EDINBURG — Edinburg North’s San Juanita Leal has earned numerous titles during her career with the Cougars.
She’s known as the Valley’s best female distance runner after setting RGV records in the 5,000-meter run during cross country season and in the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs during track season.
Leal also is known as a state champion after capturing a pair of gold medals in the Class 6A girls 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs during last year’s UIL state track and field championships.
The decorated runner added another title to her already extensive resumè Wednesday — NCAA Division I athlete — after signing her National Letter of Intent to continue her academic and athletic career at Texas A&M during a ceremony at the Edinburg North Performing Arts Center.
Leal chose Texas A&M, which competes in the NCAA DI’s Southeastern Conference, over the University of Texas, University of Houston and Oklahoma State University. She is set to compete in both cross country and track for the Aggies.
“It’s a really exciting feeling, but really nerve-wracking at the same time,” Leal said. “I’m so happy that I was able to make it all the way to this level and get the opportunity to get a free education as well as the chance to compete at a whole other level.”
Leal’s evolution into one of the best distance runners in Valley history began to take shape during her sophomore season after taking home the gold during the Rio Grande Valley Cross Country Coaches Association’s Meet of Champions.
The victory marked her first gold medal of her young high school cross country career, according to her Athletic.net profile.
“That race was a real big confidence booster for me,” Leal said. “After coming out of middle school at the top, then I started at the bottom again as a freshman. I was losing confidence. I wasn’t getting the right training, I guess. Coming into sophomore year I ran a few races, then my uncle (Rene Palacios) stepped in and showed me a new way of training and a new view of running. From then on, I started winning races, shaving down my times and just getting more confident and having a big mentality.”
It was only up from there for Leal, going on to capture the District 31-6A crown before ending her sophomore year as a state qualifier.
She delivered an even more dominant junior campaign, becoming just the fourth RGV female high school runner to break the sub-18 mark and also adding another district title, a Region IV-6A individual championship and a top-five finish at the Class 6A state meet.
Leal continued to shine as a senior, wrapping up her cross country career with her third straight RGVCCA Meet of Champs victory, third consecutive district title, second straight regional championship and a silver medal at the Class 6A state meet.
Her time of 16 minutes, 57.6 seconds during the state meet raised the bar for RGV female distance runners everywhere, breaking her own previous Valley record while becoming the first RGV girls distance runner to go under the 17-minute mark.
Leal has been equally dominant on the track during her career with the Cougars, with a total of eight individual district titles, four regional championships and a pair of state gold medals to her name.
The future Aggie also holds the Valley record in the girls 1,600- and 3,200-meter running events heading into this season.
Leal isn’t done yet, however, eyeing to close out her high school career at the top of the mountain once again.
“It’s really amazing to leave my mark on the Valley,” Leal said. “This year I’m trying to impress even more and break those marks again. It’s just exciting breaking a new mark and seeing how much I’ve grown from where I’ve started.”