's degree in Sports Management from Michigan and a Master's degree in School Counseling from Grand Valley State in Allendale, Mich.
Danielle's husband is an assistant professor of Exercise Science at Grand Valley. West Ottawa High, where she and her husband coach the cross-country and track teams, is about a two-hour drive southeast of Ann Arbor.
The focus and introspection which Danielle brought to her racing -- always challenging herself to analyze and improve -- is now applied to students who seek her counsel for social and emotional support.
"I talk to students all day long about their families, mental health, peer drama, issues outside of school. I help them process what they're going through," Danielle said.
Her job entails risk assessment, classroom lessons on social and emotional issues, and running group counseling sessions. She is working on creating a peer mentor program.
"This is a new position at the school so we're shaping the job as we go," Danielle said. "I really love talking to kids all day. It's my favorite part of the job. Some days it's emotionally trying -- sometimes I worry a lot about the kids. My eyes weren't open to a job like this, but in our grad school classes we would talk about self care: How are we coping through the things that we're hearing?
"It's not an easy job but it is an incredibly fulfilling job -- giving students a compassionate and empathetic ear."
Danielle gives former Southern coach Brian Zatorski credit for being that empathetic ear when she was a high school star. Legend has it that Zatorski saw her in the hallway her freshman year and asked her if she participated in any sports. She had been heavily involved in dance and theater, and only occasionally in track.
If Danielle was known for one thing as an athlete, it was her fierce determination. By throttling that trait, it didn't take long for Zatorski to transform her into one of New Jersey's finest athletes ever. That fall she couldn't finish the warmup on her first day of cross-country practice, and she struggled to complete her first 5K in under 25 minutes.
But by that spring, she captured her first big title when she won the Shore Conference 1600 meters. A few weeks later she won the outdoor track Meet of Champions 1600m title.
"Back then I was constantly thinking about what coaches made us do to make us love it," Danielle said. "Coach Z was able to foster an environment that was founded on hard work but he did it in a way that made you love the suffering. It's something we're trying to simulate in our roles as coaches."
Danielle's rise to high school stardom at Southern was meteoric.
As a sophomore she placed third in the cross-country MOCs at storied Holmdel Park, she won the indoor MOCs 1600m -- she actually fell down in that race at Princeton's Jadwin Gym and then roared from last to first -- and followed that title with another MOCs outdoor 1600m crown.
As a junior Danielle won her first cross-country MOCs title and placed sixth (17:41) at the Foot Locker Nationals in San Diego. In the spring she won the Penn Relays mile (4:48.51) and the Group 4 1600m in NJ#3 4:44.35.
One week later she became the first girl in 18 years to win both the 800m and 1600m at the same MOCs.
She followed up her historic MOCs double by winning the mile at the Nike Outdoor Nationals in a state-record 4:39.25, a triumph which earned her a spot on the U.S. team for the World Junior Championships in Beijing, China.
As a senior Danielle repeated as New Jersey's cross-country MOCs winner, but a week later she fell twice and struggled to finish at the Nike Northeast Regional at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx due to rhabdomyolysis, a breakdown of damaged skeletal muscle which can ultimately lead to kidney damage. She finished the race in 10th place to earn a berth for nationals, but for obvious health reasons opted not to make the trip.
Danielle fought to regain her strength and was on the right path by the time she went to Madison Square Garden that winter, when she won the Millrose Mile (4:52.81).
In her final high school track season, the spring of 2007, Danielle anchored Southern's distance medley relay to the Championship of America at the Penn Relays.
Two months later she won her fourth straight MOCs 1600m, becoming just the fourth girl to win four MOCs titles in a single event, rarefied air which included the likes of Carol Lewis of Willingboro (long jump, 1978-81), Jodie Bilotta of North Hunterdon (3200m, 1985-88) and Christine Engel of Mount Olive (1600m, 1989-92).
At Michigan, Danielle's athletic pursuits were not as title-studded, but she completed an acclaimed career nonetheless. She was a three-time All-American in the DMR, a three-time Academic All-Big 10 selection, a four-time Big 10 champion in the DMR, and a four-time indoor All-Big 10 first teamer.
As wildly successful as Danielle was at Southern, she couldn't pinpoint a single moment or title which has stuck with her as the pinnacle of her running career. For an individual who was always more concerned with improvement, titles were never the end result.
"It's always cool to look back because there are so many awesome memories from high school," Danielle said. "I feel when I look back on it, there are so many moments which are so amazing. The stars had to align for that to happen. To this day I'm amazed it was able to happen so many times, not just individually but with all our relays. It was an incredible feeling to be a part of that team."
Asked to put away her scrapbook and put on her coaching hat, Danielle related some advice to today's high school athletes which Zatorski imparted on her and her Southern teammates -- with great success.
She offered two pieces of advice.
"Remember the love you have for the sport and remember the people you're doing it for," she said. "Those things are such powerful motivators to keep you working hard every day. At least for me, those things were recipes for building something spectacular."
The other piece of advice for student-athletes which Danielle offered goes back to her first lessons under Zatorski's tutelage. A hard lesson at first, but with potentially huge dividends.
"Don't fear the suffering. Embrace the suffering, love the pain," Danielle said. "One of the first things Z taught me was how to embrace suffering. We like reminding our runners there's a difference between running pain and injury pain. And when you're doing it as a group you'll be able to push yourself and each other and bring each other to another level.
"Even looking back to the pain in high school, I distinctly remember being excited about the burning feeling in my legs. It's sick and twisted but it helps you burst through that glass ceiling, helps you reach a higher level of potential. It's a hard thing to teach, a hard concept, but a lot of our kids have clung to it. I don't know if they fully grasp it but they're keeping logs and we're seeing kids trying harder."
And Danielle even tied that challenging thought process to our current situation -- dealing with the coronavirus.
"Even during this time of social distancing, our kids are keeping in touch with us about their progress. Even though they're separated, they remember that their teammates are going through it together."