When Wallace Spencer and Rich D'Ambrosio returned to Malvern Prep the Monday after a weekend in which each became a national champion – a first in school history – the two juniors certainly didn't expect a parade, an assembly, or even a proclamation.
"They're not in it for the glory," says eighth-year track coach Mike Koenig.
Good thing, too. Because they had to field questions about what exactly it was they had done.
For D'Ambrosio, explaining the Pentathlon wasn't easy - mainly because until last spring, he didn't even know what it was.
And Koenig was asked if the hurdles were those 'little rectangles you jump over?'
No... they didn't expect a parade. But Koenig did expect an announcement over the P.A. system.
"It wasn't working," is what he was told.
They did eventually get some recognition when their individual championships – along with their all-American 6th place finish in the shuttle hurdles – was announced during a chapel service.
"These guys are in this to do their best and to reach their maximum potential as athletes," Koenig summarizes.
Known for their top tier lacrosse and football teams, the school is now gaining a reputation in track, as well. And with the outdoor season beckoning, and another year to develop their skills, the program should continue to grow.
Two athletes of the caliber of Spencer and D'Ambrosio will do that for you.
But Koenig had to do a little work to get these two on the team before he could help guide them to all their wins.
Spencer was a football player. But at 5-5 and 100 pounds as a freshman, his days as a running back and cornerback appeared to be numbered. He had gone under 25 seconds in the 200 as an 8th grader. He tried the hurdles at the lowest level as a freshman. But it wasn't until he committed to the event as a sophomore that he really started to blossom.
His days in football are indeed over. Now somewhere around 5-8 or 5-9, he was selected as one of the area's top cornerbacks after last season, an accomplishment that helped him walk away from the sport for good. "I'm not growing anytime soon," Spencer jokes. "Plus, I don't want to get injured for track."
Call him the reluctant Pentathlete.
But a Pentathlete he is.
Rich D'Ambrosia is tall. And for a talented athlete, tall means basketball.
He played both his freshman and sophomore years. He came out for track in 9th grade, and did the high jump, adding the long jump toward the end of the season. Improving over a foot a year helped him embrace the sport.
Last year, when Koenig was trying to put together a shuttle hurdle relay, and knowing that D'Ambrosio was not only very athletic, but had the height of a hurdler, he approached him about adding the barriers to his event list.
"He picked it up fast," says Koenig.
In fact, Koenig says the strength of these two athletes is they are not only so coachable, but technically, they both acquire new skills so quickly.
Watching his new hurdler take to the event with ease, Koenig began to think about the possibility of putting him in the multis.
"Yeah, at the end of last outdoor, the coach came up to me and said 'I found an event for you', " relates D'Ambrosio. "He gave me a hard time the whole year, and especially as we got closer to winter this year."
D'Ambrosio eventually gave in. But only after the indoor season was well underway.
Call him the reluctant Pentathlete. But a Pentathlete he is.
Four of the events were already in his arsenal. He had a PR of 6-4 in the high jump; a long jump over 23 feet; had done 51-point for 400, so he had some endurance to indicate he might survive the 1000; and he was already a strong hurdler. The only thing he needed was the shot put. "We started training for that two weeks before," says Koenig. "And he threw 35-36 in the gym, so it was promising."
D'Ambrosio opened with a PR of 8.36 in the 60 hurdles, putting him in the lead. Koenig relates that when Rich heard his name as the leader, "that's when he got fired up."
D'Ambrosio followed that up with a 21-7.50 in the long jump, 2nd on the day. That was way below his PR, but he still had the lead.
Next up was the shot put, where he expected a 37. But being called out of the circle on his second throw, D'Ambrosio got upset. He immediately turned mad into a 39-5.50, which gave him 8th in the event and kept him in the hunt.
His 6-00.50 high jump was tied for 7th. He was a bit disappointed.
Heading into the 1000, he kept hydrated and made sure he knew how many points he needed. He had never raced more than 400 meters. And the longest he had ever run was the team's 'chillin' 800 warmup jogs.
So D'Ambrosio solicited some help from his competitors.
As the day progressed, D'Ambrosio had made some new friends of his competitors... especially Marques Atkinson, of Virginia, Corey Crawford of New Jersey, and Ryan Paquin of Florida. So before the 1000, knowing he had never raced that distance before, he pointed out to them that he was in 2nd, and they all had a chance at the podium. He asked the three if he could pace off of them, and they agreed.
"Marques went out fast, but the pacing helped." At the end, when D'Ambrosia had won, and Marques found he was just 20 points back in 2nd of the winning 3590, "he was a little upset," shared D'Ambrosio. "I don't think they'll be helping me again."
Crawford would finish 4th, but Paquin was in 7th, one spot from the podium.
"That 1000 was all adrenaline," D'Ambrosia said after the event. "I never liked to do this until today, but now I want to. This was fun."
Fun would not be the word
that Spencer would use to describe
his PTFCA state indoor championship meet this year.
As the defending champion in the 60 meter hurdles, he was a clear favorite to repeat. But a tough start in the prelims got his steps off, and he crunched the first hurdle and went down. To his credit, he finished the race... but his day in his primary event was done. He did race the 200 later, finishing 14th.
"I was devastated," says Spencer. And Koenig says Spencer didn't talk about it at first.
But with the help of family and teammates, Spencer quickly saw his next opportunity at National Scholastic Indoor Champs as his "race for redemption."
To help Spencer get focused quickly, Koenig says he has occasionally stood beside the first hurdle, yelling and jumping up and down. "The first time, he laughed. But now he knows to expect the unexpected."
At this meet in 2009, Spencer had not advanced past the semis. "Last year he had people beside him. He has gotten past that."
Plus, they worked on his starts. But they worked on a lot more.
As a physics teacher in the school, Koenig says he brings track into the classroom, and physics onto the track.
A proponent of a more European style of hurdling, Koenig works to help his athletes bring their lead leg straight down and to keep their shoulders square so they can keep moving forward. "Our drills teach us to stay low over the hurdles," Spencer says.
This year, Koenig says, Spencer got out well in all his races, posting the top prelim time in New York of 8.02, a PR. He came back in the semis, and for the first time dipped under eight seconds, again posting the best time, a 7.97.
The nice thing about the NSIC schedule is that the hurdlers race one race a day over three days, so as Spencer says, "you have time to correct things, and fatigue is not a factor."
By Sunday, his confidence brimming, Spencer got out of the blocks 'like a shot' according to his coach. "Crossing in first was the greatest moment of my life," Spencer says. His 7.87 was his third PR in as many days, and stands as US#3 on the year.
His state meet is forgotten. He's now a national champ.
But the honor of getting Malvern Prep's first-ever national title had gone to D'Ambrosio the day before.
That didn't bother Spencer. though. He had been there during the Pentathlon helping his teammate. And D'Ambrosio had been there for each of Spencer's races as well. And of course, they each had run a leg of the 6th place Shuttle Hurdle Relay on Day One of the meet.
As for the future, neither D'Ambrosio or his coach see him jumping into the Decathlon this season. He has never pole vaulted, or thrown the javelin or discus – three events he'll need for the 10-event two-day march. "Yeah, I'm going to have to figure those out."
But he is in agreement with coaches who tell him his future is in the multis. "This may be my ticket," he concludes. "Fortunately, I love it."
As for Spencer, his coach says that he is a born hurdler. "And if any college coaches shy away from him because he's always the shortest guy on the podium, that would be a mistake."
Koenig says Spencer has the technical base to go to the college hurdles and excel.
The pair will open with their team on Saturday March 27th at the 26th Pennsylvania Track Classic at Great Valley. D'Ambrosio will be in the 200 and the triple jump. Spencer will try his hand in the 100 (where he went 10.97 last summer), and the long jump.
While not their signature events, Koenig knows he has two very special athletes on this team who are capable of doing many things well. And with one more full year to compete on the state and national stage, maybe by this time next year they may have their school understanding track as much as they do those other sports.