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NEW HEIGHTS: Union/A-C Valley’s Hayden Smith Reflects on His High Jump Journey After Winning Second Consecutive AAU Junior Olympic Title

DES MOINES, Iowa (EYT/D9) — During a rain delay that dragged on through the morning, Hayden Smith retreated to the family car, reclined in his seat and closed his eyes.

His body was calm. His mind was racing.

Smith, a Union High School senior, was ready to defend his AAU Junior Olympic Games high jump championship at Drake University on a dreary Wednesday. He had won that title last last summer in Greensboro, N.C., on a scorching hot, sun-baked day.

He just had to wait a little longer for the rain to subside.

“You know, nobody likes to run or sprint or jump in the rain,” Smith said. “It was a muggy day and I had high expectations, but you can’t do anything about the weather.”

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When the high jump started, Smith bided his time a little longer. He didn’t enter the competition until 6 feet, 4 inches. He debated that strategy initially.

But with the elements, he wanted to conserve his energy for what was about to come.

A challenging competition against some of the best jumpers in the nation.

“I thought to myself, ‘Should you do this?’” Smith said. “But then I was like, ‘Yeah, you got it. Let’s go. You’re gonna it.’ And I did it.”

Smith certainly did.

With a new takeoff spot to aid him in getting over the bar at higher heights, Smith cruised through the competition.

He didn’t miss a jump, clearing a season-best 6 feet, 10¾ inches to win his second consecutive AAU Junior Olympic gold in the 17-18 division.

Smith made three attempts at 7 feet, ¼ inches. He just clipped the bar with his calf on his final run.

“My first two attempts were pretty rough,” Smith said. “But my last attempt, I moved my steps back three feet to get even farther away from the bar. I was like, ‘OK. Let’s try this.’ I got my whole body over it, but I just hit it with my calf.”

Clearing seven feet has been Smith’s goal for quite some time.

Even though he just missed it, Smith said he was pretty satisfied with winning another AAU Junior Olympic title.

“It turned out to be a great day,” Smith said. “I’m actually really happy with today because I went through the whole meet with consistency, just like last year. I haven’t gotten 6-10 this year yet, so it just felt great to get my PR again.

“Consistency is key,” he added. “Patience is key. I was just so happy.”

Smith buckled down on his new approach in the weeks leading up to the AAU Junior Olympics. He worked with coach Dave Sherman on adjusting his takeoff.

It was difficult for him to know if the new approach would pay off.

“It’s really hard to tell in practice because there’s no adrenalin,” Smith said. “It’s not the same at all as competing. So it was kind of a 50/50 thing whether or not it would work. It just happened to work out.”

Smith will take a break now with the season officially over.

The two-time PIAA Class 2A champion will soon set his sights on his final season on the Union/A-C Valley track and field team.

It’s been a dramatic journey for Smith in the event since he started competing in the high jump three years ago.

Things began to click for him early in his sophomore season.

“I started getting PRs left and right,” Smith said. “That’s when I knew, that I finally felt like, man, I’m starting to get locked in.”

Smith said his performance at the Slippery Rock Invitational propelled him to what he eventually accomplished.

“I remember I got 6-6 and as soon as I did, I was so pumped,” Smith said. “I walked over to my coach, Dave (Sherman) and he honestly wasn’t even pumped. He was just like, ‘What are you doing? Let’s go higher. You just had a jump where you could have cleared 6-9.’ I was like, ‘All right.’”

Later that season, Smith won his first state title.

This year, he won another. He also finished tied for second at the Nike Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Ore., in June.

Smith hasn’t made a college choice yet — and there is plenty of coaches clamoring for his jumping services.

“Yeah,” Smith said, chuckling. “A lot.”

Smith, though, isn’t ready to make a decision yet.

“It’s a little bit stressful because, I don’t know,” he said, pausing. “It’s not the school part. It’s just being away from home.”

But the high jump has taken him all over the country. He’s seen places he may have never seen had it not been for his talent at leaping over a bar.

“I never would have imagined this (three years ago),” Smith said. “It’s just been amazing.”

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Redbank Valley, Keystone, and Union/A-C Valley sports coverage on Explore and is brought to you by Heeter Lumber.