FAIRFIELD — For someone who in less than two years has become one of the FCIAC’s most decorated athletes, the portrait Tess Stapleton paints of her early days can only leave one skeptical.
“I played just about every sport when I was young and I wasn’t very good at them, but the only constant was I was fast,” Stapleton said. “I stunk at softball but I could run very fast. So I just bunted and ran around the bases. In gymnastics with vaulting I was fast down the runway. With soccer I was horrible but I could run fast with the ball. Basketball, I was fast on the breakaway but then they had me pass it to someone else because I couldn’t shoot. From all of that coming together, the general conclusion was I was really fast and my mom put me in track.”
Stapleton’s trajectory ever since has been a straight upward line. The Fairfield Ludlowe sophomore has been dominant in both the hurdles and long jump, highlighted last month when she won New England championships in both events, then went on to finish fifth in the 55 hurdles at the New Balance Nationals.
“I’m extremely happy how New Englands went,” Stapleton said. “It was definitely a surprise.”
Though she considers it her primary event, Stapleton said her performance in the long jump was especially pleasing.
“Hurdles for me is relatively consistent unless I fall,” Stapleton said. “Even if I have a bad race my times hold up. If I have a race where my hurdles are really bad I always make up for it in some way. If you see me mess up on the second hurdle I’ll find a way to make it up. If you look at my times for hurdles I (set a personal record) every single meet. Long jump is harder than hurdles because it is so hard to be consistent. Hurdles I don’t get disqualified. In the long jump I’ve had jumps that would have won that meet but my toe is a little bit over that white line. There are so many extra things coming into play. In the hurdles there aren’t so many different variables.”
Track has proved a perfect marriage for Stapleton’s skill set, and she has the advantage of starting at an earlier age. Stapleton’s natural ability came into play when she began training with Justin Tomczyk, her current coach.
“I had such a good foundation for speed,” Stapleton said. “Because I didn’t always have the good jump form in the beginning because I didn’t have a coach. I was jumping into the sand as best I could so I had to rely on my speed. Once I started working with (Tomcyzk) from there it really took off.”
Adding the hurdles happened initially by accident.
“If you can become really good at hurdles you can stand out because it’s not a super popular event,” Stapleton said. “I was always super interested in it. At the end of 8th grade I was messing around with it in the gym and my coach said you are doing pretty well. I hurdled once at a middle school meet and broke the school record in that first meet and he said you should probably continue. The second meet I fell. That turned me away from hurdles a little bit and then I started really doing it indoors my freshman year.”
A fall in the hurdles last spring that cost Stapleton a Class LL championship proved her biggest psychological obstacle to date.
“It was the 10th hurdle directly before the finish line and I was about to win states and I remember thinking ‘You’re just about to win states,’ ” Stapleton recalled. “The next thing I know I was on the ground.”
The fall also denied Stapleton the chance to qualify for the State Open and New England championships. Though she has scars on her body from previous missteps, this one caused her to stay away from the event for a few months.
“I had a mental block about it,” Stapleton said.
It didn’t last indoors: Stapleton was undefeated until nationals.
“I’ve definitely come a humongous way so it wasn’t all natural ability but I think my starting point was at a little bit better of a place than another person might have been because it was a perfect combination of my skills,” Stapleton said. “I was a gymnast for nine years and had the flexibility. You need some level of agility to stretch out and come back together real fast. It was a good way for me to showcase all I had been working on.”
Though her greater dominance has caused Stapleton to become more closely associated with the hurdles, she remains true to her first love.
“At the end of the day, something people really don’t know about me is the long jump is my passion, long jump is my main event,” Stapleton said. “When people say to me you’re a hurdler I say no I’m a long jumper. I think of my big dreams, I want to go to college for track, I’d love to go pro one day. I used to have big Olympic dreams and they never involved hurdles. At the end of the day long jump is what I want to do.”
Stapleton competed in the high jump and long jump in Ludlowe’s first meet this spring. She said she still has a mental block from last year’s fall but hopes to return to the 100 hurdles at some point.
It is scary to think how much success Stapleton has already had and her Ludlowe career is not even half over. She already is on the radar of top colleges. And after that?
“I don’t know what will happen but I would like to take it as far as I can,” she said.