May 22, 2019

Projecting Confidence in Taking Leadership Role, Linko Enjoying Big Spring for PHS Girls’ Track

LINKING UP: Princeton High girls’ track star Colleen Linko displays her form in a recent race. Junior Linko produced a superb performance as the Mercer County Championships earlier this month, winning the 200 and 400 and helping the Tigers prevail in the 4×400 relay. Linko will be looking to come big again this weekend as PHS competes in the Central Jersey Group 4 sectional meet at Howell High. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Colleen Linko used to get very nervous before track meets.

The Princeton High junior can’t afford to show her nerves anymore, not as a captain this season.

Her new approach is benefitting her and the girls team. “I’ve been having a great season,” said Linko. “I’ve become a lot more confident in my racing this year which was a problem for me last year. I’d always get super nervous before a race last year and I’d be like, ‘The 400 is so hard and I don’t know if I can do it.’ This year, that wasn’t as much of a problem. This year, because I’m an upperclassmen on the team and a captain, I spend a lot more time looking out for the newer runners and try to radiate positive energy onto them instead of stressing out on my own.”

Linko has worked to become an example to the less experienced PHS runners in her new role; she has been someone they can look to for how they can prepare for a busy meet day that includes four events and what it takes to do each event well.

“Colleen has developed the mental aspect of her preparation,” said PHS associate head coach Ben Samara.

“We’ve talked endlessly about it. It’s very easy when you’re asked to do something scary, and asked to a do an event you wouldn’t normally do or do two or three events close together in the same meet, to put a negative spin on that. And that’s easy to spread to the team. Colleen realized that we can’t do that. We put a big emphasis on positivity and Colleen has embraced that. That’s a big part of her jump this year.”

Being a team leader is the biggest change for Linko this year. She’s doing the same events she always has for the Tigers, but now she’s also stepped into a bigger role off the track. In the beginning of the year, she was helping to monitor weight lifting technique for younger athletes and with the season starting, she’s tried to encourage others in practices.

“It’s made me a lot more positive towards everyone on the team,” said Linko. “During workouts, we know it’s hard but we’ll get through it. Coach knows we’re capable of doing it and we have to keep a positive attitude. That’s different from last year. I was a lot more negative because I just thought it was so hard and it’d hurt so much and I’d be dying.”

In addition to embracing her leadership role, Linko continues to improve on the track. She won both the 400 and 200 and anchored the winning 4×400 relay as the PHS girls’ squad placed second overall at the Mercer County Championships earlier this month. She is hoping to ride that momentum into a similar showing in the Central Jersey Group 4 sectional championships Friday and Saturday at Howell High.

“I’m looking to get top three in the 400,” said Linko. “Last year, I got seventh which was disappointing because the top six make it through (to groups). But also I was a sophomore. I’ve gotten so much faster already. I hope that’s a good goal for me. Also in the 4×400, I hope to get top 3 too. We won the sectional 4×400 indoors, but we’re missing one of our main runners so that lowers our chances of winning this season. We still have three super fast runners and we just need to figure out who our fourth leg should be.”

Linko has developed into a highly reliable competitor. She trains year-round and has seen it pay dividends with her best year yet. Her own expectations have increased and that helps her approach races with mounting confidence.

“I’ve run the 400 and 200 so much this season that now I have a good race strategy,” said Linko. “That always calms me down. I’ve run it so many times now that I know I can do it.”

Experience has been a big benefit to Linko; helping her overcome her nerves and adopt a good attitude about the demands of her events.

“In general, I’m a lot less nervous because I’ve done it so much before,” said Linko.

“The 400, it’s so exhausting and it hurts so much afterward, but I know I’ll get through it and if I run the race strategy correctly, I’ll be able to finish it fine. I know it’ll hurt afterwards whether I run it fast or run it slow. Now it’s not so much thinking about the pain, it’s run fast and you’ll be fine after like 10 minutes.”

With Linko having grown accustomed to negotiating her way through a big workload each meet, the Tigers needed that kind of strength to compete for a team title at counties and will need it to show well at sectionals.

“We’ve been working a lot with all the girls, but especially with Colleen being able to handle doubles and triples and quads and doing what’s necessary to prepare for that,” said Samara. “We saw that pay off Saturday at the county meet. It’s pretty incredible when you look at it and see Princeton win the 200, 400, 800, 1,600 and 3,200.”

Samara sees a lot of potential for PHS athletes to advance out of sectional, even though CJ 4 is loaded with talent. The top six finishers in each event move on to the Group 4 state meet in Egg Harbor the following weekend.

“On the girls side, we’re really strong in the sprints and distances,” said Samara.

“Where we’ll fall short in the sectional level is the field events. We’re still developing our jumps and our throws. We can only put out who we have. We have some really nice young throwers and jumpers, but they’re not quite ready for the sectionals yet. We’ll put them in the big spot and see if we can get them some good experience for next year. In the sprints and distance, we should be able to compete in almost every event.”

At the sectional meet, Linko will be doing her usual lineup of the 200 and 400, plus 4×100 and 4×400 relays. The county meet was a good test of how she can perform with the best of the best in a large meet. To come away with three golds, two in her individual events, was a big boost.

“It was great,” said Linko. “I was really happy. Last year, I got third, one of them being my teammate, Jackie Patterson. And the other one was Brianna (Hodges) from (WW/P-South), and they’re both at Columbia now. They’re both not here this year, so I thought I should win this year with some Milesplit stalking to see my major competition to prepare myself. Overall, I knew I had a pretty good chance of winning the 400 and 200. I was excited the day before.”

That excitement helped Linko perform the way she would have wanted with official personal records of 57.51 seconds in the 400 and 25.69 seconds in the 200. She competed in the 400 fresh before starting her long day of events.

“It’s probably better that way,” said Linko. “I’ve never run a fresh 200 this season. I always wonder what I could run if I was fresh and not having just run a 400 before. I’d rather have the longer race before so I know I don’t have anything to be tired from.”

She could have been tired after teaming up with Reina Williamson, Kendall Williamson, and Ella Kotsen for fourth in the 4×100, but still had to the anchor leg of the 400 as her final event.

“In the 4×400, we had Reina Williamson to Siena Moran to Kendall Williamson to me,” said Linko. “We had a pretty big lead when I got it, which was good because it was my fourth event. We won by 9-10 seconds. It wasn’t a very close race.”

Linko and her teammates are ready for tougher competition in sectionals, not just in the relays but in their individual events. Exuding her leadership approach, Linko will be pushing herself and her teammates to do their best.

“She’s the leader of our sprint group,” said Samara. “She and Gracie (Poston) are our two captains and they’re both juniors. They’re captains for a reason. Kendall Williamson is tremendously talented and Colleen’s mentorship has taken her to a new level. She’s done what Jackie Patterson, who’s now at Columbia, did for her and she’s trying to pass it down. That’s what makes a great program a great program.”

Getting into track and field in middle school as one of the only sixth graders to make the team pushed Linko to try harder and she ended up developing a passion for the sport that was fueled by the PHS squad. Ultimately she hopes to compete in college in two years and still has time to further develop.

“She’s trusted our system, and it can be difficult for some kids,” said Samara. “We really train through indoors and it benefits you now. Colleen never got frustrated. She trusts herself. She trusts the coaching staff. She knows we’ll be where we need to be when the right time comes.”