Battling Through Nagging Knee Problem, Wildberg Makes Historic Leap for PHS Track
FLYING HIGH: Princeton High boys’ track star Nils Wildberg flies through the air in the long jump at a meet last spring. Last month, senior star Wildberg won the inaugural NJSIAA Indoor Meet of Champions Long Jump Showcase. Fighting through injury, the Dartmouth College-bound Wildberg produced a best mark of 23’4 to win the competition. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Justin Feil
For Nils Wildberg, winning the inaugural boys’ long jump at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions indoor track and field meet wasn’t the surprise.
He’d been dreaming of a state title for two years.
It’s how the Princeton High senior came through despite his training being thrown off completely by a knee injury.
“You have to be in that right mindset for success,” said Wildberg. “I jumped surprisingly well for training that little. That day I guess I was just mentally strong.”
Wildberg jumped 23’ 4 to win the MOC title in late February, just a half-inch shy of his new indoor personal record set while winning the Eastern States Championships long jump five days earlier.
“We’re thrilled to have Nils as inaugural state champion,” said PHS head coach Ben Samara. “All the history we have, he’s one of only three guys to do it, which is incredible given the other athletes we’ve had walk through the doors.”
Wildberg is the first long jump champion in indoor MOC history and joins previous male state champions Peter Sharpless and Stephen Fletcher in the PHS record books.
“It was fantastic,” said Wildberg. “I felt unusually good that day. All my jumps were over 23. I was just elated when I found out I was in the lead and about to win. It was a fantastic experience. It’s just a great honor to be the first long jump indoor champion. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my coach and amazing teammates to support me.”
Wildberg’s belief that he could be a state champion started in his sophomore year after a sixth-place finish at the 2017 outdoor MOC, and moved into striking position with a second-place finish last spring at the 2018 outdoor MOC.
“When I medaled my sophomore year, that’s when it really hit me,” said Wildberg.
“If I really put in the work, focus, and be smart about everything, I can really do something. As a sophomore, everyone was older than me; I didn’t expect to be at that high level in the first place. When I medaled, I thought I had potential and I wanted to expand on my ability. Then when I got second last year. There’s so much good competition with A’Nan Bridgett (of WW/P-South) and my own teammate, Varun (Narayan), and placing second in such a competitive environment was something that showed I could take it to the next level from here.”
As Wildberg entered his final winter season for PHS, he was brimming with confidence. At the Marine Corps Holiday Classic at the end of December, he opened the season with a 23-4½ leap before a fluke injury put everything in doubt.
“I had just competed in my season opener and had a great result,” recalled Wildberg. “I was just cooling off afterwards and I stood up and I felt a pop in my knee. Embarrassingly enough that’s how I got injured.”
What followed was frustration as Wildberg, his coaches, and doctor tried to assess how he soon he could compete again without risking his knee.
“There’s always a thought in the back of my mind saying I might not be able to compete at all the rest of the season,” said Wildberg. “I remained optimistic throughout the whole experience. I did not give up, and I wanted to do all I could to make sure I’d be back. Having the right mindset gave me the confidence to give it a go.”
Wildberg’s doctor cleared him to compete as tolerable. His state hopes got a boost at the Mercer County Championships in late January with a third-place finish at 21’ 2¾ that quelled some fears.
“Counties was the first time I got back on the track, the first time in a long time,” said Wildberg. “I took two short approach jumps and nothing was really hurting. I saw William (Murray) from Lawrenceville, he jumped into first place, and I went to my coaches and I said, ‘let me take one full approach jump because nothing is hurting.’ I took one and it was a foul but it felt good.
I gained confidence from there. I knew I could take a jump without hurting myself. From there, I tried to do as much as I could to get back into it without being too risky.”
Wildberg didn’t compete again until February 19 at Easterns. It was a tune-up and a test for the MOC that was that same week. Up until Easterns, he’d had next to no real training.
“That’s the amazing part,” said Samara. “He had one practice where shook his legs out. Then with muscle memory he came out and jumped 23’4. We only had him do two jumps. After this long layoff, I told him he was going to be sore. He had one big jump and was able to take it home.”
Going into the Eastern meet, Wildberg planned to just jump twice as he just wanted to see how his knee felt.
“I wouldn’t say I was super confident,” said Wildberg. “I didn’t know how far I could really go with my knee. As soon as I took my first jump, I was thinking to myself, I could really do something. From there, I told myself that if you play your cards right, you could be the next state champion.”
He fouled on his first jump, but it had good distance. Wildberg’s second jump of 23-4½ won the meet, and he was begging to jump a third time, but saved it for the MOC and the chance to be the first champion in the newly added event indoors.
“I was super excited when I heard about it,” said Wildberg. “I had worked extra hard the fall and the beginning of winter and knew I’d have a chance to take the title indoors. I guess you could say I was bouncing off the walls.”
Wildberg was even more thrilled to come away with the win at the MOC. It sends him into the spring on a high note and the Tigers are hoping to see more big jumps to come from Wildberg.
“I think Nils was blessed,” Samara said. “He was lucky it was his drive leg and not his plant leg. Getting into squat position is very tough for him. Running out of blocks is going to be difficult. Running upright was all right for him. He was very comfortable doing that. To not have the training and practice time in, I was very concerned about rust, but he has an incredible determination to get things done. He wanted to be state champion. He was determined to get it done and he did.”
Heading to Dartmouth College next year to continue his career, Wildberg is determined to produce a big spring. He was disappointed with his final winter meet when he jumped 22’3 for 23rd place at the New Balance Indoor Nationals last Saturday.
“I was definitely expecting a little more,” he said. “However, I guess my lack of training really caught up to me finally. I can’t really be too disappointed. I just didn’t have training a really long time. I still have spring and now I can really get back into it outdoors and start training again.”
The nationals were a sharp reminder of why Wildberg is anxious to get back to work. He has great potential if he can train consistently while healthy.
“The way he was training and competing, I think he would have 100 percent won the national title,” said Samara. “He was on track to go 25 feet. You can only control what you can control. There’s no sense thinking about that now.”
Although Wildberg didn’t match his incredible performances under pressure down the stretch in Easterns and the MOC at the Nationals, he can use it as a learning experience.
“Definitely patience,” said Wildberg. “That’s a big one. Learning to trust yourself. At the same time, believing everything will work out for you. When you have an injury like this, you really learn a lot about your body and yourself mentally. I had a lot to think about those two months. Especially after winning Meet of Champions, there’s a lot to think about there. It’s hard to put into words.”
Wildberg is an important cog for the PHS team this spring. The Tigers cover the events well with sprinter Matt Perello, pole vaulter Simon Schenk (third at MOC in school-record 15’ 6), shot and discus thrower Paul Brennan, and javelin thrower Ben Kioko expected back, and could use Wildberg’s aid in sprints as they hunt for another state team title.
“This is the most special group we’ve ever had,” said Samara. “This was supposed to be their encore year. The injuries have so far put a damper on it. We’re determined they’re not going to go out as a one-hit wonder. We hope they can get the state title again. We have a long way to go.”
With Wildberg on the mend, the PHS track squad is waiting to see what its newest state champion can do when well-trained.
“I think things are looking up,” Wildberg said. “My knee is looking better. I think I’ll be able to train efficiently. Hopefully I’ll be able to build up and be at my peak at Meet of Champions outdoors.”