FAIRFIELD — In Tess Stapleton’s mind there was a very simple solution to ending her anxiety stemming from running hurdles — but that’s getting ahead of things.
Stapleton experienced a banner freshman indoor track season, winning the 55-meter hurdles at the State Open for Ludlowe. She appeared poised to repeat the accomplishment during the spring outdoor season at the Class LL 100 meters.
However, that’s when it all came crashing down — literally — when Stapleton hit the final hurdle while leading the race. It resulted in a nasty, painful, face-first fall that eliminated her from the State Open and further competitions.
Although contact with the hurdles — and falling — is a byproduct of the sport, Stapleton wanted no part of that pain again.
“Everybody’s like, ‘It’s going to happen again,’” Stapleton, now a sophomore, said at a recent practice. “If it’s going to happen again, I don’t want to go through that again, so I’ll just stop.”
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In fact, Stapleton came to a conclusion.
“The only way to ensure I’m not going to fall in hurdles again is to stop hurdling,” she said.
Stapleton planned to make good on the decision. She didn’t go near a hurdle during the summer, instead focusing on the long jump. At the Falcons’ first event of the indoor season — the Marine Corps Holiday Classic at the Armory in New York — Stapleton walked away at the starting line.
The mental block formed in the spring had fully taken hold of her.
“I got to the starting line, looked at the hurdles and was like, ‘I can’t do this,’” Stapleton said.
Rather than go through with her resolution to quit, Stapleton and coach Justin Tomczyk took another approach.
“As soon as that happened, she and I made an agreement that this was not going to be the end, that we were going to put in the work that was needed,” Tomczyk said.
The result is Stapleton hasn’t lost in the hurdles this winter, winning at the FCIAC, Class LL and State Open. This weekend she’ll compete in Boston at New Englands and later this month she’ll be back at the Armory for Nationals.
“Hurdles, for me, is really mental. It takes a lot out of me because how mentally taxing it is,” Stapleton said. “I’ve had so many successful runs without something awful happening, so I’m gaining confidence.”
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Part of what makes Stapleton a hurdles champion is her speed. She decided at an early age she might not be the best sprinter, but if she applied her speed — and learned the technique — she could excel at hurdling.
That speed also puts Stapleton on the edge of danger each time she crosses over the bar.
“Here’s the thing with a top-end athlete like Tess, they’re explosive,” Tomczyk said. “Their muscles fire off so quick. Their goal is to stay as low to the hurdle as possible — you’re going to fall. There’s going to be those falls. As a coach I’m always ready to work the kids through that hurdle — pun intended.”
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To start the indoor season Stapleton ran slower than usual, as she worked through her anxiety. By the time of the State Open in mid-February, she was in full flight and posted a time of 8.27 seconds — nearly half a second better than Wilton’s Shelby Dejana. Stapleton enters the New England event ranked No. 1 in the 55 hurdles and she’s also qualified in the long jump after taking second at the Open.
“It’s so rare to send a kid to New Englands for more than one individual event,” Tomczyk said. “She’s so well-rounded in her skill set.”
Those skills didn’t come overnight. Stapleton worked through middle school to refine her technique and trains once a week at the Armory. Her success on the track is anything but random.
“She understands the technical side of it and she invests the time to understand that good technique,” Tomczyk said. “That’s why she’s gotten so good. She’s done all the spirit routines. She’s worked on form. She’s doing everything and putting in extra work. I mean, look, there’s no doubt about it she comes in with natural ability, but she comes in and does all the work.”