Lexy Duncan sits on the top step of a stairwell in the lobby outside of Lancaster Gym at Dixon High School.
Behind her stands a large trophy case. Protecting the shelves that hold the history of Dixon athletics is a thin sheet of glass with dried watermarks, evidence of a recent cleaning. After this last spring, Duncan now belongs on both sides of the glass.
She stretches out her left leg. Her knee bothered her a little, as it does before it rains. It was a hot, humid Tuesday. The storms blew in later in the afternoon.
The nearly 5-inch long scar that sits under her kneecap is a reminder of how far she has come.
"I remember I had regular tennis shoes on, my first mistake," Duncan said. "It had rained the day before, so the track was wet."
She was in seventh grade, and it was the day before her very first track meet. Duncan was to compete in the hurdles, but the combination of poor shoe choice and the slick track nearly ended her career before it started.
"The first leg made it over, but the second hit the hurdle, and my kneecap shot up into my thigh," she said.
Duncan had emergency surgery by orthopedic surgeon Dr. Tyler Gunderson that required 18 staples and several screws to stabilize the knee. She missed more than 2 weeks of school, and her leg was placed in a brace. Her left leg remains slightly shorter than the right, as the injury happened during a growth spurt.
Fast forward to her senior season, when Duncan became Dixon High School's first state champion since 1980. She won the long jump with a jump of 18 feet, 4 inches to win the Class 2A state championship, and had a second-place medal draped over her neck after running a personal-best 56.18 second 400-meter dash.
She grabbed another medal at the state meet in the 1,600 relay, anchoring the Duchesses to a ninth-place finish. Each time on the podium, her eyes scanned the crowd, looking to find her mother and sister.
Sauk Valley Media's girls athlete of the year also excelled at her favorite sport, volleyball, in the fall. Her natural jumping abilities allowed her to soar over the net to collect kills, and helped solidify the Duchesses team.
Brandon Woodward, who just finished his second year as Dixon's girls track and field head coach, was one of Duncan's biggest supporters. Woodward saw both sides of Duncan – the state champion, and the girl who didn't seem to ever want to be at practice.
"There was a time when she hated track," Woodward said. "And she'll tell you, she had a bit of a transformation period along the way."
For a few years, it seemed that Duncan was content to slide through her high school track seasons. She had the obvious natural talents, athletic build with strong legs, but she didn't seem to want to put the work in during practice.
Duncan didn't think anything of her lack of trying during track practices. She was good, but modest. She had been to state each season, riding her talents, but she said she was almost afraid to push herself. It was easier for her to blend in with her teammates.
It came to a point when Woodward, then a first-year coach, sat Duncan down in his classroom after school one day before the track season her junior year, and wanted to know what was going on. He was wondering if she was committed.
He had heard from others that Duncan was special, but she just wasn't willing to go all in.
"I didn't like track," Duncan said. "I just did it because people told me I would be good at it. Woodward basically asked me what my deal was, and why I wouldn't give my best at practice."
"We knew she was a natural," said Al, Lexy's father. "But when we asked her why she didn't like it, she said, 'I don't like people running next to me.'"
But there was no mistaking that Duncan – through all of her inattentiveness at practices – was special. Her talents carried her to the state meet during each of her 4 high school seasons, and she performed well enough to earn a medal in all 4 years at state.
But she reached new heights this past season when she started to approach the sport, and life, through a different lens.
Duncan and her mother, Cece, fought often when Duncan was growing up. The two were never on the same page, and their views differed on just about everything.
"Me and her had a rough start with each other," Duncan said. "We used to fight a lot, just typical teenaged stuff. I would always want to go out and be with my friends. We bumped heads a lot. But with what happened, it really drew us closer."
In November, the Duncan family was rocked with bad news.
Cece was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. The family caught it early enough for aggressive treatments to have the maximum effect, and it was Cece who felt the need to get it checked out.
Cece had several lumps, cysts, removed in the past that proved to be benign, but this one felt different. Al tried to keep her calm and stay positive, but Cece had a bad feeling. The two didn't let on much to the kids, in hopes that this, too, would be benign like the others.
But it wasn't.
"When we first found out, it was a blow that knocked the wind out of all of us," Al said. "For some reason, she thought this one was different, and it turned out to be.
"No is not a big part of [Cece's] vocabulary, and she inspires us all. We all had a good cry, and after, we said, 'Now it's time to put on the boxing gloves.' It really made Lexy so much closer to her mom."
In the months after the diagnosis, Duncan would head to the hospital as soon as volleyball practice let out. Duncan would sit bedside with her mother during her treatments and talk, something that didn't happen before the diagnosis as often as the two would have liked.
One of the first things Duncan would do everyday when she got home from practice or school was head to the hospital to be there for her mother. If Cece was at home, Lexy would ask if she needed or wanted anything. Duncan spent less time with friends, and began spending more time at home with her mother and family.
"It made us value each other more," Al said. "Lexy basically acted like the mom for awhile."
She started to do a lot of the shopping for both food and clothes, sometimes fumbling through the list. She cleaned dishes and kept their home tidy and ran errands.
"My siblings and I really had to step up to the plate," Duncan said.
The family also bought Cece a dog, something she has always wanted. A labradoodle named Bentley became part of the family, and helped Cece get through tough days.
When Al brought Bentley home in January, the kids recorded Cece's expression, and the lens captured one of the first times Cece smiled, laughed and cried, in nearly 2 months.
"It is amazing how strong [Cece] is," Al said. "She lost all of her hair. I don't know if you know how women are with their hair, but she spent a lot of time with it in the mirror, and it's another something that she had to give up and has overcome."
It's the beginning of this past track season, and Woodward notices the same-looking girl wearing Dixon's signature purple singlet running and jumping – but now it's with a purpose and drive that he hasn't seen.
This version of Duncan is dedicated and working hard in practice, attacking tough workouts that she might have shied away from in previous seasons. She has a level of motivation that Woodward knows can take the talented athlete to another level.
"You could tell she was after it this year, and she wasn't gonna let anything slip by her," Woodward said. "The internal motivation she always had to be great, showed up this season. And the external motivation from her family really took over, and you could see it.
"She really grew up over this past year."
Duncan said that everything hit her at once. She took a look inside and knew that she had to be better in all facets of her life. School, family, and athletics.
"She didn't want our lives to stop," Duncan said of her mother. "She loves watching me, and that was a big drive this year for me to be able to give her that. A lot of what I did was because she wanted me to be the best I can be, and that pushed me to do so."
Cece is still receiving treatments, and continues to work daily at Whiteside Area Career Center in Sterling, and teaches Sunday school at Northside Baptist Church in Dixon. She has also made it to nearly every sporting event Duncan has competed in. Cece was there in the stands at Eastern Illinois for state when Duncan won the title.
"There are moments in life when the bathroom is too full, and everyone wants to get in it," Al said. "But no one should have to go through life feeling down. There are too many positives out here to dwell on to the negatives, and you have to hang on to that."
College: Grand Valley State in Michigan
Athletics: Will compete in the long jump at DII Grand Valley and could run the 400 or 800.
Major: Biomedical Sciences in order to be a physicians assistant with plans on getting her Doctorate.
FYI: She already has her CNA (Certified Nurses Assistant) credentials.