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Longer Approach Helped Smith Be Flawless in Winning AAU Junior Olympic Games Gold in High Jump

GREENSBORO, N.C. (EYT/D9) — Hayden Smith sprinted toward the jumping pit, pushed off and soared over the bar that was set at 6 feet, .75 inches (1.85 meters) in the high jump at the AAU Junior Olympic Games.

(Above, Hayden Smith clears the bar at the AAU Junior Olympic Games in Greensboro, N.C., Wednesday afternoon/photo courtesy of Derrious Brown)

It was his first attempt on a sweltering afternoon at North Carolina A&T’s Truist Stadium.

After that initial effort, the 17-year-old Rimersburg native and incoming junior at Union High School grinned. He knew he was going to have a great day.

“I had the mindset that I was going to at least get the top three,” Smith said. “I came in and after my first jump I was like, ‘Yeah. I got this.’”

Smith didn’t miss until the victory was his, clearing 6-10¾ to claim first. He made three attempts at 7-¾, but couldn’t clear that height.

Still the gold medal was around his neck. Smith, who won a PIAA Class 2A title in the high jump while competing for Union/A-C Valley in May, was now a national champion, too.

He bested a field of 80 jumpers from across the country. Herman Batiste of Jackson, La., was second at 6-8¾.

“It feels pretty good,” Smith said, grinning again. “Look. It brought a smile to my face.”

Smith was flawless, despite the heat and despite having the time of his 17-18 high jump competition Wednesday moved back three hours from 9 a.m. to noon because of a fight that occurred at the Games Tuesday afternoon that sent three people to the hospital, injured 11 more and postponed the rest of the day’s slate.

Smith, however, is no stranger to adversity.

At the state meet, heavy rain forced the high jump indoors. Smith had never jumped inside before and had to borrow shoes from a parent of one of his teammates — one size too small — to compete on the gym floor surface. He won anyway.

A three-hour change wasn’t going to faze him.

“I just treated it like what happened at states,” Smith said. “Actually, I was like, ‘Good. I get to sleep in a little longer.’”

The change, though, meant Smith had to compete during the heat of the day. It was 97 degrees and humid and Smith tried everything he could to keep cool between his jumps.

He had cooling rags wrapped around his neck and sat in the shade.

It worked — and he was the envy of the other competitors who didn’t have cooling rags of their own.

Dave Sherman, a volunteer assistant coach for the Union/A-C Valley track and field team and a former high jumper himself, made the trip with Smith to North Carolina.

In preparation for the meet, Sherman and Smith tweaked his approach, lengthening it so he could get more speed, and thus more momentum, to carry him over the bar.

“He hasn’t missed a beat,” Sherman said. “He was stalling out a little bit over the bar, so we played around with his approach after he won down in West Virginia (to qualify for the AAU Junior Olympic Games). We’ve gotten a little more speed through his approach by moving back a little bit and it seemed to really pay off for him today.”

Smith said he adjusted quickly to the longer approach.

(Hayden Smith poses with Dalyn Saucedo of Kaufman, Texas. Saucedo, who competed in the 8-under 800-meter run, was one of several younger competitors who flocked to Smith after his high jump win/submitted photo)

He’s also had to adjust to the fanfare.

After his win, he was approached by several very impressed and in awe younger competitors. Some of them asked for his autograph. Some were mesmerized by his gold medal.

Smith took his time to talk with each of them.

He knows very well what that could mean to them.

For most of his life, Smith has battled anxiety and depression. So bad this winter, Smith holed himself up in his room. A basketball player, his game suffered and he wondered if the dark clouds that hung over him would ever lift.

They did. The high jump was the perfect therapy for Smith, who has made a meteoric rise in the event this year.

“It’s because of Dave and all the other coaches,” Smith said. “I have YouTube and other things to look at videos, but it’s not like learning in person. I’m the type of person who needs to be hands-on. I owe so much to Dave and the coaches.”

Sherman said Smith is really just beginning.

Smith’s goal is to clear seven feet. Sherman has no doubt that will happen sooner rather than later. The Pennsylvania record is 7-2½. The national mark is 7-6.

Smith has a legitimate shot at both before his career is over. He has two more years to chase those marks, after all.

“Someone asked me where he was going to school next year,” Sherman said. “I said, “High school — he’s only a junior.’ They couldn’t believe it.

“I honestly thought he was gonna get seven-feet-plus today,” Sherman added said. “His jump at 6-6, 6-8 — he just flew. I think maybe today it was conditioning. It was blazing hot and I don’t know when the last time was that he did a track workout. He probably wasn’t in the same shape he was at the end of May. That was a factor on his legs.”

It was also a bit mental, Smith said.

But his main goal now is to get in the weight room and get stronger.

He feels like if he does that, he’ll have even more explosion in the years to come.

“I have never touched a weight,” Smith said. “I’m going to start doing that.”

Smith is also hoping to compete in an indoor season this winter.

Butler High School, the defending PIAA Class 3A champion, has already reached out to invite Smith to jump with them.

“He has crazy ability,” Sherman said. “He’s still maturing — I think he got taller since May. He listens to everything. He just absorbs it and it happens.”

Smith also isn’t shying away from the attention and the expectations.

“This is gonna start a whole new something,” Smith said. “I’m ready for it. I’m ready to take it on.”

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