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It was a perfectly lovely May afternoon. The sun was warm, a breeze was blowing. It would have been an excellent day to sit on the back porch and unwind after school, but not for me. I had 300 meters to run and eight hurdles to jump. A chance at qualifying for regionals was at stake. As a lowly, no-name freshman, I was set on not messing this up.
“First call, 300 meter hurdles,” blared through the speakers in Austintown Fitch's Falcon Stadium, muffled to the point that only one with a seasoned knowledge of track and field could understand. Suddenly, the nerves that I had suppressed throughout the school day surged through me. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath before grabbing my bag with my spikes and standing up from my team's spot in the bleachers. Down the stairs I went, heading for the track, cadenced by my swishing warm-up pants. Suddenly, I heard someone call my name, and I felt a hand in a firm grip on my shoulder. I turned around quickly to face my friendly, somewhat balding coach. His bright blue eyes had a serious gaze to them that left me knowing he meant business. He was known for his unique phrases and stern-but-inspirational lectures. I knew what was coming, and as I anticipated his motivating speech, I felt more nerves swell inside of me.
“You can do this, Martinko. One girl, that's all you need. Good luck.” He said seriously, varying only slightly from his usual pep talk.
I walked away pondering the validity of his logic and wondering how he could possibly have this much faith in me as I had just begun running this event a few months prior. I shook the thought out of my head and walked over toward the starting area. I scanned the area for a highlighter yellow vest, searching for an official. After finding one, I threw my bag down by the fence and walked toward her. I told her my name, checking myself in for the race.
“Lane two,” She said, making a red check by my name on her clipboard.
Success, I thought to myself. Lane two is one of my favorite lanes. This gave me another small surge of confidence. This one lasted, despite the massive amount of nerves flowing through me. I walked back over to my bag and sat down. The track felt warm underneath my legs, sun-warmed from a long, beautiful day. I started to stretch my legs, thinking more about what my coach had said. I looked around at all of my opponents. “One girl,” I quietly said to myself. Maybe I could do this. I felt a small wave of confidence flood through my body that was quickly overtaken by nerves. I reached for my toes, trying to touch them, stretching my legs. While I stretched, I glanced around at the rest of my competitors. Many were big, tall, long-legged and downright scary. They did warm-ups I had never seen before, they talked to the other runners like they were the best of pals because they had all run against each other before, and some came from unfamiliar schools whose names I couldn't even pronounce. Most were not freshmen, which my coach had mentioned to me on the bus ride. I watched a tall, dark haired girl jump a hurdle in warm up, and quickly felt inferior. I sighted and took a deep breath, pushing these negative thoughts out of my head. I then stood up, running through my coach's carefully choreographed warm-up routine. Quick high knee running followed by butt-kick running, jogging backwards (which can be catastrophic for clumsy people like myself), high leg kicks that cater to my many years of ballet training, and then finishing up long lunges that are so slow they make the thigh muscles ache, even on the best of days. After this warm up, I sat down again, this time removing my heavy and clunky tennis shoes and replacing them with my lightweight and aerodynamic spikes. My hands were so shaky, they felt clumsy like a young child learning to tie his or her shoes when I fiddled with the laces. Once my spikes were tied, I stood up and began to make nervous conversation with the other runners. Our meaningless chatter covered “What school do you go to?” and“What grade are you in?” and “What is your fastest time?” as we waited for the final 400 meter dash heats to finish. Everyone seemed on edge and almost unfriendly because of his or her stress and jitters about the race. I found myself the two other freshmen, and, scared, we banded together for our final few pre-race minutes.
At last, with a bang, the last 400 meter race started. As the runners sped by, I found my starting blocks and set them to my numbers, 25 on the right and 45 on the left. I found lane two and placed my blocks in the proper position. Looking up, I saw the hurdle crew setting up the hurdles as the last 400 meter runners finished their race. I then walked over to my bag, removed my warm-ups and adjusted my headband. I nervously pulled on the edges of my shorts, a habit I developed over the season due to my too-short shorts. I tucked my shirt in, a regulation I have yet to understand, and slowly returned to my lane. At this time, every hurdle was set up and the starting official had arrived. The finish line waved the white flag, giving the a-okay to go. My race was about to begin. I closed my eyes and visualized myself going over the first hurdle. Taking a deep breath, I opened my eyes and stared down the track at the first obstacle in front of me.
“Stand in your lane,” the official bellowed, as I glanced up at the spectators in the stadium. Their shouts of excitement from the previous race began to die down in preparation of the race about to begin. I jumped up and down and stretched my arms, going through my slightly superstitious pre-race routine that I developed over the season. Remembering my Catholic roots, I then blessed myself with the sign of the cross before waiting for my next command. “On your mark,” the official then shouted out, raising his starter gun. I took a deep breath, stretched my legs one final time, and placed my feet into my blocks. “Set!” he yelled, as I froze in the position, “butt up and head down,” remembering how Coach used to shout at practice about my starts. My hands were tingling with a combination of excitement and jitters. My gaze was fixed on the soft, black rubber track below me. My head was clear except for those eight hurdles that stood between me and the finish line. And then, piercing through the calm with a loud bang, the starting gun went off.
The calm before the start quickly replaced itself with loud, clamoring chaos as the audience erupted in cheers and the runners began to sprint and compete for the top four spots. I pushed off of my blocks with all that I could muster and then off I went, sprinting towards the first hurdle. Everything that happened between the start and the first hurdle was completely a blur in my mind, as I focused everything on clearing the first hurdle. A few seconds later, I cleared it, snapping my right lead leg down quickly as I was told to in practice that week and moving towards the second hurdle. At this point, I was in front of Canfield's section of the bleachers, and I could hear my teammates yelling and screaming for me. I passed the girl in the lane to my right, but I did not really notice. My mind was on the next hurdle, which I quickly cleared. I did this for the next two hurdles, keeping my form intact and hearing the sound of the spectators cheering wildly for their favorite runners and the rhythmic beating of girls' feet on the ground as they ran and jumped. I was nearing the fifth hurdle, meaning that I had conquered the turn in the track, and all that I had left was the straight dash home. Four more hurdles and I was finished. My energy began to die around this point, as it had in every race prior to this. I felt myself begin to slow down, my form became more relaxed, and I started to think of the Snickers bar I really wanted after I finished. Suddenly, I heard my coach's voice piercing through the fog that had developed in my brain, and, tightening my form again as best as I could, I felt myself begin to work harder. I pushed through the last two hurdles and across the finish line. I decelerated, exhausted and breathing heavily, and looked around me. I had somehow stayed ahead of four of the girls, finishing fourth. I had qualified for regionals.
Still out of breath, I gasped a “Good Job” to all of the other girls in my heat before walking the 100 meters back to my bag to put on my tennis shoes. I pulled on my warmups and, pants swishing, walked back over to the bleachers. My coach gave me his “I'm proud of you” grin that you practically had to work your tail off to earn, and congratulated me on a good race.
Later, as I stood in the long line with my parents to get my signature post-race Snickers bar, my name was announced over the loudspeaker as a regional qualifier. It was this moment that my accomplishment began to sink in. I had proved something that day, to both myself and to my teammates, something that certainly I will never forget. There I was, an unknown freshman, who worked to become a regional qualifier. It truly showed that it doesn't matter how young or old somebody is, as long as he or she puts his or her mind to something, great things will be achieved. I will carry this lesson with me for the rest of my track career and throughout the rest of my life.