BOONTON _ Afraid of heights and not at all fond of roller coasters, Irene Park made the unusual decision to join the track team and specialize in the pole vault.
"I wanted to face my fears," said Park, the Pequannock sophomore who finished first by clearing 10 feet on the first day of the Morris County Track and Field Championships at Boonton High School on May 16. "I decided to commit to pole vault and I couldn't let anything restrict me."
The 15-year-old Park initially found pole vaulting to be scary. It reminded her of roller coasters which made her nervous when they thundered down the track and sometimes turned upside down. Clinging to a pole while attempting to control her body and clear a bar was in the same genre and Park questioned her choice.
Park took up the pole vault while attending Ridgewood High School as a freshman. Her older sister, Isabel, a runner now at Amherst, suggested it. One of the Ridgewood coaches also had heard Park did cartwheels on a trampoline and urged her to take up track.
"I did cartwheels everywhere I went even though I didn't do gymnastics," she said. "I liked tumbling, too. That's why I figured I'd try pole vaulting."
Her freshman indoor and outdoor seasons did not go well. Park's top vault was 6 feet, 6 inches.
"You have to very, very good to win in Bergen County," Park noted. "It's a really big county. As a ninth grader new to the sport, I was overwhelmed. I hadn't ever done track before and other girls were at 11 or 12 feet."
Park improved by going to the Slovenski High Standards Vault Camp in Maine for three weeks during the summer of 2016. There was heavy emphasis on technique, like inverting and getting the knees up, for four days. Fridays were devoted to actual vaulting.
"I got the things I was missing there and got myself together," Park said.
Since then, Park, who tried cross country last fall but didn't like it because she's a jumper, had success over the winter, claiming top honors in sectional and Group I meets.
Park's next objective is not a certain height. That'll come. What she wants to obtain is a 140-pound, 13-foot pole. She currently uses a 130-pound pole that is only 12 feet, 4 inches in length.
Being a Morris County champion pleased Park, who went four inches higher than runnersup Maura Hager and Julia Benz of Villa Walsh and Blythe Hehmeyer of Montville.
"It's cool," she said. "It's really exciting but I'm trying to be humble."
Simone Kirton, a Chatham senior, took the 100 meters in a personal record time of 12.58. Seeded first and in lane 4, Kirton, whose specialty is the hurdles, felt unsettled prior to the final.
"I felt the pressure," said Kirton, headed to Columbia University, where she will major in neuroscience. "There were a lot of girls with great times in the race. I was supposed to win. I was pretty nervous. I never fought that hard in a race before. I kept telling myself 'I can go faster. I can go faster.' If I got too comfortable, I'd go downhill. I found out that I can sprint, not just hurdle."
On Wednesday, May 17, the second day of the championships, Kirton will be out to defend her title.
Abby Loveys, a Randolph sophomore, prevailed in the 1,600 meters, crossing the finish line in 4:59.14. In third in the same event was Loveys' teammate, Brooke Olson, who ran 5:02.66, a PR.
"It feels pretty cool to win again," said Loveys, slated to compete in the 800 and 4x400. "I thought it was a good race. It's been a good meet so far."
Olson, ready for the 3,200, beat her previous PR by six seconds and was beyond pleased.
"I had confidence going into the race," Olson said. "Having Abby up there to trail behind helps."
Other winners on the first day were Roxbury's Alexis Smith (400 meters), Morris Hills' Kayley Moran (intermediate hurdles), Randolph's Meghan O'Malley (long jump) and Hanover Park's Olivia Duffy (shot put).
Randolph ended the day in first place with 39 points. In second were Morristown-Beard, Roxbury and Morris Hills with 18 points each.
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