She probably has more tough days than we realize. But an indelible memory keeps snapping Alli Tran back.
It's more foolproof than Alli Tran on the final lap of the 1,600-meter relay.
"He was just a ball of energy," Tran said of her brother, Zack. "I'll think about his smile if I'm having a rough day and it'll cheer me up. He was so much fun, so nonstop all day."
Zack sounds a lot like his big sister.
Alli Tran, an incoming senior at Vernon Hills, closes better than Mariano Rivera. She's adept at sticking landings, whether in sand after competing in the long jump or on a mat after dismounting off the uneven bars.
Don't let her 5-foot-2 frame fool you. The compactly built speedster is big-time.
She's the Daily Herald's Lake County female athlete of the year after a stellar season in both gymnastics and track and field.
She earned three state medals in track, and while a medal eluded her at the state gymnastics meet, she qualified for Saturday Finals in two events. She also competed in the all-around at state.
"She's absolutely amazing," Vernon Hills track coach Jason Rush said.
Tran has lost on a track oval and in the gymnastics room. But real life pains more.
The Trans' story has been told in newspapers and on TV, and thanks to Alli's parents, Jayson and Michelle, the story of Zack Tran lives on.
Zack passed away in 2003, at age 6, when an unanchored soccer goal fell on him. Instead of drowning themselves in tears, the Trans got proactive so the tragedy that befell their son would never befall another child.
In 2005, the Trans spearheaded a national public awareness initiative focusing on safe soccer goals called Anchored for Safety. Last August, Illinois governor Pat Quinn signed a bill called "Zach's Law" that bans the manufacture or sale of new soccer goals that are not tip resistant. Older goals must be properly anchored according to Consumer Product Safety Commission specs.
The year following their son's death, Jayson and Michelle created the Zachary Tran Memorial Fund.
"They do so much for Zack and the memorial fund, yet they're still there for my sisters and me," said Alli, whose sisters, Rebecca, 7, and Olivia, 5, were born after Zack's tragedy. "They're pretty incredible."
Zack played soccer, hockey and baseball. Today, he would be entering his sophomore year of high school.
We sports writers would probably be writing about him.
"I think his thing would be hockey," Alli said, "because my dad loves hockey."
Alli loves competing. She's driven, which she gets from her parents, no doubt.
In the gymnastics room, bars is her favorite event.
"I think it's the most fun," said Tran, who began competing in gymnastics when she was 7 and started track in seventh grade. "You get to swing around, feel like a monkey, feel like you're flying. It's pretty cool.
"When I was little," she added, "my parents used to call me monkey because I'd climb on everything in our house."
The last two winters, she's advanced to the final day at state gymnastics. Both years, she just missed earning a medal (top five). This past season, after tying for seventh in the Friday all-around competition, she placed seventh on the uneven bars and took 10th on vault.
"It was pretty disappointing, pretty rough to try to come to terms with it," Tran said. "But it only made me want to work that much harder. I think it's a blessing in disguise, like it's going to push me even more next year."
At the state track meet last month, Tran anchored Vernon Hills' 1,600 relay to a second-place finish in Class 2A. The Cougars should have finished third, but Tran wouldn't allow it. In dramatic fashion, she passed Walther Lutheran's anchor in the last 15 meters.
She pulled off similar heroics last year at state, using her finishing kick to leap the Cougars from fourth to third in the 1,600 relay.
The truth? It's all part of her plan.
Her track coach counts about eight times it's happened in the last two seasons.
"She's a real great closer like that," Rush said. "She's the definite anchor that you want to have going into that last spot.
"It's like a killer instinct," Rush added. "I joke about it. Whenever there's a team that's going to go against us in the 4-by-4 (relay) that's pretty strong, I should give them a playbook or something saying, 'Hey, don't bother passing Alli Tran in the last lap,' because it happens so often that she gets passed by someone going out real hard (and then comes back and wins). She always just runs a very smart race, and then she just eats them up."
Tran, Taylor Krue, Taylor Pearson and Ali Peacock made up the Cougars' state runner-up relay. The same foursome took fifth in the 800 relay. Tran also won a seventh-place medal in the long jump.
Her efforts helped Vernon Hills place 13th in the overall team competition.
"I really like to take advantage of my kick at the end," Tran said. "I'll be saving up my energy until I'm almost at the finish line. I just really kick it in the last 100 meters, and usually it works out pretty nicely."
Life is turning out pretty nicely for her, too.