The state track and field championships offer something no other high school sporting event does – a viscerally personal and emotional look into individual athletes.
Because track is largely an individual sport, athletes must reflect on their own effort and sacrifices. Coaches and teammates can provide encouragement, but no one can help the athletes when they hit the track to run the 1,600 meters, throw the shot put or perform the triple jump.
They are on their own.
This is why I love the AIA state meet, which is held every year at Mesa Community College.
As a journalist, I want to tell compelling stories. Getting an up-close and personal look at athletes who are struggling or achieving at the highest level provides an opportunity to tell some intensely personal tales.
The way the track season is constructed heightens the drama and emotion of the narrative because the state meet is everything. Every athlete has worked all season, and some nearly year-round, for one moment – one shot at glory.
Every event is dripping with a palpable sense of immediacy and finality.
This year’s meet, which happened over three days, concluding last Saturday, gave me great insight into three Pinal County athletes – Roma White of Casa Grande Union, Brynna McQuillen of Vista Grande and Logan Taylor of Maricopa.
On May 1, the first day of the meet, White competed in the Division II finals for triple jump and pole vault.
She started with a moment of joy, as she came from behind to finish as state runner-up on her final jump, setting a personal record of 37 feet, 4.5 inches.
Shortly before White was to compete in the pole vault – an event that requires technical skill for which she has trained relentlessly – she ran in the 100-meter hurdles. The coaching decision to have her run the event was not a good one.
When White showed up to the pole vault, a significant amount of strength and energy was sapped from her legs. She had vaulted 11 feet, 2 inches earlier in the season, but the highest jump she cleared at state was just 10 feet.
Granted, it was good enough for third place – a great achievement – but White, a senior, wanted to go out on top with her best performance.
After the event, a teary White told me she hoped the pole vault would be her “crowning moment.”
It showed White has high standards for herself. With the amount of effort she put into the event, her emotions were understandable. She probably felt a little cheated after running the hurdles.
More importantly, it proved how much White cares. It showed her dedication to achieving a goal. And despite the tough moment, she kept her chin up and smiled while describing her triple jump triumph and the good memories she will take away from her brief two-year high school track career.
McQuillen had a whirlwind 20 hours between Friday night and Saturday afternoon. After battling shin splints and a stress fracture, she had rested for the week leading up to Friday.
Coming into the 3,200 meters Friday, McQuillen held the best time in Division III at 11:08.60. But when she started the race under the lights that night, the week of rest proved counterproductive.
She pushed through physical pain, but she told me the mental fatigue was even more damaging. She finished in fourth place with a time of 11:33.44.
McQuillen works harder than anyone. She was devastated after the race. Her family consoled her with hugs as she shed a few tears. Her father told me he wasn’t sure if she would race the 1,600 the following day because of her injuries.
But McQuillen was not about to go out that way. Instead, she used the disappointing finish to fuel her fire Saturday. She wanted to prove to everyone, including herself, that she is an elite runner.
When McQuillen hit the track Saturday, she fought her way to a state runner-up finish in the 1,600 (5:14.11), falling less than three seconds short of her PR. A relieved, beaming, confident McQuillen glided on air as she came off the track.
“I was really determined. I was pretty mad about my 3,200 race. So I was hoping that I could make up for it today, and I’m pretty sure that I did,” she told me, smiling.
A couple of hours later, McQuillen came from the back of the pack in the 800 to take fourth place, passing multiple runners on the final stretch. It was her third podium finish at the state meet.
I learned that McQuillen is a fighter. There is no quit in her. Just a junior, she will be even stronger next year.
Then there’s Taylor, whose state experience was nothing short of miraculous. Just five days before state, he mangled his right knee, busting it open after a game of catch with his younger brother resulted in a nasty slip and fall.
Taylor came in with the second-best times in Division II in the 110- and 300-meter hurdles.
On Wednesday, after he hobbled away from the high jump, I spoke to him. He was a bit dejected, but he had qualified for the finals in the 110 hurdles despite a slow run by his standards. He would later qualify for the finals in the 300 hurdles as well.
Most people in his condition would have sat out the state meet. Taylor had 20 stitches to close the wound in his knee, and he wore a large bandage and padding around the injury.
But even as he limped around the track, he never doubted his decision. The most important thing to him was simply being at the meet. He was going to compete, even if that knee opened up and bled out all over the place.
Fast forward to Saturday. Taylor, riding a surge of adrenaline, blew by everyone to take first place in the 110 hurdles. He yelled and screamed in celebration, jumping up and down after crossing the finish line with a time of 14.64 seconds.
He not only beat his competition, he beat nearly insurmountable odds. He surprised even himself.
Considering the injury, Taylor referred to winning a state championship as “a miracle.” Perhaps no state champion at the entire meet earned their crown as much as him.
While running in the 300 hurdles, he landed awkwardly on his right leg after clearing a hurdle. He still managed a sixth-place finish at 41.07.
Taylor showed his heart, and he displayed great pride.
The experiences White, McQuillen and Taylor had at state are about more than sports. They are human stories. They are personal.
I’m grateful to have shared in those experiences and told those stories. The state track meet is the best place to find them.