By Noah Sheidlower
Today is the meet. Athletes from all over New England gather at one track to run their best times, jump their best distances, and throw their best measurements. They have all trained and excelled in their events, honing their skills for today’s meet. Two seniors place their water bottles down beside each other and begin to warm-up. “55 meter hurdles!,” shouts an official, “Triple jump!” Immediately, the two senior athletes jog cautiously over to their respective events, making sure not to waste any energy. The hurdlers and the jumpers stand single file and are given a number. Then the track goes quiet.
“On your mark!” The jumpers look towards the track, eyeing their hurdler teammates’ fierce expressions as they get down to their knees. Then they look forward again towards the sandpit. “Set!” The hurdlers raise themselves upwards into a starting position, gathering all of the speed and power that they will use to accelerate over the hurdles. “Go!” They take short, aggressive steps and then lift their front legs over the hurdle. They all cross the finish line, and the senior sees his time in neon lights: “Sean Na, 8.3 seconds.”
Meanwhile, the jumper pulls his arms back and begins his dash forwards. His stride elongates. One hop, two hops. He lands on the release line and gives one last burst of energy to force himself as far from the line as possible. He barely lands on his feet, but his face shows that it was a decent jump. “Brandon Chen, 41.1 feet.” He isn’t thrilled with this distance; however, he, along with Na, knows he has proven himself to be one of the best athletes of the Eastern United States.
Brandon Chen and Sean Na both qualified for the Eastern States Indoor Track and Field Championships at the New Balance Armory in Manhattan. While Na qualified for 55 meter hurdles, Chen qualified for both long and triple jump. Only a select few athletes qualify for this meet yearly. Chen and Na developed into the athletes they are now by committing to the winter and spring track and field seasons for each year of high school.“They have great passion for the sport,” track coach Damon Reader said. “It is only through passion that you take the time and effort to research your sport, [to] study the intricacies and nuances, and [to] learn the drills.”
Chen and Na started running in eighth grade and have continued to take risks since. Both of them took on new events and improved in them quickly due to their work ethic. Immediately after school, Chen and Na lead the team in a full warm-up, consisting of multiple stretches and core exercises. They then teach the less experienced athletes how to improve in their own events. Going through the technique, they guide the hurdlers and jumpers through each maneuver until they have seen noticeable improvement. From here, breathing heavily from the workout, they finish practice with group stretching and abdominal exercises. And every day at 5:15, both of them reward the team’s hard work through compliments and camaraderie.
Chen was a two-time conference champion in triple jump, a three-time qualifier for the New York State meet, and a decathlon competitor for the USA Track and Field (USATF) Junior Olympic Regionals. “[Chen] dedicates essentially all of his time to track,” said Na. “He inspires me to push myself to try and match his hard work and dedication.” Na placed within the top four in individual rankings at multiple all-conference and all-division meets. He has qualified for other invitationals as well, including all-conference and all-division.
Unfortunately, achieving such feats comes with a compromise: Both athletes have faced some sort of physical or mental hurdle that put their track careers in jeopardy. Chen remembers having a debilitating back injury his sophomore year that limited the extent to which he could jump. With limited physical activity, he lost much of the strength and agility that he had developed earlier in the season. Chen sees his “hardships as stepping stones” towards becoming a stronger individual. With this mentality, it was not long before he recovered and even improved; he ultimately went on to take the Conference Champion Award in triple jump the following season.
Na’s most notable drawback was not one of his hip or back injuries but a mental hurdle instead. As a sophomore at the All-Conference Championship meet two years ago, Na was in contention to be runner-up in the 55 meter hurdles. Unexpectedly, he “tripped over [the hurdle],” falling “face first into the track, so everyone else passed” him on the line. The fall was not only physically damaging but also detrimental to his sense of achievement. Na quickly found himself vaulting over the hurdles the following week, slowly improving both coordination and concentration.
Both athletes envision themselves running and jumping respectively in their college years. While Na looks to compete in an intramural-type running club while studying at the University of Pennsylvania, Chen looks to qualify for the NCAA Championships for Adelphi University and to finish top six in long jump, triple jump, and high jump. But before they leave for college, they each agreed to continue to teach others to appreciate and improve the track atmosphere.“We just cheer each other on like family,” Na said.
Coach Reader stated that while Chen and Na’s departure will be a slight setback for the team, their contributions will stay, inspiring young athletes to take over their roles in the future. “They show what it takes to be successful at the varsity level—the work ethic, time commitment, risk-taking, knowledge of sport, etc.” Coach Reader said. “They both flat out give more effort than everyone else. Believe it or not, I’ll remember that more than any particular performance or achievement when they are gone.”