Following in Older Sister’s Footsteps, Kwafo Emerged as Star for Stuart Track
LEAP OF FAITH: Stuart Country Day School track star Heather Kwafo displays her jumping form in a meet this past winter. Senior Kwafo placed first in the long jump (17’10 ½) and third in the triple jump (34’4 ½) at the Mercer County Indoor Championship meet in late January. The Vassar College-bound Kwafo helped Stuart win its third straight state Prep B indoor title on February 1, placing first in both the 55 dash and 200 dash and finishing second in the 55 hurdles.
By Bill Alden
For Heather Kwafo, joining the Stuart Country Day School track team as a freshman in 2016 was a family affair.
With her older sister, Michele, having emerged as a star for Stuart, Kwafo decided to give the sport a try.
“I started in the ninth grade, I hadn’t run in middle school or anything,” said Kwafo.
“I basically did it because my older sister did. She liked it and she was very passionate about it. That kind of let me know that it was something I could be passionate about too.”
While Kwafo admired her sister, who was a junior at the time, she was a bit intimidated by Michele’s success in piling up a number of state Prep B individual titles and school records on the way to heading to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and joining its women’s track program.
“She was really good at it, she was very talented right off the bat even though she put in a lot of hard work,” said Kwafo.
“I definitely looked up to her. I didn’t necessarily think I would reach her level, but it gave me motivation every day to put my best foot forward whenever I was running.”
Spurred by that motivation, Kwafo has reached a high level in her own right, emerging as a champion performer in the sprints and jumps for the Tartans.
This past winter, she capped her indoor career by taking first in the long jump (17’10 ½) and third in the triple jump (34’4 ½) at the Mercer County Indoor Championship meet in late January and then placing first in both the 55 dash and 200 dash and finishing second in the 55 hurdles in the Prep B indoor meet in February, helping Stuart to its third straight team title.
In reflecting on her progress, Kwafo credits Stuart head coach Len Klepack with playing a major role.
“He has definitely been crucial in building that self-confidence,” said Kwafo.
“I came in as a very shy, reserved freshman who really didn’t speak much. I was kind of scared to compete. He just made sure to remind me every time that I am capable and I can do it. Everybody is at my level; everyone is also nervous so just not to get into my head too much. Over time, I actually started to believe him.”
Klepack’s influence helped Kwafo get through some rough patches early in her career.
“My sophomore year was definitely one of the most challenging seasons for me mentally, especially the outdoor season,” recalled Kwafo.
“I was being unnecessarily hard on myself. Through it all, coach let me step back for a second and he said ‘listen, it is OK, you can do this’ and eventually it just started to take. He does that with all of the team members, he pushes everybody to be the best that they can.”
Overcoming those challenges, Kwafo developed into a record-breaking long jumper.
“My long jump was an area that I had no clue that I would advance to this point,” said Kwafo.
“Coming into my senior season my best long jump was 16’4 and I was kind of concerned with being able to break my sister’s outdoor record which was 16’10. I had a lot of doubts as to whether or not I would be able to do it, but then I hit 17’2 and I hit 17’10. I was like ‘oh OK,’ and then I hit 18 at my last meet. I didn’t think at all that I would be able to jump at this level. It has definitely been a confidence booster for me to know that I have that ability.”
Kwafo has gained additional confidence through refining her mental approach to competition.
“For me, the biggest energy waster is getting anxious, getting worried before a meet and watching everyone,” said Kwafo.
“I try to stay calm, I have conversations with people and laugh. I mentally prepare for what I am about to do and I only worry about the next event. I don’t try to think too far ahead.”
In assessing the program’s success overall, Kwafo sees a selfless attitude as a key factor. “I think our indoor team, especially this year, is probably one of the most talented, most dedicated teams I have seen at Stuart,” said Kwafo.
“Everyone has a good idea of their ability and is so willing to give of themselves. Even if it isn’t even their favorite event, they will go and run it because it will help the team in the long run. One of my favorite parts about our indoor season was the girls who decided to run on the team.”
With the spring season having been canceled, Kwafo and her teammates are staying in contact.
“I have been trying to stay in shape as much as we can; it is especially hard without the motivation of having meets,” said Kwafo.
“I have done stuff on the treadmill, hurdle drills and things like that. Coach actually had one of my fellow captains, Alexandra Ottomanelli, and I put together a workout video for the entire team. It was really fun to make, we just try to follow that. We are just trying to motivate everyone on the team to keep staying in shape.”
Having had so much fun in her Stuart track career, Kwafo decided that she wanted to keep competing in the sport at the college level.
“At the beginning of high school, I didn’t really think that track would be something I would continue in college because I wasn’t too sure about it,” said Kwafo.
“It wasn’t really until this season that I decided that it is something that I am not ready to give up. It is something I want to build on a little bit and just see where it goes. I knew I would want to run at a D-III school no matter where the season took me, just because I wanted to be able to have that base to explore academically and really get into everything that the school has to offer.”
After looking at a number of schools, Kwafo found a home at Vassar College and has committed to attend the school and join its women’s track program.
“I liked that it was a small school; I liked that the community is very welcoming, everybody just seemed very kind,” said Kwafo.
“My family and I did a campus visit in early October and everything just felt right. It just felt like it was the place I was meant to go and I didn’t really get that feeling from the other colleges that I had visited.”
Looking ahead to competing at the next level, Kwafo is determined to continue her progress.
“I am hoping to build on where I am now because I know that competing with girls that are seniors in college is definitely going to be different as a freshman,” said Kwafo.
“I just want to have in mind that I have three more years after next year to improve, so not to get too in over my head as a freshman.”