The FCIAC’s best athlete has spent the past two and a half weeks obsessing over 20 feet.
Six and three quarter yards. Two hundred and 40 inches.
More accurately, Tess Stapleton labors with a 5.5-inch question mark, the difference between her personal best in the long jump that won her a second straight New England title last month and the 20-foot barrier she had hoped to crack two weeks later at the national championships, which were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Everything appeared so properly aligned for Stapleton, a junior at Fairfield Ludlowe who had swept the long jump and 55-meter hurdles at every postseason meet. Stapleton had appeared like Secretariat in blowing away the fields in the hurdles, setting records and finishing with a time of 7.88 at the New England meet.
But Stapleton has always treated the long jump as a favored child. Then came the health quarantine, the disruption to everyday life and, less importantly, the shutdown of the sports world.
“It’s definitely a little frustrating for me because for the rest of my career I’ll always wonder what would have happened if I got to compete that day,” said Stapleton, who needs just a question to give you a story’s worth of quotes. “I was so close and so ready. I’ve never been so ready going into nationals. It was just sort of like the perfect storm. Anything could have happened. The energy there and having the best of the best competition. I was injury free, which never happens. And I have never been ranked so well. If I ran it would have probably been a great experience and I will never know. The whole season I was chasing 20 feet and if that was going to happen it was going to happen at nationals.”
Stapleton’s season was so magnificent, I started a weekly “What Record Did Tess Break? posting on my Instagram account. (Full disclosure: Stapleton has been a social media specialist for The Ruden Report when her schedule allows). She currently ranks fifth nationally in the long jump and fourth in the hurdles.
“The best thing about long jump was how consistent I got,” Stapleton said. “I didn’t lose starting with divisional until New Englands. That has never ever happened to me before. I’d jump 19 and the next week 17 and finish third. For me to pull out big jumps every single week was something I never thought I’d be able to achieve.
“Overall I am not going to let this take away from my season. Everyone went through this and the same circumstances. I’m really proud of what I got to accomplish. It’s just that 20 feet.”
Stapleton is ultracompetitive, driven by the desire to be the best, be it in the classroom, on the track and who knows where else.
Like the rest of the world, Stapleton is in a holding pattern. She was looking forward to the quick transition to the outdoor season and riding the upward trajectory. She feels hamstrung now by being limited in her training.
“It’s the fact I can’t even go over a hurdle right now or jump into the long jump pit,” Stapleton said. “That’s been really hard for me because those skills, they need to stay sharp. If I don’t hurdle for a while I will lose a lot. My speed. Going over a hurdle fast is something you have to work on every single day. If you don’t you will lose those skills. Even when I take a break in the summer for a little bit and start again in the fall I have to do a lot of catchup work to get everything back to where it was.”
Right now Stapleton is able to lift and use the bike and treadmill from home. She said she runs up a big hill leading to her residence.
“I’m trying to figure a way to build a hurdle out of something in the house or long jump onto a beanbag chair,” Stapleton said with a laugh. “I don’t love to run. I love to hurdle and I love to jump. I don’t love the running part of it.”
There is another not inconsequential matter for Stapleton’s future.
“From a recruiting standpoint it’s a little worrying for me because I don’t want to have to be recruited based on what I’ve done this indoor season,” Stapleton said. “Especially without going to nationals. If I was going to do well it would have been at nationals. Even in outdoor I know my marks would have improved. It’s a little frustrating they are going to look at indoors.”
Stapleton’s grades in the classroom should get her entree into the school of her choice. It is the marks on the track that matter to her should she choose to compete against the best post Ludlowe.
“My aspirations are USC and Georgia,” Stapleton said. “I’m not there yet. I just want a chance. I want to have as many opportunities as possible. I know my marks right now, they’re good and they open the doors to a ton of schools, but I want to have all the opportunities. If I want to go to USC or Georgia I want to be able to be recruited by them so I’m a little bit nervous about what this means if I don’t have an outdoor season.”
Stapleton appreciates her dream winter, but she is too driven not to think what would have happened in that one final meet. For now, she at least has a fallback.
“I’m glad I’m a junior so I get a chance to do it next year hopefully,” Stapleton said.