He flipped for the decathlon

Track: Westminster High's Jared Craig credits early gymnastics training for his quick progress in a competition that demands something close to the ultimate in all-around athletic ability.

High Schools

May 23, 2000|By Rich Scherr | Rich Scherr,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Jared Craig said his parents signed him up for gymnastics classes as a child in part to drain him of some of his seemingly boundless energy.

Though he has since given up the still rings and pommel horse in favor of track and field, little has changed for the Westminster High senior.

Craig is now one of a handful of local athletes with both the stamina and skill to excel in the decathlon - a grueling series of 10 events (100 meters, 400, 1,500, hurdles, long jump, high jump, shot put, discus, javelin and pole vault) limited to only the sport's best all-around performers.

Last summer, he finished second in the decathlon in the prestigious East Coast Invitational and followed that up in March by taking fourth in the pentathlon - high jump, long jump, shot put, 1,000-meter run and hurdles - at the National Scholastic Invitational in New York.

A Class 4A state champion in the hurdles this past indoor season, the 17-year old attributes much of his track success to the sport he first used simply as an energy release."I've always attributed it to gymnastics," said Craig, who will attend Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J., in the fall, joining former Westminster teammate Jason Santucci."It taught me how to run properly; it taught me to know where my body is in space when I'm flying through the air, and that helps a lot with pole vault, high jump, long jump ... everything."

Craig competed in gymnastics through middle school and was even once a state Level 5 (mid-level) champion in floor exercise.

To teammates, his ability to control his body sets him apart."This fall, for the powder puff cheerleading thing at homecoming, Jared was out there doing back flips and stuff on the track," said teammate Jesse O'Connell. "That was the big thing before cross-country races - he would always run down the line and do a flip in front of everybody before he'd run. He can do stuff that I wouldn't be able to do in a million years."

He also has benefited from having an older brother in the sport.

Jason Craig, a 1993 Westminster graduate, competed in the hurdles and triple jump for the Owls. Jared said that watching his brother, now 24, provided the impetus for him to try track as a ninth-grader."You could see as a freshman that he was going to be good," said O'Connell, himself a state champion. "I remember on the second day of practice that coach [Jim] Shank was saying something about how Jared had three steps over the hurdles already and how that was so good."

Shank said Craig's strong work ethic has earned him a special place on a team long dominated by some of the state's top distance runners."Our distance runners are a bit cocky. They know they've done well, and they know that other teams sort of fear them a little bit," Shank said."Of kids in other events, they respect Jared more than anyone. I don't think it's because he was first in the state meet in the hurdles so much as he ran cross country and did all the workouts. He puts everything into it, and they know."

Though he tends to be fairly quiet, it's his reputation as a hard worker that has made him a team leader."Being around Jared, I really think, makes other people want to work harder," said O'Connell, the more vocal of the two. "He's out there pushing himself so hard. He leads by example."

Despite his 5-foot-10, 160-pound frame - a size more conducive for his role as leadoff hitter and center fielder for his baseball team in the Babe Ruth League - he has excelled in an event usually dominated by those much bigger and stronger.

Already a top sprinter and jumper, Craig said the most difficult part has been mastering the decathlon's three throwing events: shot put, discus and javelin.

Although he would like to put on more muscle, the challenge, he said, is to find the proper balance, adding enough to help his throws, but not too much to hurt his speed."You have the strong, muscular types who are going to do well in the throws, the 100 and hurdles, and pretty decent in the jumps," Shank said. "Then, you have your smaller guys who do especially well in the running events, but not necessarily throwing. Right now, throws are his weakness."

Still, Craig said the decathlon is definitely where his future lies, especially seeing how quickly he picked up the pole vault, considered by most to be the most difficult of the 10 events.

Trying it for the first time last summer, he cleared 11 feet, 6 inches after just one week, a height that would have placed second in the recent county championships."If we had it to do over, and I knew what he was going to be as a senior, he probably could be a fantastic pole vaulter," Shank said.

Craig again emphasized that it goes back to gymnastics, a sport he said came quite naturally."He has that ability to get his body into positions that other people aren't familiar with getting their bodies into," Shank said. "My guess is that maybe if he had concentrated just on gymnastics, he'd have been very good."

As it stands now, he's not too bad in track, either. With Craig and O'Connell leading the way, Westminster won its first state track title in school history last winter and will shoot for another in the Class 4A championships that start Thursday at UMBC.

For Shank, coaching an athlete proficient in so many events presents something of a problem, albeit a pleasant one."I wish I could have him for more than just four events," he said.

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