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Tumbling into track

Several Hillsboro-area track and field standouts have extensive backgrounds in gymnastics


Per usual, the Hillsboro area is producing its share of girls track and field talent this season.

For example, entering this week, Liberty senior Eli Pecsok ranked second in the state in the shot put, while Courtney Vacek, a Glencoe junior, had posted the second-longest triple jump by an Oregon girl.by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Century's Kassie Morrison, Hilhi's Krissy Thomas, Liberty's Eli Pecsok and Glencoe's Courtney Vacek (left to right) all have turned early training in gymnastics into success in track and field.

And not surprisingly, Hillsboro junior Anna Dean held the state’s fastest time in the event in which she is the reigning state champion, the 100-meter hurdles.

These girls, as well as Century pole vaulter Kassie Morrison, Liberty sprinter Sarah Martinez and Hilhi sprinter Krissy Thomas, stand out not just on a local or a league level, but rather on the state stage. But that is not the only thread that binds them together.

In fact, all six girls share a notable connection in that they are either former or current high-level competitive gymnasts who have taken the skills and abilities they cultivated in gymnastics and used them to excel in track and field. All of the girls are scheduled to compete today, the second and final day of the Pacific Conference and Northwest Oregon Conference district meets, and all of them hold strong chances to advance to next week’s state championships in Eugene in their respective events.

“It’s a little surprising, because I know them,” said Thomas, a Hilhi sophomore and the reigning Pacific Conference champ in the 200 meters, about the connection. “But at the same time, gymnasts, they can really kind of do any sport and be pretty good at it just with the skills they had from gymnastics.”

Out of the six girls, Thomas is the only one who competed in gymnastics this past season, which, for her, ended last month at a regional meet in Montana. Managing the two sports while they overlapped these past two springs has been a delicate balance for Thomas, who competed at Level 9 this year, but one she has managed to make work. While the other girls no longer compete in gymnastics, most of them continued the sport into their high school years.

Pretty much all of the girls — as well as some of their coaches — indicated that their gymnastics background has been intrinsic to their success in track, and for a variety of reasons. The sport is a platform on which to develop a type of athleticism that transfers well to track, a competitive spirit, strong and well-rounded bodies, and a diligient work ethic.

And, indeed, these girls have been successful, to the point that any track program in the state would be happy to claim them. Other than Vacek, all of them competed at last year’s state track meet, and Dean, Pecsok, Martinez and Thomas are all district champions and multi-time state meet place-winners.

As for Vacek, the main reason she has not yet participated in a state meet is because she has never tried to qualify for one before this week. She gets her chance today in her main event at Newberg High School.

Her talent and impact have been immediately evident. She only gave up gymnastics in the past year, decided to join for the track team for the first time this spring, and proceeded to break Glencoe’s school record in the triple jump in her first meet.

She has definitely noticed crossover from her old sport to her chosen event in her new one.

“It’s really similar to some leaps in gymnastics,” Vacek said about the three-phase triple jump. “The first jump is really similar to what we call a switch leap, and the second jump is just a regular leap, and then the last is just a jump.”

The explosiveness, strength and power that Vacek and her fellow gymnasts have developed are useful in many track and field events such as the jumps, sprints and throws.

So is the body awareness that some of the girls said comes as part of the package when they turn out for track. That can be a particularly valuable skill, as many track and field events such as the pole vault and triple jump are rather technical. So being able to understand how a body moves in space and make adjustments can be the key to improving times, making that next bar up or adding inches to a jump or throw.

“The best thing that transferred over from my gymnastics to my track, I think, is my body awareness,” said Pecsok, a senior who will compete for the U.S. Naval Academy in the heptathlon next year. “So if I’m going over on high jump or triple jumping or hurdling, I have a pretty good idea, like, ‘Oh, my leg shouldn’t have been there, or my arm was not where it was supposed to be.’”

The carryover includes a mental aspect as well. What stands out to Carl Kleiber, who works with Dean and Thomas as a sprints coach for Hilhi, is their competitiveness — he described their drive to compete as “fierce” — and their ability to take direction from coaches.

And after years of having competed in intense gymnastics settings, high school track and field meets, even the big ones, don’t phase them.

“They’re already set, because they go to these huge competitions when they’re younger, so they know the pressure, they know what pressure is when it comes to the big meet,” Kleiber explained. “They walk out here, it’s like, ‘Oh, really, this is all this is? Yeah, I got this.’”

For Dean, at least, it is not that she is immune to nerves, but rather, her background in gymnastics has prepared her to deal with them if they flare up.

“Competing last year at state, I was nervous, but I was so comfortable with those nerves that it just kind of pushed me more,” she said.

In fact, they helped push her all the way to a state title, which she won by just a hundredth of a second.

Of course, for this group, track can be a lot of fun too.

To advance as far as these girls have in gymnastics required many hours in the gym — some of the girls said they have spent 20 hours per week training. Track has given them another outlet for their competitiveness, but without the wear and tear on their bodies that gymnastics can generate.

“All I want to do is go out there and try my best and be the best I can be, and not worry about the competition and just have fun,” said Morrison, the Century pole vaulter, who qualified for state last year in her first track season.

Even in that framework, Morrison’s and the other girls’ backgrounds and then their decision to try another sport has been nothing but a benefit to the Hillsboro-area track and field programs.

“Lucky us as coaches, lucky us that we get to inherit these young athletes, these young, refined athletes at that, too,” said Dennis Rice, Vacek’s coach at Glencoe. “It makes it ... great to have someone that’s so competitive, that’s so focused in their event when they’re out there competing.

“And to have that athleticism too, it’s a pretty cool combo.”



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