HOLLAND — Gillian Fiene was aiming for the finish line. She looked around for her teammate and fellow state champion, Michelle Kuipers.


But during this weekend cross country meet, Kuipers was not there. She was on a college visit.


Fiene, of course, knew this, but in the heat of a race, it didn’t register.


It was a moment that sticks out for the Holland Christian senior because the duo has been nearly inseparable as they put together perhaps the most amazing tandem careers and legacies in the history of West Michigan.


But the memory also sticks out for Fiene because she got a preview of what racing without Kuipers is going to be like as the duo of state champions moves to the college ranks.


“I realized in my heart of hearts that I physically wanted her there because that was our race together. That is going be something I definitely have to get used to in college,” Fiene said.


Fiene and Kuipers have run the same races together in cross country and track for the past three years. Both have earned state championships individually, the duo has finished 1-2 in state events and been part of several state champion relays.


Despite going against each other in every meet, including meets with state championships on the line, Fiene and Kuipers have avoided being overly competitive and jealous of each other and just found a way to be happy for each other, while remaining motivated to improve.


“We have talked about it so many times. Our relationship is perfect,” Fiene said. “I will never find another teammate exactly like Michelle. I know how special and unique it is. To compete at such a high level, and to know that whoever has a better race, we have that friendship still. I want nothing but the best for her going forward. I hope she can find other teammates like that but I do realize how rare that is.”


Kuipers also is aware of how unique their bond has been.


“Gillian is like a sister to me. When she came sophomore year, she was always there for me. Being able to run with her, she has pushed me and taught me how to be a teammate. She brings joy into everything she does. She has always encouraged me and I couldn’t have done this without her,” Kuipers said. “Over time it has hit me how special it is. The more I think about it, the more I realize how cool it is. She is such a strong runner and has such strong faith. It is such a great bond.


“Now it is sinking in more how special it was to run with her and have someone push me every single day.”


Especially since their highly anticipated senior season was erased by the coronavirus pandemic.


“It was definitely really hard. I had the hope that we could still compete. I was so looking forward to it. It didn’t sink in right away,” Kuipers said. “I am really going to miss it. Now I am just looking forward to the next season in college.”


But for the first time in three years, that will be without Fiene, who moved to Holland before her sophomore year.


“Honestly, it all started when I transferred to Holland Christian (from Illinois),” Fiene said. “Michelle was a state champ and the 800 was one of my events, too. I wasn’t sure how she was going to take having someone else in there. But the way she welcomed me with open arms, it just comes down to her character. Her walk in life was something I wanted to be a part of. I wanted to live like her.”


It started three years of running side-by-side, as well as doing plenty of other things side-by-side.


“Whenever we practiced, we always said that we would rather lose to each other than someone on another team,” Kuipers said. “We are always supportive. It was motivation to push even harder if the other one of us won. We did it together to push each other. It is just a strong teammate friendship.”


That was on display at last year’s state meet during the 1,600 meters. It started with a special moment before the race and ended with them nearly finishing side-by-side as Fiene and Kupers finished 1-2 in the state.


“Before the run, we were able to gather the whole field and say a prayer before we ran. We wanted our performance to reflect Him. It was so evident when we were running. I wasn’t thinking about being state champ, it was about thanking God for the opportunity to run on this team,” Fiene said. “At the 800, Michelle and I were hanging back for the start, I told Michelle, it was her time to go. People were kind of looking at us, like ‘Why are you talking?’”


The support never wavered even when they were out of breath during a race, and continued until they shared a huge embrace after crossing the finish line, for what turned out to be the last time in track together.


“I haven’t thought about it too much. It makes me sad but it will definitely be different. I don’t know if there will be someone right there with me all the time like her. But I am going to take what I learned from her to the new team and be that teammate for others,” Kuipers said. “I don’t know if I will be able to find someone as great as Gillian. Our bond is so special.”


Kuipers accepted a scholarship at Colorado Christian, while Fiene will run at Grand Valley State. Both schools are NCAA Division II powerhouses and both runners will pursue nursing.


“It is going to be tough without Michelle. There were definitely a lot of conversations we had about colleges because we were talking to similar teams. Every team wanted Gillian and Michelle together,” Fiene said. “When you see one of us, you see the other. So that is going to be hard. We are both going D-II and I hope that we get to compete down the road.


“She has had such an impact on me and I will never forget that.”


— Contact Sports Editor Dan D'Addona at Dan.D'Addona@hollandsentinel.com or 616-546-4276. Follow him on Twitter @DanDAddona and Facebook @Holland Sentinel Sports.