As returning members of Center Grove’s 4×400-meter relay team that took fourth place at the 2014 IHSAA state meet, senior Tori Long and junior Lauren Rau share a special bond.

The two are focused on an even higher spot on the winners’ stand in next month’s state meet.

Their connection, though, extends far beyond medals and a runners’ baton.

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The tie between Long and Rau reaches all the way to Central America and is forged on a shared desire to help children far less fortunate.

The two have spent many of their school breaks in Nicaragua, helping to build homes, install water filtration systems and doing mission work for a local group, Hope Road Nicaragua (hoperoadnicaragua.org.)

“It was definitely life-changing,” Long said. “It’s hard to put into words what happens when you’re over there.

“You go thinking that you are going to influence people’s lives. You come back realizing that they really changed your heart.”

Rau is the more seasoned traveler of the duo, having made eight mission trips — every spring and fall break — since eighth grade.

“It was a culture shock, and it broke my heart,” Rau recalled of her first trip at age 14. “At the same time, I felt the need to go back. It was pretty cool to help.”

Help is what Rau and Long do, pitching in on construction projects as well as taking time to just meet and mesh with the local children.

“At first, the whole idea of going to a third world country and doing mission work was a little scary,” Rau said.

Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America and is the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere. More than 40 percent of its citizens live in poverty, with many lacking access to pure water or sanitary sewers.

A high birth rate among adolescents perpetuates a cycle of poverty and low educational attainment. Sanitation woes lead to a prevalence of water-borne diseases.

Any hesitation for Rau evaporated as she got to know the people.

“The people keep me going back,” said Rau, a sprinter and varsity basketball player who has been working on her Spanish to better relate to her new friends. “It’s an awesome feeling when you go back to a community and a little girl will yell your name.”

Yes, just as awesome as stepping onto the podium at the state track championships.

Long and Rau teamed with Olivia Rassel and since-graduated Aliyah Clinker to blaze a fourth-place time of 3:54.86 at the state finals in the 1,600 relay last June.

“We finally reached the goal that we had worked for as a team,” said Rau, who is also sports editor for the school yearbook. “It was really awesome to do it together.”

Rau is recovering from a chronic foot injury, a byproduct of basketball, but is hopeful to be back later this month for another state title run.

Even on the sidelines, she finds a way to contribute.

“When the relay ran a season-best time, she was the first one at the finish line smiling ear-to-ear, waiting to congratulate them,” Center Grove assistant coach Melissa Warner said. “As an athlete, you could not ask for a better teammate.”

Both Warner and head coach Wes Dodson said the teammates share a willingness to take on a challenge.

“Tori and Lauren are two of the best leaders I’ve ever coached and worked with,” Warner said. “Their work ethic and competitiveness drive their teammates to work harder each and every day.

“Neither girl has ever met a challenge she isn’t ready to take on, whether it’s running the open 400 or running in lane 9 at the state meet.”

Dodson said venturing into mission work is a natural for both.

“Just like with (going to) Nicaragua, Tori’s not afraid to test her boundaries. That’s awesome,” Dodson said of the senior who fills her track shoes as easily as she does dance shoes for her spot in the school’s award-winning show choir. “And Lauren has been doing this stuff since eighth grade.

“Can you imagine as an eighth grade kid going to Nicaragua?”

That fearlessness translates into maturity and success back home, as well.

“The trip brought them closer together, and that has paid off for our team this year,” Warner said. “Having placed fourth at the state meet last year as part of the 1,600 relay team, there’s a lot of pressure on them this year to repeat.

“However, this trip has allowed them to grow closer and focus on a common goal.”

Indeed, the March trip was a special time for both, as they took soccer balls, jerseys and shoes to share with children as they conducted a soccer clinic. They came back with something even more special.

“You come back finding that you made an impact there,” said Long, who will study neuroscience and run track at Davidson next fall. “It’s indescribable how it is to see their faith. It opened my eyes beyond the Center Grove bubble. I

“It was something to see real people in real situations and be put in a place where you need to step forward and talk in sometimes uncomfortable situations.”

From there, they just did what came natural.

“We played with the kids and showed them God’s love,” Long said.

Indeed, the two girls who pushed their comfort zones and gave up their school breaks to become missionaries, found that their role wasn’t just spreading their faith in Central America, but wherever life takes them.

“I learned over the years that you can be a missionary to people in your school, on your team or in another country just by smiling and talking with them,” Rau said. “You don’t have to build a road to be a missionary.”

The Long File

Name: Victoria Marie Long

Age: 18

Class: Senior

Parents: Chad and Cathy Long

Siblings: Abby (20) and Olivia (11)

Favorite subject: Anatomy

College: Davidson University

College sport: Track

College major: Neuroscience

Favorite meal: Tuna salad

Who inspires you: Sanya Richards-Ross

The Rau File

Name: Lauren Elizabeth Rau

Age: 17

Class: Junior

Parents: Mother, Kelli Luallen; father, Todd Rau; stepfather, Bill Luallen

Siblings: Maddie Rau (15), Jordan Luallen (23), Alexia DeWitz (27), Kelsey Luallen (28), and Whitney Luallen (30).

Favorite subject: Math

College: Lipscomb University

College sport: Basketball

College Major: Undecided

Favorite meal: Oatmeal with fruit

Who inspires you: Kevin Durant

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Bob Johnson is a sports correspondent for the Daily Journal.