July 29, 2020

Recreation Department High School Track Camp Gave Athletes Chance to Train, Race, Catch Up

POST TIME: Gracie Poston catches her breath after running a hurdles race at the Princeton Recreation Department’s high school track camp held at the Princeton High track earlier this month. The program, which took place from July 13-15, drew about 40 athletes and culminated with FAT (fully automatic timing) races on its final day. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

The loud crack of a starter pistol can be startling to some, but it was music to the ears of Ben Samara as he presided over the Princeton Recreation Department’s high school track camp earlier this month.

For Princeton High track head coach Samara, getting to work with athletes after the spring season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic was a blast.

“I can’t believe we are actually here,” said a smiling Samara of the camp which took place at the Princeton High track from July 13-15.

“It is kind of crazy to hear the sound of the gun go off and to see these kids, who invest so much time in this to be able to enjoy themselves. It is just so rewarding.”

The athletes enjoyed being together even as they observed the protocols put in place due to COVID-19.

“The kids were so thrilled to see each other, it was great to just be around athletes training again,” said Samara of the program which drew about 40 athletes, who came mainly from PHS but also Allentown and Hillsborough.

“The kids were really, really good about following social distancing, keeping masks on, and doing all of that. I think we were able to provide a safe environment to complete this. We are really proud that this is one of the only FAT (fully automatic timing) races that are going to be happening over the summer. To be able to give these kids an opportunity is really important for them.”

Recently graduated PHS girls’ track standout Gracie Poston appreciated the opportunity to both catch up with some members of the team and get in some good training.

“I was so excited to be with all of my teammates,” said Poston, a team co-captain who concentrates on hurdles events.

“Working with coach [Robert] Abdullah from Princeton University was an honor. My favorite part is being able to see all of these runners who have been working out and training and now they are hitting PRs. Everyone was cheering each other on, everyone was hyped up.”

In Poston’s view, the Tiger girls’ squad would have drawn a lot of cheers this spring.

“It was really upsetting because the girls’ team was really loaded this year,” said Poston. “We were stacked to win and we were really looking forward to the season.”

Even though the season was canceled, the PHS athletes kept in contact and in shape.

“We had scheduled meetings and workouts, we actually had a virtual Senior Day,” said Poston.

“I was so grateful for everyone that hosted it and all of the texts and e-mails. The coaches did a great job at trying to stay in touch with us. The University track was open; they have signs saying maintain social distancing. Some kids did that and we also made do with running around our neighborhood.”

As a team captain, Poston focused on keeping spirits up. “It was definitely challenging, Matt [Perello], Colleen [Linko], and I tried to keep in touch with our other athletes via group chats,” said Poston.

“We were trying to encourage people. It was weird, it was a really abrupt finish. I literally thought we were going to come back in two weeks and then in two more weeks after that.”

Having been running youth track camps for the Rec Department over the last eight years, Samara has been encouraged by the feeder system that is developing for his program.

“It has been great, we have had between 40 and 50 kids every single year,” said Samara of the youth clinics.

“This year, it was one of the only things going on, so with the demand, we added a second week. We have a lot of kids who have gone through the program. Matt Perello was in the youth camp and so was Nils Wildberg. We have had really heavy hitters come through. Having a camp, a club, and a youth development system, we can see it coming together.”

Due to the hardship of not having a spring season, Samara decided that it made sense to hold the first Rec Department high school track summer program.

“We were going to do another youth clinic but then we thought the high school kids haven’t had a lot of opportunities, not just kids from PHS but all around the area,” said Samara, who was joined by fellow PHS track coaches Jim Smirk and Thomas Harrington in running the program.

“It was an opportunity to get some coaching, some training time live and a chance to get a FAT time, which is really important for their recruitment to colleges and their overall confidence.”

The camp culminated with a series of races — including sprints, hurdles and middle distance events — on July 15 with Harrington serving as the starter.

“For a lot of these kids, depending on what happens in the fall, this may be the only time they get to run a race for a year,” said Samara, crediting the Rec Department with having been very helpful in putting the track programs together over the years.

“They may not race from March to March so they were all really thrilled. A lot of kids have been training really hard; we have a couple of girls who I have been communicating with virtually all during the break who had huge PRs today. For a lot of kids, it is just shaking the legs out and having an opportunity to compete. For others, it is really a chance to show the hard work they have been putting in. I am really happy with it.”

Poston, for her part, ran in two 100 hurdles races. “In my first race, I kind of psyched myself out and didn’t have a good race,” said Poston.

“But the environment that we have, with some alumni and a lot of great athletes here, helped me get in the right mindset for the second race which I am really proud of. It was not crazy fast; I  am coming off an injury right now. My hip is still a little tight, I am definitely not upset with it.”

The upsetting end to her high school career has Poston, who is heading to Northeastern University, looking for ways to keep competing.

“I definitely feel very unsatisfied with the way that everything ended,” said Poston, who is considering trying to walk on to Northeastern’s track team or taking up marathoning as she relocates to Boston, a hotbed of distance running.

“This meet helps me a little bit but I am still feeling that there is some unfinished business. I am not done with running.”

But no matter what Poston decides regarding her running career, she will be bringing a new mindset as she starts her college career.

“Even outside of track, this whole situation has taught me to just take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way and treat every opportunity like it’s the last because you never know,” said Poston.