Photos by Don Rich, Charles Stone and Patty Morgan
The phrase ‘perfect storm’ can used to describe that moment in time when talent, preparation, expectations and opportunity come together to create something that would not have been possible under normal circumstances.
‘Perfect storm’ is how Germantown Friends (GFS) boys and girls head XC/TF coach Rob Hewitt describes the surge in top talent that the nation is enjoying in many events – but most noticeably in his universe in the girls’ 800 meter run.
Hewitt is actually referring to a sea-change that has been created over the past decade through the virtual instant availability of information on high school track performances that began with Dyestat in the late 1990’s, and has been expanded greatly over that decade through the MileSplit Network.
But he specifically is referring to his rising star freshman, Sarah Walker, who is now the top frosh 800 runner in the US, and #15 overall.
“The kids have more information. Coaches are sharing knowledge. And it is leading to higher expectations for athletes and their coaches,” Hewitt says.
A quick glance at the US leaders in the girls’ 800 points out an obvious trend.
Through June 12, there are now 19 girls under 2:09. And 33 under 2:10.
All led of course by the new US record holder, Mary Cain, whose 1:59.51 eclipsed the 1982 mark of 2:00.07 by Upper Dublin’s Kim Gallagher. Cain was a 2:06 runner as a freshman.
In 2012 there were just two more than that after the New Balance champs and major youth meets, which have yet to occur in 2013.
There were 16 the year before. And it has been rising steadily since 2007 when anything in the 2:08 range was considered spectacular.
Germantown Friends assistant coach Kelsey Rose – a 2008 Upper Dublin HS grad and 2012 alum of Saint Joseph’s University – echoes the expectations theme. “I remember that anything in the 2:08 range seemed unreachable to me. We thought 2:12 was fast, and I was thrilled with 2:16-17. Rose’s HS PR was 2:17.50 and in college that dipped to 2:13.03. That’s not her PR now – more on that in a few…
“The girls I am coaching now really care. They want these goals. I can’t say we were like that in high school.”
As in everything, raw talent is one of the key factors.
Any mid-distance/distance runner knows that if you train, you improve. Pretty simple concept.
After watching Walker train and race, no one doubts that Walker has real talent.
With two older brothers always involved in sports, it gave her a reason to try a lot of things. “We could all be outside together,” Walker says. “And with two brothers to help me out, I really never did want a sister. I always liked being the youngest.”
With natural speed, Walker has been a soccer player since she was seven years old. She was on a travel team by eight. The speed led her to become a mid-fielder and striker. Think constant motion and quickness.
As she got older, Walker found herself “pretty small” when facing the opposition on a soccer field. But that didn’t prevent Walker from joining the GFS soccer team last fall as a freshman.
But she was already on the GFS running radar.
Hewitt has built the program – starting with the boys, who have had national success in both cross country and track. He took over the girls’ program as well three years ago.
The school has a very good middle school program to introduce kids to the sport, without putting too many demands on them. Walker was on their 4x100 and the open 400… and when she was asked if she wanted to do a mile time trial, she ripped off a 5:35.
So she was definitely on the radar.
And what often happens with soccer players who have running talent, she was torn between the two sports.
“It had been a difficult year. I had to make a decision during winter track. Both teams were supportive… both wanted a full-time commitment. Practices were overlapping. I could not do both.”
For the rest of her freshman year, she picked track.
Hewitt knew he needed an assistant coach for the girls.
Rose thoroughly enjoyed her career at St. Joe’s and the support and knowledge she gained from Head Coach Kevin Quinn.
But when her college career was over, she wasn’t quite ready to let it go.
So Walker talked with her other collegiate mentor, Claire Duncan. Duncan is a former Penn runner and coach at both Friends’ Central and Germantown Friends. She just happens to be married to Rob Hewitt – also a Saint Joe’s grad.
Claire knew of an offer that Rose could not pass up. Hewitt was looking for an assistant coach for the girls who could not only mentor and coach them, but train with them as well.
Rose started her coaching career with cross country. And she readily admits that she learned a lot more than she felt she was able to teach the girls. “I soon realized what all my coaches had done for me.”
Hewitt had spent his three years trying to build up the program to the level of the boys. As any successful coach knows, coaching girls is different than coaching boys. But Hewitt was a good student, and he leaned on his wife for advice, and well as one of his top runners – Eliza Lukens-Day, who graduated this year. “She (Eliza) has been really good teaching me,” Hewitt says.
Walker was on the radar. But she soon became quite visible to all.
Coach Hewitt was not able to make the first Monday practice for indoor that Sarah was participating in. But Coach Rose was there.
Hewitt had shared what he knew about Walker with Rose.
“That first workout, you could just tell,” Rose says. “It was tempo on the track, and she was simply outrunning all the other girls. She made it look so easy. And when she stopped, she was just smiling.”
One of the first races where both coaches knew that they had something special was at the Varsity Classic on February 4th at the Armory. In a race with more than 20 girls, Walker ran a 2:21, and as Rose relates, “actually sprinting the last lap.”
The school record in the 800 at the time was 2:17. And after that Armory race, Hewitt started to think that ambitiously, Walker might be able to break 2:20.
But he didn’t want to rush it. Walker was new to the sport, and indoor track is hard enough, but even more so if you have never raced outdoor on the larger oval. “We wanted her to learn to race and compete, and learn how to compare herself to her own accomplishments,” Hewitt says.
And Lukens-Day was also a big help in Walker’s indoctrination into racing. “For motivation and leadership, everyone looked up to her. She showed me how it was done, taking me through the racing stuff – the warm-up, how to stay calm.”
Hewitt and Rose mostly stuck to the relays for Walker during indoor.
The Yale Track Classic was as two-day meet in the middle of January. The DMR was the choice for GFS. Walker anchored in 5:19.6 and the team was 2nd in the Under 600 Schools race, going 12:37.48. That was her first competitive 1600 ever.
At indoor states, Rob and Kelsey made the decision to have her double by running the open mile – an event she had qualified for at a last chance meet just 12 days before – and then come back to lead off the DMR in the 1200. She did PR, going 5:20.10, but she wasn’t happy with the performance. Her 1200 was better, and put her team in a good position with a 3:48 split. Little ‘ol GFS would finish 3rd among all schools, beating the likes of Cumberland Valley, Pennridge, Central Bucks East, Council Rock North, Mount Lebanon, among others. And their 12:17.66 got them into the Championship of American DMR at the upcoming Penn Relays.
It was back to pure relays for Sarah at the New Balance Nationals Indoor. She split a 58.1 400 in the Sprint Medley Relay… and in the 4 x Mile, she PRed again, this time with a 5:12.4. Their 20:57.79 would earn them 5th place and all-American status. 6th place? Saratoga Springs, NY.
The GFS girls team arrives at a new level.
Next stop is outdoor, and a trip to the south for the Colonial Relays at the College of William & Mary.
Walker had not raced an 800 in awhile, but was given that assignment in the DMR.
She was in chase mode when she got the baton.
With a young runner, you sometimes worry what that will do to the individual.
For Walker, the chase is what she loves. “I like to do some chasing. It helps me to get into the flow of the race.”
Chase she did… and GFS would win the DMR in 12:11.54, over six seconds up on Great Valley.
Her split of 2:13 came off a 61 second opening quarter. It was eye-popping.
The next day, she doubled back in the 4x800, splitting 2:15 after going out in 60. GFS took 2nd to powerful West Chester Henderson by less than four seconds, going 9:36.07.
A few coaches asked Hewitt if he was “going to teach her how to race the 800.”
His response? “I am not putting any governors on her. We’ll worry about it when we get there.”
It was time for an open 800 to see if she could take down the 2:17 school record.
And did she ever!
It would be the first time she would beat her 800-idol, Natalie Deacon of West Chester Henderson. As a sophomore, Deacon had been the anchor on the state record 8:55.43 4x800 squad. Running on Deacon’s home track in the April 19th Warrior Invitational, Walker would PR in 2:12.13, with Deacon in 2nd. “It was a good race. The first lap I stuck with her and then just went for it,” Walker said. “And Natalie was really nice after. She is always supportive.”
The GFS girls’ 800 school record had a new owner.
After that race, Hewitt says, “Sarah’s confidence was sky-high.”
A couple of weeks later, Walker finds herself in the paddock area of the Penn Relays in the COA DMR. She was the lead-off… a tough stop for an experienced runner, let alone a freshman.
According to Walker, she was nervous in the paddock. And nervous on the line… but when the gun went off, she simply raced. That’s something else you can’t coach.
She split 3:35.6, a whopping 12+ seconds better than indoor state champs… and handed off the baton in 2nd. GFS would go on to run 11:55.99 and capture 2nd.
“We were all happy overall,” relates Walker. “But upset with 2nd.”
May would see even more PR’s as Walker ran a 5:02.56 1600 at the 8th New Balance/Henderson T&F Invitational. “I really like that track.”
She would have done another event, or even something entirely different, but Walker had to be in a mandatory play at GFS that evening. And it’s not like it was something she didn’t want to do. Acting is one of her passions, as is drawing, painting and working with clay. Around her summer training, she will attend a seven-week camp in the Poconos for the 5th year in a row. It’s a break she looks forward to.
From a 1600 PR, it was on to a solo 2:14.52 to win the PA Independent School title, also while setting a meet record.
But her next invitational is what showed that her 61 opening 400’s in the half-mile were not too fast. She popped a PR of 56.97 to win the Friends’ School League title. She came back to win the 800 in 2:17.51 – which was really pleasing for Walker. “After going all-out in the 400, I wasn’t killing myself in the 800. I was happy with that.”
Coaches Hewitt and Rose knew it was time for another test.
It was back to West Chester Henderson for the PA Distance Classic.
But first, a workout.
The Friday before the meet, they gave Walker an 800-targeted workout that was designed to improve her confidence for the last 200 after the blistering pace she was likely to set for the opening 400. Rose continually tells her young charge that they have already put in most of the race… and points out that it is simply a number. “I tell her it’s more about the effort than the time.”
So on the track they went.
The idea was to come through the 400 of the 600 at her normal 60-61, which she actually hit in 59. The next 200, Walker was asked to simply be aggressive. She was. And a 1:33.4 was the result.
But they weren’t done.
After 12-15 minute rest, Walker ran 200’s. The workout called for four. Walker asked for more. Her splits were at 29.7 to 30.2 pace. She asked for another. But Hewitt shut it down after five.
The following Tuesday, Walker did another 200 workout as a way to sharpen for the Friday race.
The Distance Classic includes all levels… so Hewitt gave. Walker a choice. Coach Rose would be running in the elite 800, but if Walker wanted to race the high school 800, she was given the choice.
She smiled when Hewitt asked her and said confidently, “I want to race with my coach.”
Walker knew that if she stayed with her coach, she’d been in good shape… and all was good after the 400.
By 600, though, Rose said she didn’t know where Walker was. “I know she fell back at one point, because I can normally feel her on my shoulder. I was getting a little worried.”
As Rose approached the finish, she knew she was in for a big PR. And she started hearing cheering for Sarah as well on the final straight. Rose hit the line in 2:08.40 and as she turned around, Walker was right there beside her.
PA#1. US#1 freshman. US#15 overall.
“I like chasing. It works for me.”
Next up, more time with the team, another big test in the 800, and then a decision.
Walker will race with her teammates at this weekend’s New Balance Outdoor Nationals, both on Sunday. The 4xmile is at 8 in the morning, and the DMR is after 5 in the afternoon.
Then it is off to Iowa for the USATF Junior Outdoor Championships, where Walker will toe the line in the 800 against college freshmen, as well as top high schoolers. Right now there are quite a few names you should know, including Stanford’s Amy Weissenbach and Villanova’s Angel Piccirillo and Kelsey Margey.
Walker is looking forward to the opportunity.
A decision on a possible World Youth Trials the following week in Illinois has yet to be made.
As for making the switch from soccer to cross country, Walker says a decision has yet to be made.
To be on the safe side, she has asked Hewitt for a summer training plan.
The GFS team has a lot of returning talent, and Walker’s presence would obviously be a big plus.
But you can hear it in her voice when asked about making such a tough decision. She is not intimidated by the choice. Just as she is not intimidated by her competition.
“I know that when I decide, whatever I choose will be the right decision.”
But 2:08 and however she closes out her freshman track campaign is something to remember. And not bad for someone who didn't pick up the sport, let alone the event, until the early part of this year when she run a 2:29.53 in her first indoor race.
Buckle up PA. Because this perfect storm has just begun.