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Clearing Obstacles: Union/A-C Valley’s Hayden Smith Conquering More Than Just High Jump This Spring

RIMERSBURG, Pa. (EYT/D9) — Hayden Smith always seems to have a smile on his face.

When he’s leaping in the air and clearing the bar in the high jump, the Union/A-C Valley sophomore is right where he wants to be.

“He’s a really fun kid to be around,” said Union/A-C Valley volunteer coach Dave Sherman, who works with Smith on the high jump. “That’s because he has such a joy for what he’s doing. He’s just always excited. When he’s jumping, you can tell he’s in his element.”

That smile and joy sometimes hides his struggles. Since Smith was in the fifth grade, he’s battled anxiety and depression.

Sometimes, the anxiety can be debilitating. The depression smothering.

Sometimes, all Smith can do is shut down, and he finds it difficult to accomplish even the simplest of tasks.

Smith used to hide from his anxiety and depression. He didn’t talk about it. He rarely shared what he was feeling with others, even those closest to him.

That, though, has recently changed.

After a particularly tough winter in which Smith was virtually paralyzed by his anxiety and depression, Hayden found a new approach.

While once he shied away from it, now he’s facing it head on, determined to conquer it with the same determination and zeal he uses to clear the bar in the high jump.

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

“When it affected him this year (during basketball season), it was a struggle,” said Hayden’s mother, Tressa Smith. “Then I saw more athletes were talking about it. A lot of people think it’s not real and that really hurts. But he has really opened up about it this year.”

That act alone has been therapeutic for Hayden.

“It’s really hard sometimes,” he said. “But my whole team is there and they’re wonderful. They motivate me.”

“In counseling, they talk about what his triggers can be,” Tressa added. “Negativity can be a big one. Honestly, these coaches this year have been phenomenal.”

This spring, Hayden is succeeding in more than just coping with his anxiety and depression. He’s also excelling again in the high jump.

He cleared 6 feet, 6 inches at the Rock Relays at Slippery Rock University Saturday, winning the event by four inches.

On his 6-6 leap, he was high enough over the bar that he could have cleared 6-10.

It was a personal record for Hayden, and it has triggered his renewed quest to achieve some lofty goals in the high jump.

“I would like to push for 6-10 this year and next year push even higher than that,” Hayden said. “I want to get to states again and get a state title.”

(Hayden Smith takes off over the bar at Slippery Rock University Saturday/photo by Lori Blauser)

While coaching the A-C Valley boys and girls track and field team last season, Hayden caught Sherman’s eye.

This year, Sherman became the athletic director at A-C Valley and stepped down from coaching. When the two schools merged track programs just before this season, Sherman volunteered to help co-coaches Shanna Tharan and Stacey Fox.

He was delighted to get a chance to work with Hayden in the high jump.

“I saw him jump and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this kid’s got some ability,’” Sherman said. “He’s taken to the coaching. He was kind of self-taught last year (at Union). His form over the bar was pretty rough and his takeoff wasn’t very consistent.”

Ironing out those things has led Hayden to consistency in the event.

And a chance to clear some state-championship-caliber heights.

“I don’t know if I want to put a number on it,” Sherman said. “Let’s just say he can go pretty high. The sky’s almost the limit for him. He’s a phenomenal leaper.”

Hayden discovered at a fairly young age that he had the uncanny ability to jump. He wanted to use his leaping ability to do what all kids want to do when they discover they have a good vertical: dunk a basketball.

His older sister, Sierra, though, encouraged him to channel his hops into something a bit more meaningful in the long term.

The high jump.

“She was really into track, too,” Hayden said. “She told me I could really do it. I didn’t think of it until I tried it.”

Hayden was a natural. Despite being raw and rough around the edges, he still cleared 6-5 last season as a sophomore and won the District 9 Class AA title with an effort of 6-4.

At the PIAA Track and Field Championships, he placed ninth — one spot away from the podium and a medal.

It has served as motivation for Hayden this season.

A small tweak to his takeoff has opened up new possibilities for him.

“(Coach Sherman) explained how to take off from a farther distance and then rise up and hold longer,” Hayden said. “I did that and I was pretty high up there on that 6-6 at Slippery Rock.”

When he cleared the bar Saturday and landed on the padding, he was ecstatic, pumping his fists. He was especially proud of how her performed at a meet the size of the one at SRU against some bigger schools from districts surrounding D9.

A preview, perhaps, for the state meet.

“It was a crazy experience,” Hayden said. “I’ve never really experienced anything like that, so it was nuts.”

Hayden said he is still working hard, fine tuning his approach and his technique in the air.

Anything to get him closer to that goal of 6-10 — or even higher.

“I’m working with my coaches every day in practice, really working on my form,” Hayden said. “I’m never gonna underestimate anybody. Anyone can bust out any jump that they want.”

That includes Hayden, who hasn’t let his anxiety get the best of him before a meet.

It helps that he has an established routine before a competition.

“My coach will come over with me and talk with me a little bit, you know, motivate me, tell me you get that one jump and you’ll win,” Hayden said. “Then I’ll do some run throughs. Then I’ll stretch and then just get mentally prepared for it.

“Then,” Hayden said, pausing to let out a soft chuckle, “I’ll go out and do me. Do my best.”

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