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Young Napanee athlete takes quickly to the hurdles

May 29, 2014


It isn’t always easy to convince young athletes to give hurdling a try.

“Most elementary school kids like to do the 100 (metres),” Napanee track coach Tom Worthy says, acknowledging that when they get to high school, there’s little incentive to switch from running down a straight stretch of track to one that has a bunch of barriers in the way.

This spring, however, Worthy had a problem: Too many aspiring Grade 9 athletes who wanted to compete in the 100 metres. “I could only enter three,” he said, so with this in the back of his mind he kept an eye peeled for someone who might be willing to see hurdles as a challenge, not an inconvenience.

Ryland Clark was that person.

“My coach saw me running and saw some kind of potential in me,” the 14-year-old from Deseronto said. “He asked me if I wanted to try hurdles and I thought that was kind of interesting.

“It’s kind of scary at first but once you get into it, it’s pretty fun.”

Clark has indeed had fun this spring. Though he’s only won the 100-metre hurdles once in five races, he’s developed one of the season’s more interesting rivalries with Sydenham’s Merik Wilcock.

The first time they raced, at the season-opening Limestone Legacy meet, Wilcock won and Clark was second. The next time, at the Foley Invitational in Belleville, Clark was again second (to Murdoch Seigner of East Northumberland) while Wilcock was fourth.

After that, Clark prevailed at the county championships, and then Wilcock was again best at the eastern Ontario meet last week, by three one-hundredths of a second, a margin detectable only by the camera at the finish line.

The two local runners will again find themselves on the same track as Seigner this week at the East regional qualifier, Friday in Ottawa, seeking a berth in next weekend’s Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations meet in Mississauga.

The rivalry, Clark said, inspires him to do better. From wherever the inspiration comes, Worthy says Clark is a rapt pupil of the hurdling art. “He listens,” Worthy said. “I give him one instruction and it doesn’t take him two or three tries (to apply it). The very next time, he’s trying to implement it.”

When spring practice began, Worthy was so confident he could convince Clark that hurdling would be his cup of tea, he gave the young man a proposition. “I said, ‘Give me four weeks,’” the coach recalled. That would have taken the experiment to the week of the Kingston Area meet and if, by then, Clark was an unhappy hurdler, the deal would be off and he could run the 100 at KASSAA.

“By then, he’s placing (well), he’s getting better every time he runs, he’s in this see-saw battle with the Sydenham kid and the East Northumberland kid,” Worthy said, noting that the competitive element seemed to appeal to Clark. “Now the rivalry’s happening, he’s starting to get a feel for it.

“After four and a half weeks, he’s starting to feel like now he’s a hurdler.”

Clark said it’s difficult for him to identify what it is exactly about the event that intrigued him at the start. “I don’t know if it’s new movement or new technique,” he said, “but it’s something challenging to work on.

“There’s just something different about it, compared to all the other events, that makes it a lot of fun.”

An accomplished singer who has performed throughout Ontario — “my favourite is soulful pop and jazz,” he said, with an affinity for the stylings of Michael Buble and Bruno Mars — Clark has auditioned for a YTV competition called the The Next Star.

It should perhaps be no surprise that a person with the courage to compete onstage would be attracted to something that similarly calls for athletes to put themselves on display in a demanding and unforgiving pursuit like hurdles.

“I like that he’s never balked,” Worthy said. “You know how kids hesitate, when you’ve got the wrong leg (to stride over the hurdle)? He went through it anyway. He challenges the hurdle. Regardless of whether his footing might have been off, the blocks might not have been set properly — it never prevented him from attacking the hurdle. That’s the right mindset.

“You know how a horse will balk at a jump? As soon as you start to see somebody doing that, you know you’ve got a lot of work to do. He’s already past that part.”

Clark agreed that the improvement he’s felt has come from his aggressive approach to the hurdles.

“They’re not as daunting as they used to be,” he said. “Coming up to them I can attack the hurdle, instead of stuttering before them. It was (difficult) but after a lot of practice you get more used to it.

“After the first meet (where he was two full seconds behind Wilcock), I was really nervous for the next ones but as I continued I got better and better. Now I’m just working on trying to improve my time. It’s a lot of work but it’s paying off.”

Worthy agreed.

“In the hurdles, you can’t just come out and compete with your natural ability,” the coach said. “You’ve got to put in the work. This kid comes in, he has some natural ability, but the rest is (the result of) hard work. You can see the progression.

“I don’t think he realized he was going to keep getting that much better each time, (but) I think he realizes now that we’re onto something.”

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