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Class of 2020 alumni reflect on Powhatan track and field's impact

Class of 2020 alumni reflect on Powhatan track and field's impact

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It was to be their final season – their last chance to contend for regular-season placements and postseason championships, as well as set new personal records.

That spring season in outdoor track and field, however, would never come. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of all high school spring sports in the state.

But nine Class of 2020 alumni – Lance and Tristen Bradley, Paris Brown, Gina Girgente, Arnell Jackson, Gabriel Kerns, Isaiah Morgan, Preston Pullin and Jeanne Wolkiewicz – positively impacted the program in a variety of ways.

The athletes and coaches shared the following on how the seniors left their mark on Powhatan track and field – and vice versa.

Lance Bradley

Bradley saw track as an opportunity to get faster. Since joining the team in ninth grade, he totaled seven seasons with the team between indoor and outdoor, competing mainly in the 300-meter as well as in the 200 – a good distance for him with his own capabilities, he said.

“I would like to think that I brought a whole lot of effort,” he said. “I wasn’t always the fastest but I did put in a lot of effort into getting that way.”

A lot of the track athletes stick with track all year, making them a pretty close group, he said.

“My coaches for track and field have been some of the best teachers I’ve had in my entire high school experience.”

He felt that he and his teammates grew as people.

“And for me it brought me a whole new level of confidence that I didn’t know I had.”

He spoke to attending John Tyler Community College, and then continuing his education at Liberty University.

As for how the current COVID-19 pandemic has motivated him towards his future goals, he said: “It definitely gave me more time to actually sit down and make detailed plans about how I’m going to continue with my education and my future job experiences.”

Tristen Bradley

Multisport athlete Tristen Bradley, who also contributed to the Powhatan football team, ran during the outdoor season in 2018 and competed in indoor in 2019 and 2020. According to head track and field coach Chrissie Blevins, his times included a 7.15 in the 55, a 12.6 in the 100, a 26.23 in the 200 and a 1:02.66 in the 400.

Blevins said Tristen “always brought with him a positive attitude and strong work ethic” to the team.

Paris Brown

She had a friend who wanted her to compete in track with her. Brown didn’t start until her junior year of high school, but she quickly found success, qualifying for states with Arnell Jackson, Nadia Howell and Shaniece Morris in the 4x100-meter relay last outdoor season, and doing so again in the 55 dash this past indoor season. She and her relay teammates placed eighth in 50.24 last year.

According to MileStat, Brown set the team record in the 55 when she ran a third-place time of 7.50 in the 2020 Class 4, Region B championships.

Over time, Brown grew to love track and field. She felt she brought a diligent and receptive element to a team in which she saw a “vast amount” of potential and personalities.

“My teammates were very passionate and supportive,” she said. “My coaches were also supportive and devoted a multitude of time and effort.”

Throughout her overall journey with the team, Brown learned aplenty from simply spending time with the group, and she felt she “improved a great deal” from 2019 to 2020. She would eventually have the honor of becoming one of the captains during the indoor season her senior year.

Brown spoke to attending James Madison University this fall and to majoring in biology.

Her biggest takeaway from track and field is that “no matter how strenuous things get, you can still achieve anything you put your mind to.”

Gina Girgente

Girgente hadn’t initially planned on competing in track and field, but her friends and coaches from cross country convinced her to do so.

She joined the team her sophomore year, running the 800, 1,000 and 4x800-meter relay distance races mostly.

“The races are the perfect distance,” she said, “and are fast enough that I can run them without getting bored.”

Girgente loved planning things and contributing her ideas to the group, so being called a captain for what would have been three seasons, including her senior year, was something she enjoyed.

She also partnered with the coaches to create senior night for the outdoor season in 2019.

“The family aspect of running is something that is irreplaceable,” Girgente said. “I love that the athletes welcome in everybody and that we all end up being friends.”

She said her track and field teammates are some of the best friends she has.

“They’ve supported and pushed me so much,” she said. “I never would have PR’d (set personal records) during my last race ever without running beside my friend Alexis Elzey.

The coaches were amazing, too, to Girgente. She praised coaches Paul Smartschan and Chrissie Blevins’ experience, and coach Robert Cook brought several new ideas that Girgente said really helped her team get faster.

Her team’s and coaches’ support led her to setting personal records in every race during indoor last year, every race but one in indoor this year and in outdoor races last year.

“During indoor this year, I think everyone on the distance team PR’ed in at least one event,” Girgente said. “I’m so proud of them all.”

Girgente spoke to attending Virginia Tech to major in meteorology and most likely minor in computer science in hopes of working at NASA or NOAA. She said she was thinking about competing in track and field events through Tech’s club team.

Track and field has taught Girgente to visualize everything as a race.

“For me, I imagined the four years of high school as the four parts of a 5k: the three miles and then the sprint,” she said. “It starts out easy, then it progressively gets harder. Just keep pushing through and keep running. Once it’s almost done, remember to sprint.”

Arnell Jackson

Jackson had been running track since her seventh grade year. She said her dad introduced her to the sport because he saw she was fast. Her speed and her ability to jump far helped Jackson fall in love with track.

She would go on to set the school record in the 2019 indoor Class 4 championships with a fourth-place jumping distance of 17-1 1/4. She would also exceed that mark with a jump of 17-6 in outdoor, and then place fourth again in the outdoor state meet’s long jump, recording a distance of 17-3 1/2. She and her teammates also placed eighth in the girls 4x100-meter relay at states.

According to MileStat, Jackson holds two team records in indoor track and field. In addition to her 17-1 1/4 in the long jump, she ran a 44.81 in the 300 at the Suffolk Stars Invitational.

Jackson felt track and field was unique to her in that it had so many different things for everyone to do, and it gave everyone an opportunity to participate.

“Track meets were very social and welcoming,” Jackson said. “My teammates were fun to be around and brought light to the practices.”

Although she wasn’t a captain by rank, Jackson was a leader to the team, and the coaches, plus a lot of her teammates, told her she was their personal captain – they loved what she did and they wanted to follow after her.

Starting out, Jackson said her journey with the team was kind of rough.

“I didn’t get along with everyone and I felt the coaches were extra hard on me, so it just created a lot of issues for me during the beginning of the season. I thought about quitting, but I had a long talk with my dad [who] helped open my eyes,” she said. “I was a leader, I had a lot of people looking up to me, so if I was to quit I would be quitting on those who looked up to me.

“After the talk with my dad, it changed everything.”

She started bonding with her teammates and trying to be the best leader she could be.

“Track taught me the true meaning of a team,” she said, “and it helped me understand it’s not always about me!”

Jackson, who received a full academic scholarship from Virginia Tech, spoke to her plans to major in animal science.

“I will be putting most of my time towards academics, meaning I probably won’t be running track,” she said. “However, I will be involved in clubs and fitness actives to stay active. I also would like to give a big thanks to my father for sticking with me through this whole experience and not giving up on me.”

From track and field, Jackson learned to never give up on your goal, even if you fail a few times and have people tell you that you can’t do it.

Gabriel Kerns

After making the soccer team in seventh grade, Kerns missed tryouts the following year because he was sick when they were being held. But he wanted to stay active. That’s how he found out about track. He joined the program his eighth grade year.

After a few practices, he realized he loved to run as part of a team. Kerns went on to run five seasons of outdoor track and two indoor seasons.

When he joined, the coaches had them do every event to see what they liked and didn’t like.

“It was a good way for them to see who excelled at what events,” Kerns said. “Personally, I favored the relays which were the 4x400, 4x200 and the 4x100 dashes. I still love watching and running relays to this day. It’s always exciting because there are so many variables in running with a relay team rather than an individual event.”

Kerns said he provided the team “with someone to train with who was strong in the 400 dash.”

“This event was a great training event for sprinters,” he said. “Learning form and all the basics that come with sprinting really show and stand out in the 400 dash, thus making the team stronger and faster.”

To Kerns, coaches Chrissie Blevins, the head coach, and Keilah Tyson made Powhatan track and field unique.

“Two years ago, Powhatan . . . hired a new head coach for track and field ... She asked her friend to be her (assistant) coach and with the two of them, they have changed the whole school’s perspective of the track team,” Kerns said.

His own journey with the team “was fun but lots of hard work.”

“Everyone was growing as a team, and we’re only getting stronger as sprinters,” Kerns said, noting his own personal improvement as he was able to get his 400 dash time down to 53 seconds.

Everyone on the team, he added, had fun working together.

“It was a great environment,” Kerns said. “We worked hard to get faster and stronger. I personally really liked being in a constant competition with my teammates. Everyone pushed each other to be better. I couldn’t think of a better way to be a part of a team.”

Kerns has turned his sights towards joining the service as a Navy Engineer. He had said he was looking into enlistment, but after service he would like to go to college for a master’s in Aerospace Engineering.

From track and field, Kerns learned that “hard work and getting out of your comfort zone” are “key things that you need to grow as an individual.”

“With these,” he said, “you can achieve things many wouldn’t.”

Kerns said Powhatan High School really took care of its seniors.

“I’m very grateful for all the hard work they have put in to make graduation happen,” he said.

Isaiah Morgan

Morgan ran and jumped as part of track and field both in middle school and in high school.

He recorded personal bests of 12–2 in the long jump, 13.26 in the 100 and 27.47 in the 200.

Head coach Blevins said he was passionate in his events, and that he contributed his all to his team.

Preston Pullin

Pullin wanted to participate in track and field because he loved to run, and he really wanted to compete. He loved to support his teammates and cheer them on through their events.

“My teammates and coaches were always there for me and kind, and some of them even went out of their way to say hi to me in the halls; whenever we competed it was always working together. It never felt like we were against each other,” Pullin said. “Even with having Autism, no one ever treated me differently. I was always included with the team and everyone cheered me on.”

Pullin’s events with Powhatan included the 200 and 4x400 relay.

“I really liked the short-distance events because when you feel nervous, it kind of makes you want to run as fast as you can,” Pullin said, “and the adrenaline runs through your body so much.”

After he graduated, Pullin noted that COVID-19 had changed his initial plans; in the end, he decided to come back to school for one more year. He wanted to be with his younger sister for her senior year and see his teachers and friends one last time. After school ends, he plans to attend Wilson to learn carpentry and other job skills including finance, as well as how to drive, and then move to Colorado.

The motivation he received from track and field has inspired him to “never give up and keep working.”

Jeanne Wolkiewicz

Wolkiewicz began running track as a way to stay in shape for soccer. She had met Powhatan coach Keilah Tyson through the training she had done with her FC Richmond soccer team, and Tyson encouraged her to join track last year.

Wolkiewicz did, completing her first indoor season this past winter.

“It took me a year to get my courage up to try out,” she said. “But I would do it again in a heartbeat!”

As a rookie runner, Wolkiewicz ran wherever she was needed. She loved the challenge of the 300 and 400 events because “both are full sprints, but for longer than the woman body is meant to sprint,” she said.

“When you’re running, it becomes a game between your mind and body,” Wolkiewicz said, “because you know you shouldn’t be able to go any further, but you need to (and want to) anyway.”

While she only did one season, Wolkiewicz felt like she had been on the team for years. She said Powhatan High School track and field “is one of the most welcoming team cultures I have ever been a part of.”

“Joining the team as a senior, I just knew I would be left out,” she said. “My experience could not be more different. PHS track and field supported me as both a person and an athlete. Whether walking the halls of school or working hard at practice, I was always able to get strength and support from my track teammates.

“In just a few weeks I gained a group of close friends who helped to make my senior year unforgettable,” she said. “I love them all!”

Wolkiewicz said she tended to get so stressed before big competitions that she’d forget all of the hard work she had done to prepare. But before each relay, she and her three teammates would walk the track while coach Tyson talked them through what would happen to their bodies – and in their minds – at each point.

“We visualized getting behind, keeping a big lead or preparing for any other situation that might occur,” she said. “Right before each race, we would all be too nervous to say much, but there were always, ‘you got this, we love you, we believe in you,’ to be heard. I’ve never felt so supported by a group of people in my life.”

Wolkiewicz said she came in with some raw speed “but absolutely no running technique.”

“There were tears and many times when I thought I would never get it,” she said. “But with the help of my teammates and Coach Tyson and Coach B (Blevins), I was able to become technically strong and much faster.”

Wolkiewicz spoke to attending Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia and playing Division III soccer for the Owls. She said she will likely be taking advantage of a program where she will be in school for five years and get her master’s degree in political science from Penn, as well as her bachelor’s from Bryn Mawr. She’s planning to become a Foreign Service Officer.

“Track is the most mental sport I’ve ever participated in and they helped me to learn how to use my stress as power,” she said of her teammates. “This, I am sure, will help me tremendously in school as well.”

From Tyson, she learned the value of hard work.

“I came in with zero skills, but with a couple of months of working hard, I made huge improvements,” she said. “This showed me that I can literally do anything I put my mind to. If Jeanne Wolkiewicz can become a runner, anything is possible.”

And from Blevins, she learned how to love herself and her teammates.

“She helped me to learn that taking time to work on what I need to work on is exactly what a good teammate does; when I improve, everyone else does too,” Wolkiewicz said. “She also was a great example of the power of kindness. She is humble, but so strong, and she showed me that there is power in quiet kindness and humility.”

Her 2020 indoor track season is one that she’ll look back on for the rest of her life.

“My coaches and teammates have had a profound impact on every aspect of my life. I love them all, and I am excited to see the amazing things we will accomplish in the future,” she said. “For anybody thinking about running for PHS, please do it! I tried it reluctantly, but I wouldn’t have traded my season for the world! It was the best decision I have ever made.”

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