WARSAW — If Lindsay Yoder had it her way, Jessica O’Connell would run the 400 for the Concord girls track team.
And the 800. And even the grueling 3200.
But since IHSAA rules — not to mention physical limitations — dictate that athletes can only participate in four events per meet, O’Connell’s talents have been relegated to both hurdle events and a leg in Concord’s 1600 relay.
“You could put her in anything and she would not only do well, but she would excel,” said Yoder, Concord’s girls track head coach. “She’s an all-around gifted athlete. She’s extremely strong, in not only her physical but mental aspect.”
As a result, O’Connell has molded herself into one of northern Indiana’s fiercest hurdlers. She has advanced to the state meet three times in the 300 hurdles and twice in the 100 hurdles. She won the 300 hurdles for the second straight year at the Warsaw regional Tuesday, May 27.
"It’s really exciting," she said of the win. "It helps me to have more confidence in myself, to see that I can do that more than once.“
As O’Connell started winning more and more frequently at big meets, the target on her back grew bigger and bigger. But she never faltered, never stumbled. The competition got stiffer, and O’Connell kept winning.
A portion of her success can be traced back to her participation in an entirely different sport — gymnastics. Not only can O’Connell use her strong gymnast physique to her advantage, but Yoder believes the unique gymnast mentality has also been a strong factor in the senior’s unshakable attitude.
“I believe that gymnasts have a totally different mental capacity than any other athlete," Yoder said. "You have to be strong mentally. You have to be strong emotionally. You have to be strong physically. And she embodies all of those things, which, in turn, helps us on the track."
On the off-chance she doesn’t win any given race, O’Connell has a way of staying positive. She finished second in the 100 hurdles Tuesday, an event she won the year before. Rather than dwell on the red ribbon, O’Connell found an opportunity to celebrate.
"I was really excited about how I did in the 100 (hurdles)," she said moments after winning the 300 hurdles. "I actually set a (personal record). The girl who got first place, she’s amazing, so I was really excited to even be close to her."
She didn’t know it at the time, but O’Connell also broke the school record in the 100 hurdles Tuesday. She ran a 15.23, one hundredth of a second faster than the record the current hurdles coach Kelly Hale set in 2003.
O’Connell advances to her final state track meet June 6 in Bloomington in both hurdle events and as part of Concord’s 1600 relay team. While there, she hopes to set two more personal records and end her high school career on a good note.
Next year, O’Connell will take her talents to Grand Valley State University, where she recently signed to continue her track career. With her graduation, Yoder says goodbye to one of the most well-rounded athletes she’s ever coached.
"I’ve been a head track coach for seven years,” Yoder said. “Very rarely do you get an athlete who has a passion for the sport that I as a coach have. You very rarely get someone who is the complete package.”