Live in the Moment – An Alabama High School Track & Field Championship Tale

Mindfulness is the underlying moral of this tale.

Huntsville High School (HHS) State Track Champions.jpg
Photos of the boards that hang in the gymnasium at Huntsville High School in Huntsville, Alabama to memorialize and celebrate the school’s state champions.

I cannot recall exactly when it occurred but at some point back in 1988 while a freshman at Huntsville High School I set three goals for myself: 1) graduate from the place; 2) get a date with this beautiful girl in my homeroom who was named Tracy Yarbrough; and, 3) while it seemed an unreasonable long shot for a tiny freshman who literally was only 102 pounds soaking wet with football pads on holding a 10 lb dumbbell, the first time I set eyes on the big red boards hanging in our school’s gym that I wanted to be in that club. I wanted to be a state champion high hurdler.

Obviously, I had to have this on my resume, not for any other reason then that my father was one of the most heralded high hurdlers to ever run for Abington High School in the suburbs outside of northern Philadelphia. This third goal made the list because I live the life of a junior, as a child not only did I have to look up to this godlike figure and role model, but I had the glorious joy of also carrying the great man’s name. This formula can possibly create a marvelous environment for a healthy competition where the younger seeks to overtake the elder and the elder seeks to maintain as much of their advantage for as long as they can.

We are only going to focus on the third goal here, in case the pictures were not a spoiler. But I will share that although both took what seemed like years, I was able to accomplish both goals one and two. Fast forward to May 1992 and the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) Class 6A Boys Outdoor Track & Field Championships held somewhere in central or southern Alabama. Over the course of the previous four years I had committed myself to the goal of being the best high hurdler I could possible be.

Persistence, hard work, and dedication definitely pay off and while I now only stood at 5’7″ tall and weighed a slight 147 pounds I had the fastest qualifying time as we were set to run the finals of the 110m high hurdles. I was in the middle of the track positioned in lane four as a result of having the fastest qualifying time in the preliminary heats.

The table was set for me to win the Alabama state title. The entire universe had organized the events so my dream could come true. I would be a state champion and my name would go up on those big red boards in the school gymnasium. It is probably important to interject a regular mantra offered to me by my mother, “stay focused.” It is important that she was always telling me that I had to stay focused because decades later I would receive a diagnosis of adult ADHD and most likely had a touch of good ole childhood ADHD as well. When discussing this point with my mother years later, she chimed, “Baby, they didn’t have any names for what you had when you were a child, so we just did the best we could.” Little did I know, my mother’s admonitions would come into play in the finals of the Alabama high hurdle championship race that very day.

Crouched in the starting blocks I cleared my mind of all thoughts coiled every muscle in my body and awaited the signal of the starting gun to burst into action. Bang! I exploded out of the blocks due to the combination of my explosive start and abnormally quick reaction time to the sound of the starter’s pistol.

From the first step out of the blocks I was in full command of the race and firmly shot forward into first place as we cleared hurdle number one. One, two, three, step. One, two, three, step. I raced over hurdles one thru eight running a smooth clean race, victory was close at hand. At this point there was literally nothing and no one that could interrupt my triumph, no one that is, except me.

prelims of 110m HH at the Huntsville City Track & Field Championships
A photo published by the Huntsville Times in 1992 showing Don leading over hurdle number one in the prelims of 110m HH at the ’92 Huntsville City Track & Field Championships

As I cleared hurdle eight and approached hurdle number nine I couldn’t see anyone in my peripheral vision and I couldn’t feel the presence of any other competitors. I felt victory was mine. And here in this critical moment of high stakes competition I opted to commence a vivid daydream montage featuring post event festivities.

First, that evening when we returned to Huntsville, (we would be rushing back to attend our senior prom), I saw myself surrounded by my fellow Crimson Panthers mutually adulating in my win. The scene morphed to those big red boards and the new 1992 entries, including Don West 110m High Hurdles. It was glorious. It was worth all the sweat and the pain. The days when I pushed myself so hard that I was compelled to throw up the high quality vittles that were served up to us in the HHS cafe. Did I mention this was all happening as I was in the process of finishing a race that takes less that 15 seconds total from start to finish.

Needless to say, this was a major violation of my mother’s edicts throughout my childhood to stay focused. As I reached the mid-point of crossing the tenth hurdle my victory montage was rudely interrupted by something in my peripheral vision to my left. The kid in lane five was closing fast. I snapped to it in a flash and commenced to finishing the business at hand as I touched down from clearing the tenth and final hurdle now with a kid pulling up fast right next to me. We raced to the finish line both bending as far forward as we could without tumbling over as we reached the tape. A photo finish.

After the race it took a long time for them to announce the winner. A council of officials was concerned and these men poured over the photograph of our finish. Finally, our team’s head coach, Coach Fletcher and I walked up to the official’s booth. There the officials allowed Coach and I to look at the photograph and we both swore that it could be called either way from our viewpoints, to us the photo looked to be a tie. Well, if you looked closely at the photos at the beginning of this post you already may have noticed my name does not appear anywhere on those big red boards. The powers that be ultimately did not see a tie, rather they awarded the race to the other guy, saying, that he defeated me by one one-hundredth of a second. His winning time was declared to be 14.62 and my disappointing 14.63 was awarded second place and unsatisfying all-state honors. All that hard work, all that dedication, spoiled because I failed to stay focused. It was a hard and painful lesson to learn.

Stay focused my friends.