Jesse O'Connell has developed into one of the metro area's most versatile runners. A 6-foot-5 junior with surprising speed, the Westminster runner has shown talent in a number of areas, from sprints all the way up to distance running.
He finished seventh in the state last fall while helping the top-ranked Owls win a third straight Class 4A state cross country championship.
That's not bad for a runner who, just two years ago, wasn't sure he could run again competitively.
O'Connell suffered a stress fracture in his right leg at the beginning of his freshman year in the fall of 1996, an injury that needed nearly a year to heal.
He ran well as a sophomore, but last fall, O'Connell had a breakthrough season and should continue to do well in track this winter and spring.
As a sophomore, O'Connell finished 10th in the county and 11th in the region before the flu took him down to 35th as Westminster won the Class 4A state title.
But he kept getting stronger, running well in the 400 and 800 meters in outdoor track last spring before taking off in cross country last fall.
Pushing No. 2 runner Josh Davis throughout the fall, O'Connell took second in the county, third in the region and seventh in the state. His leg healed, his confidence never better, O'Connell soared.
"Everything was finally coming together," he said. "I would go to the line, and I'd feel good. Some days, I just felt like I could keep going for 3 miles after that."
To make things better, O'Connell went to the Foot Locker junior run in New York and took 23rd, earning a medal.
"I could go to the line and look around, and I knew I could beat anyone in the state on any given day," said O'Connell.
That's a long way from his freshman season, when an early-season injury in cross country nearly ruined his career. During his second race -- the first time he had worn spikes -- O'Connell felt a sharp pain under his right kneecap. He finished but knew something was wrong.
Unable to get out of bed or put weight on it the next morning, O'Connell saw a doctor that day. The doctor said it likely was a stress fracture that would sideline him at least two months.
O'Connell hoped to make it back for the state meet, which the Owls won, but was unable to do so and spent most of the next several months in rehabilitation. O'Connell also worried about his future; doctors told him he would not be allowed to run again if the fracture healed incorrectly.
"It was just so frustrating," he said. "I felt like it wasn't going anywhere. Once I started running again, it was just so hard, also."
O'Connell joined an informal club of Owls runners to get back into shape, but after a winter of work, he found in outdoor track that he wasn't near 100 percent fit. But he kept working, and the improvement came quickly, especially starting in the fall of 1997.
"I still feel his muscles are catching up with his frame," said Westminster indoor track coach Jim Shank. "He's going to get nothing but faster."
Shank said a runner so tall having real speed is unusual, but O'Connell's definitely has it. The coach also said the grit and determination O'Connell showed in fighting back from his injury could be used as an example for his other athletes.
"It shows you can overcome anything," said Shank.
And O'Connell has done just that.
Pub Date: 1/08/99