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Historically great on the track - and a three-time Olympian on the ice, to boot

It had been less than a year that I had left banking behind, May of 2004, to be precise, as I ventured out to the Laurentian University stadium, covering the SDSSAA Track & Field Championships for the very first time.

In the 15 years in the interim, seldom have I missed the annual event, a singular setting that provides as great a cornucopia of memorable stories, all under one roof (more or less), as any other sporting competition in the area.

This week and next, I shall re-visit some of my favourite memories, including some athletic feats that I have had the pleasure of witnessing firsthand, a testament to some of the most special talent that Sudbury has ever produced.

I had very little context from which to work with at that very first meet, though my stories which have endured the test of time would suggest that I quickly garnered an appreciation for a generational prodigy who was only just reaching high school.

The all-time record book had only just been retired, falling victim to the changing ages that defined certain categories of competitors. In that sense, the mere fact that Rebecca Johnston, a Lo-Ellen Park freshman at the time, established a new standard in each of the midget girls 100m, 200m and 400m events, was not necessarily all that jaw-dropping.

It was only once her times were compared to others at the two-day meet that the scope of exactly how unique her performance had been would become crystal clear. As a grade nine athlete, Johnston would run times (12.50/26.25/59.10) that would have allowed her to win every single race she could have entered, even if she were to have run up against either the junior or senior girls.

In fact, her clockings in both the 100m and 400m would have shattered the all-time records that had just been laid to rest. Already creating a buzz in the city, at that time, based on her on-ice hockey skills, Johnston still stands as the only local female grade nine athlete ever to run a sub one-minute 400m race.

Fifteen years later, Johnston still owns every single record for the 100m/200m/400m distances, in all three age categories, with the exception of the senior girls 100m (Hanmer sprinter and two-time OFSAA medal winner Ashley Huard would better that mark with a time of 12.21 seconds).

In fact, no less than seven of the eight records that Johnston can lay claim to would have also made the record book when matched against the all-time marks, accomplishments that cover a period of some seventy years or so. By the time her SDSSAA career was done in 2007, Johnston had amassed five OFSAA medals, more than any other local athlete in the history of high-school track and field.

Ironically, the midget age grouping to which I first alluded has produced some of the most compelling stories in local track and field over the years. The truth is that many a new high-schooler will have precious little idea of the potential that lies within, cruising to victory based on raw athleticism on both the SDSSAA and NOSSA circuits.

Come time for OFSAA, some will respond to the push of competition in the best manner imaginable, with ultra-dramatic improvements sometimes leading to an unexpected ascension to the podium.

Though he looked impressive in dominating the city meet, unleashing the discus almost 44 metres in May of 2006, Lo-Ellen Park midget Josh Haslam rose to the level of the opposition in Etobicoke, producing back to back personal best throws of 47.00m and 49.02m, enough to secure an OFSAA gold medal.

And though she proudly hails from Espanola, jumper Caroline Ehrhardt enjoyed strong Sudbury ties when she competed at the 2009 OFSAA Championships in Toronto as a grade eleven Spartan. It was there that the now eight-time national champion triple jumper would obliterate the interscholastic record that had been held by Olympian Tabia Charles.

In capturing gold in both the long jump and triple jump, Ehrhardt would extend the standard in the latter by 0.40 metres from the previous mark, soaring no less than 12.76 metres. Ross Proudfoot, for his part, had served notice of his ability to improve in leaps in bounds as a midget, dropping his time in the 1500m race by almost thirty seconds between the city meet and OFSAA.

By 2010, the future Guelph Gryphon was well on his way to setting the wheels in motion for what would be one of the finest university careers carved out by any local runner, medalling in both the 1500m (3:50.56 - silver) and the 3000m (8:24.09 - bronze).

Just a year after picking up a silver medal in the 100m sprint at SDSSAA by clocking a time of 13.24 seconds, Ashley Huard would show that she could duke it out with the big boys (or tall girls, as it were), blazing her way to a bronze medal (12.01 seconds) as the 2011 OFSAA championships were hosted in Sudbury.

By the time grade 12 rolled around for Tanner Horgan, he was completely immersed in curling, his reputation as one of the very best young rock throwers in the country already well-established.

But it was as a far more multi-dimensional athlete in grade nine at Lockerby Composite that Horgan would earn a silver medal in the shot put in Oshawa in 2013, finishing second despite blowing away his pre-event seeding distance of 13.71 metres with a toss of 15.88 metres at provincials.

That performance was bettered by Danika Falvo of College Notre-Dame, who become the first local athlete in seven years to capture gold at OFSAA track, placing first in the midget girls' javelin (36.14m).

Finally, jumps of 1.44m and 1.40m would be enough to allow Confederation Chargers' freshman Amy Connelly to claim gold at SDSSAA and NOSSA respectively, in the midget girls' high jump, in May of 2017. The problem was that those height would leave her sitting smack dab in the middle of the 24-athlete field when OFSAA rolled around in Belleville that June.

No problem, as the soon-to-be Nipissing Lakers volleyball freshman nailed her first five jumps at the all-Ontario event, clearing 1.50 metres and then bumping her PB up to 1.55m in order to pick up a bronze medal in her first ever OFSAA appearance.

(Part II of the look back on my high-school track and field memories will be featured in my column of June 6th)

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