Shining bright: Rocky runner Sydney Little Light rises from anonymity to superstardom | SWX RightNow

BILLINGS — By now, Sydney Little Light’s supremacy on the track is an expectation, not a surprise.

Primarily a distance runner, the Rocky Mountain College luminary has positioned herself as one of the top track and cross country competitors in the Frontier Conference, and she’s certainly a name to keep tabs on in the ranks of the NAIA.

The “wow” factor has long since passed.

But it wasn’t always this way. Only once did Little Light end up anywhere near the top at a state championship event in high school, and that was a ninth-place finish in cross country her senior year at Class A Hardin.

With growth, maturity and a commitment to an incredibly heavy workload, Little Light eventually ascended all the way to a second-place finish at the NAIA national cross country championships last fall in Vancouver, Washington.

It was the moment she recognized all the possibilities in front of her.

“I think every runner has a confidence issue and might think that they’re not good enough,” said the always-smiling Little Light. “The one thing that race taught me is that I am good enough.”

On Tuesday, she’ll carry the momentum of what’s been a stellar if weather-altered outdoor track season into the Frontier championships in Great Falls. The meet, hosted by the University of Providence, wraps up Wednesday.

So far this season, Little Light has won the 400, 800 (twice) and 1,500 at outdoor events. She is the Frontier’s defending champion in the 1,500.

“Incredible potential, and she’s not done,” Rocky coach Mike McLean said. “She is learning to work harder than she’s ever worked, and that’s all you want out of an athlete.”

When her career is all said and done, Little Light hopes to have made a difference not only as a standout runner and team leader at Rocky, but also as a voice and exemplar for those in the Native American community who might not have the same opportunities to realize their own dreams.

For some, she’s already become a role model.

Last month at the University of Montana’s Al Manuel Invitational in Missoula, a woman from Fort Peck approached Little Light not long after she outpaced 12 Division I runners from UM, Montana State and Eastern Washington to win the 1,500 meters and qualify for NAIA nationals with a new personal best time of 4:35.47.

“She said, ‘I came all the way from Fort Peck just to watch you run. You’re such inspiration and I’m a big fan,’” Little Light said. “I didn’t know anybody really paid attention to me.

“I thought that was really cool. It really warmed my heart. I just want to have made a mark in Native running, especially as a Native woman. That’s what I care about.”

One subject matter that Little Light holds dear is the unsettling issue of missing and murdered indigenous women.

At the NAIA indoor championships in March in Brookings, South Dakota, Little Light raised awareness by painting the hand-print symbol of the MMIW movement across her mouth, emblematic of the exorbitant number of female Native American voices that have been silenced due to disappearance and death.

She said she was especially affected by the case of Selena Not Afraid, a Hardin teen who went missing on New Year’s Day 2020 and whose body was found three weeks later a mile or so from the I-90 rest area where she was last seen.

Authorities eventually attributed Not Afraid’s death to hypothermia, but questions persisted.

Little Light, who is studying sociology at Rocky, said her goal is to one day become a homicide detective and investigate MMIW cases in her community and beyond because it hits so close to home.

“I knew Selena. We rode the same bus home all the time,” Little Light said. “I went with one of the search parties and I just kept thinking, like, this could have been me, this could have been any of the women in my life that I love the most.”

A soprano in Rocky’s concert choir, Little Light is about as well-rounded a student-athlete that you’ll come across.

And when she analyzes her running career, she can’t point to a specific reason why she rose from virtual anonymity to become such a force as a runner, though she credits Rocky coaches and teammates past and present, as well as Hardin coach Cindy Farmer .

Truth is, Little Light spent time at three different high schools (Billings West and Bozeman High were the others) before graduating from Hardin in 2018, and only had that one ninth-place finish in cross country to her credit.

When she was first recruited to run at Rocky, she had little interest in a collegiate career. Since signing with the Battlin’ Bears, Little Light hasn’t looked back.

Her dedication is what’s made her great.

“When she concentrates she’s as good as anybody,” McLean said.

Little Light has more eligibility to use after this academic year ends, and says she plans to return for one season each in cross country, indoor and outdoor track before real life beckons.

Placing second at the national cross country meet last fall — a race in which she outpaced Montana Tech star Becca Richtman — gives her motivation to finish what has been an outstanding career in the best way possible.

Even if she can’t quite believe the progress she’s made.

“Honestly, it’s still all so surprising to me,” she said. “My coach would say he isn’t surprised because he’s always believed in me.

“If I had a bad race early in my career I refused to let it get to me and I would run harder and longer. And I also ran the workouts harder. I ran so much more than I used to. I think as a freshman I was doing probably 35-40 miles a week, and now I’m doing like 55-60.

“I had no idea how much fun it would be or how far I could push myself. All I can say is it comes down to consistency. Be consistent and show up every day.”

It’s the key to Little Light’s supremacy on the track. By now it’s becoming an expectation, not a surprise.

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