Building on a legacy of local Olympians and National Champions, this star athlete from Winter Springs may one day outshine them all
For Winter Springs High School distance runner Caroline Wells, it all started with toe tokens.
When she was in kindergarten at Layer Elementary School, Caroline recalls how exciting it was to collect the tiny colorful plastic footprint charms. Every Wednesday during physical education class, students would run laps around the bus ramp, collecting Popsicle sticks for each lap. Once you collected eight sticks, you could trade them in for a toe token. And Caroline collected a lot of them.
“That was my first running memory,” says Caroline, now a 17-year-old senior at WSHS. “I like beating people. I thought that was fun, and I just liked running the most laps out of everyone. I was always pretty competitive with that stuff.”
That fierce competitive spirit, combined with her athletic ability and tireless work ethic, has helped turn Caroline into the best high-school distance runner the state of Florida has ever seen. And that’s really saying something when you consider that Seminole County has produced two of the best college distance runners in NCAA history: three-time Olympian and Oviedo High graduate Jenny (Barringer) Simpson and NCAA 1,500-meter national champion and Lake Brantley High School alum Sinclaire Johnson.
“I have been coaching at Winter Springs High School for 25 years, and I have never coached an athlete with Caroline’s kind of determination and drive and talent together,” says Octavious “Ocky” Clark, Caroline’s track and cross-country coach. “That’s what separates her from all the others.”
As she enters her final year at Winter Springs, Caroline has compiled a laundry list of outstanding accomplishments including leading the Bears to back-to-back State Cross-Country Championships in 2019 and 2020. Along the way, she won the individual state cross-country title in 2020 and track state titles in the 1,600 meters, 3,200 meters, and 4x800 relay (with teammates Evie McIver, Naomi Flowers, and Ella Giambalvo) last spring. The Orlando Sentinel named Caroline as its 2020-2021 Girls Athlete of the Year for the entire Central Florida area, and both the Florida Dairy Farmers and Gatorade named her the top cross-country runner in the state.
Caroline has received All-America honors in track this past spring and competed in several prestigious national meets this summer. She currently ranks first in Florida in the outdoor mile (4 minutes, 42.40 seconds – second best in state history), 3,200 meters (a state record 10:08.77), and 5,000 meters (a state record 16:16.02) and ranks among the top 10 in the nation in those three events. Caroline is expected to sign with a top NCAA Division I college this fall.
“I’ve always been competitive, for sure, and I’ve always been very motivated,” says Caroline, who started off as a softball player, like older sister Callaway, when she was five years old. “I have a passion for running and want to do better.”
Making a List, Checking It Twice
According to her dad, Caroline’s quest to become the best started after she finished seventh at a middle-school state cross-country meet when she was an eighth-grader at Indian Trails Middle.
“She started a pecking list of who was better than her,” Craig Wells says. “When she was in ninth grade, she’d see who was better than her, and she’d try to figure out how to take those people out, and that’s what motivated her. It went from charting who’s the best in the area to who’s the best in the city to who’s the best in Seminole County to who’s the best in Central Florida to who’s the best in the state. And now it’s who’s the best in the nation. That’s her list. She’s very focused, and she knows what she wants.”
Adds mom Kim, “She makes it look so easy, but she works really hard, and she loves it. It’s her life.”
Kim says Caroline was devastated at the state track meet during her freshman year when she finished ninth in the 3,200 meters (just under two miles) and became the first runner in Florida state meet history to complete the race in under 11 minutes and not win a medal (which went to the top eight finishers). That was spring 2019, and it was the last time Caroline left a meet without a medal around her neck.
“That was a really sad moment for me,” Caroline says. “But, at this point, I’m thankful that happened to me because I just used it as motivation to get better. I know if I work harder that won’t happen again!”
During her junior year, Caroline was undefeated in both cross-country and track. At the Class 3A state track meet, which was modified due to COVID-19 restrictions, she had to compete in the 4x800 relay, the 1,600, and the 3,200 during a time frame of less than five hours. When she anchored the relay team, Winter Springs High was way back in fifth place, but Caroline ran a blistering 2:09 for her two-lap leg to make up a seemingly insurmountable deficit and lead the Bears to victory with a photo finish.
Even though she went on to win her two individual events with ease, that Herculean team effort likely cost Caroline the opportunity to break the state meet records in the 1,600 and 3,200. At the state cross-country meet in Tallahassee last fall, her time of 17:16.50 for the 5K (3.1-mile) race was a state meet course record.
Coach Clark, who was a world-class runner and three-time U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials qualifier, beams with pride when he talks about Caroline.
“I see a lot of that same drive in Caroline that I had at that age,” says Coach Clark, a Seminole High graduate who won three national titles in the 800 meters at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville and was a two-time All-American at Florida State University. “You look at her, and she’s this small, diminutive [5-feet, 2-inch] girl with that sweet voice. But when you put her on a track, she’s a totally different individual. She’s a fighter.”
Caroline has a special bond with Coach Clark. He gushes about how Caroline has made him a better coach, challenging him to take it up a notch to ensure that this extraordinary young athlete gets the best coaching possible, allowing her to reach the highest of heights.
“They both love running, and they just feed off of each other,” mom Kim says of Caroline and Ocky. “She’s very lucky to have Coach Clark. He’s her best friend. He understands what it takes to be at her level, and he knows how to keep her motivated.”
“I truly appreciate everything he’s done for us,” adds Caroline. “He’s a really good role model, and he’s just the best coach ever.”
And for this, Caroline’s senior year at Winter Springs High, both she and Coach Clark have set their sights on more conference, district, regional, and state titles and maybe even some national titles, as well.
“If she’s blessed to stay healthy, for sure I see Caroline winning more State Championships in her senior year,” Coach Clark says. “Caroline’s going to set more state records, and then after that, she’s going to go to college, become an NCAA champion in cross country and an NCAA track champion in whatever event her coaches decide to put her in. And she also has the potential to follow in the footsteps of Jenny Barringer and become an Olympian. She is simply one of the best runners in America, and it has been phenomenal to be able to coach a kid like that.”
Bears Are the Best!
Winter Springs High School makes history as the home to both of the Orlando Sentinel’s top athletes in Central Florida
For years, the Orlando Sentinel has given out its annual Varsity Awards to the best high-school athletes in each sport, and at the end of the school year, the newspaper honors the top overall girl and boy athlete in the entire Central Florida area (including Seminole, Orange, Osceola, Lake, and Volusia counties). Never in the Varsity Awards’ history have both the male and female overall award winners come from the same school... until this year.
Caroline Wells and Marvin Collins – both from Winter Springs High School – were named 2020-2021 Athletes of the Year for their outstanding accomplishments. Caroline’s achievements as a junior are outlined in this article. We featured Marvin, a recent WSHS grad, in the July/August issue of Oviedo-Winter Springs Life after he captured State Championships in both wrestling and weightlifting.
Marvin, who graduated in May with plans to enlist in the Army, also led the WSHS football team in rushing and went on to win the Class 2A state title in wrestling in the heavyweight division. He posted a 27-1 record, with his only loss coming against the top-ranked heavyweight in the country. Just seven weeks later, Marvin claimed the Class 2A state title in weightlifting and finished the season undefeated. At the state meet, he dominated the competition in the 238-pound weight class, and his total of 750 pounds (400 bench press, 350 clean-and-jerk) was the best in Florida for all weight classifications and all divisions.
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