When Danielle Hoop and Darcy Mascotti toed the starting line for the 2012 Mid-South Conference women's cross country championship last fall, the University of the Cumberlands runners were thinking of little other than doing their best.
Yet even before the duo finished 1-2 in the 5,000-meters race at Rio Grande, Ohio, they found themselves faced with an ethical dilemma: Should they go against their self-interest and speak up in defense of a rival who lost all but certain victory after being victimized by an improperly aligned course?
The decision Mascotti and Hoop made is the reason they will be in the grand ballroom of the Kansas City Convention Center Wednesday accepting the national NAIA Champions of Character Award.
Last Nov. 3, Mascotti and Hoop were running second and third with just over 500 meters left in the league championship meet. With Lindsey Wilson star Sharon Ronoh running some 15 seconds ahead in first, the Cumberlands runners had already accepted they were not going to win.
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Yet as Hoop, an Owen County product, and Mascotti, who is from Bellbrook, Ohio, made their way out of a final turn on the course, they were stunned by what they did not see: Ronoh was nowhere in view.
"We could hear fans saying 'Sharon must've died,'" Mascotti said, using 'died' to mean run out of gas. "I'd run against her for so long, I was thinking 'You don't understand, Sharon doesn't die.'"
Before the women's race, the Mid-South Conference men's cross-country championship, an 8,000-meter event, had been run over the same course.
Prior to the women's 5K race beginning, officials needed to alter the ropes that set the parameters of the course for a shorter women's route.
In at least one case, they had failed to do so. As the race leader, Ronoh had followed those misaligned ropes right off of the women's course and onto the men's.
"We'd run the course the night before the race. We knew how it was supposed to be," Hoop said. "But when we got to that one turn, the rope was in the wrong place, it was still set up from the boys' race. We knew Sharon had taken the wrong turn because that rope was wrong."
After the Cumberlands runners crossed the finish line with Mascotti first and Hoop second, Ronoh showed up behind them, passing runners, to finish third. "She was so good, she ran an extra 400 meters and still finished third," Hoop said.
Ronoh, a Timboro, Kenya, native, was in tears over having let the conference championship get away in her senior season. Mascotti and Hoop looked at Ronoh, looked at each other and made an instantaneous decision.
"We went straight to the (race) officials, told them the course wasn't marked off right," Hoop said. "We told them Sharon was going to win if that rope had been right."
In an athletics context, many would argue the Cumberlands runners had no obligation to do this. They hadn't failed to align the course properly. They had made themselves familiar enough with the route before the race to know the right way to go regardless of the misplaced rope.
"At least 10 people that day asked me why I did what I did. They said 'I wouldn't have done that if I'd won,'" Mascotti recalled. "Even my brother was like 'Why are you doing this?'"
Why did they do it?
Said Mascotti: "I just didn't feel like I'd won like they said I did. Sharon went wrong because the officials made a mistake. ... I knew in my heart, (Ronoh) deserved it."
Said Hoop: "It was just the right thing to do. We told the (race officials), 'We don't deserve (to be first and second). (Ronoh) was way ahead of us, and just followed the way the course was laid out. She deserved to be the winner.'"
That day, race officials agreed and declared Ronoh the victor with an "adjusted time" of 18:18. Mascotti and Hoop (both 18:45) were returned to second and third.
Eventually, the Mid-South Conference overturned that decision and said the official race results had to reflect the order in which the runners crossed the finish line regardless of the circumstances.
"I want to applaud all those individuals involved for their efforts to make things right after an honest mistake on the course," then-Mid-South Conference Commissioner Steve Baker said at the time. "Ultimately, we must adhere to the rules and policies of the race."
Fortunately, all three of the runners impacted by the reversal qualified for the NAIA national championship based on the revised results. There, Ronoh ran second (17:20), Hoop 18th and Mascotti 19th (both 18:22).
Long after the reversal, the fact that Hoop, now a junior, and Mascotti, a senior, were willing to take a stand against self-interest to do right by a competitor left a major impression around the Mid-South Conference.
When the NAIA sent out an email seeking nominees for its first-ever "Champions of Character" Award, Cumberlands Athletics Director Randy Vernon was contacted by then-MSC Commissioner Baker.
"Steve asked me if I'd seen that email," Vernon said. "I told him I had. He said 'That sounds like Danielle and Darcy to me.' I told him I'd already thought of nominating them."
On Tuesday, veteran Cumberlands cross country coach Floyd Stroud, Mascotti and Hoop will drive from Williamsburg to Lexington to catch a flight to Kansas City for Wednesday's banquet.
"This is not a cross country award, it's any athlete in the NAIA," Stroud said. "And it's not a Kentucky award or a Mid-South (Conference) award, it's national. It's a big deal for Danielle and Darcy, and it's a big deal for Cumberlands."
Mascotti and Hoop are excited to receive a national honor but both say recognition is not why they tried to give up finishing first and second in the conference cross-country championships last fall.
"We didn't expect anything out of it. We didn't want anything out of it," Hoop said. "We were just trying to do what we thought was the right thing to do."
In a sports era filled with all too many PED users and big-time college athletics cheats, imagine that.