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Saxony Lutheran's Hemmann will compete in hurdles at Class 2 state meet
Nicole Hemmann's hurdling career has progressed steadily.
She first tried to clear a hurdle during a grade-school track practice after encouragement from her mother, and her first training started with a stick on the ground at practice during her freshman year at Saxony Lutheran.
The progression reached a high point Saturday when she won the 100-meter and 300-meter hurdles titles at the Class 2 Sectional 1 track and field meet at Principia High School. Those victories qualified her for this weekend's Class 2 state meet in Jefferson City, Mo.
"I think by about the end of that first season of track my freshman year I was finally comfortable jumping over them," she said. "I'm sure I didn't have a great form and everything, but I worked my way up to it. Since then, I've been able to improve it every single year to now where I don't really think about jumping over the hurdles. I'm trying to think about running in between the hurdles and getting faster on that so I can get my times lower."
She's drawn to the hurdles because she jokes it gives her the best chance to compete.
"Since I don't really think I'm that fast of a runner, it helps me," she said. "It gives me a little bit of an edge whenever we're at meets and everything. Not everyone's as good at them and can pick up that form. It's been a good race for me."
Hemmann said it took about a week of jumping over a stick on the ground before she first got the chance to clear a hurdle during her freshman year.
"My big philosophy is to do it in baby steps, and especially for someone who never has hurdled before," Saxony Lutheran coach Larry Cleair said. "If you put a full-size hurdle in front of them, the first thing they're going to do is jump over it instead of learn how to hurdle. What I was doing is just giving her an obstacle that she could just basically run over and just slightly change her stride and slowly progress to where she's getting the lead leg out and starting to bring the trail leg up."
Cleair said he thought Hemmann had the makeup to be a quality hurdler. Her flexibility and willingness to work at the sport were two characteristics he saw in her.
"She was pretty good, which was nice, because not everyone you think is going to be a hurdler ends up being able to do it," he said. "Just because someone's flexible and has the tools doesn't mean they're going to be able to do it because for some of them, that fear is going to keep them from ever getting over the hurdle."
Fear of falling isn't a concern for Hemmann. She remembers two nasty spills -- one during a practice session on Notre Dame's rubberized track and one when teammate and training partner Jeremy Engelhart set a hurdle at the wrong height.
"I didn't even realize it until I got to it, and I did take a spill out on our pavement," she said.
She usually practices in the high school's asphalt parking lot, so she tries to block out the consequences of a wipeout.
"I guess with having our practices on the pavement almost every single day, it's kind of built up something to where I know I need to stop myself before I fall," she said. "But whenever we're actually at the meet, I clip the hurdles sometimes and usually it doesn't faze me. Usually it's like, hey I know I hit it. I just have to keep running and readjust my form to the way it's supposed to be to where I'm not hitting the hurdles."
A big advantage for Hemmann was that the stride for hurdling came naturally. She was able to adjust it so that she stayed low on the hurdle while clearing it to slice precious seconds off her time.
"It's taken a lot of practice and a lot of hours to get my form to where I'm not jumping the hurdles completely and not lagging in the air," she said. "You can tell whenever you're airborne over the hurdles for way too long. You get it to where you're not necessarily jumping over it. You're kind of making your stride just over it and trying to just make it another part of the race and I've got to get over this hurdle and get over it fast so I can get to the finish line."
Hemmann said she first started to notice she was one of the better hurdlers in the area during her junior year. Cleair had an easy explanation for the success she started enjoying.
"She was really good at working during the season, but she came out during cross country season, did some cross country running with us, but mostly she would drag hurdles out and go through it and work on her steps and work on her technique," he said. "During the winter, we got a couple safety hurdles, and she would work in the hallway."
Hemmann earned a trip to the state meet in the 100 hurdles as a junior. She clocked the 14th fastest time in the preliminaries at last year's state meet, which only pushed her to work harder.
"She's as dedicated to that as any athlete I've worked with since I first started coaching track, which was in 1975," Cleair said. "She's willing to put in the time and just do all those small things that help to make her better."
Hemmann's sectional times in the two events place her in the middle of the field. There were eight faster times and one equal time in the 100 hurdles, while 10 runners were faster and one equal in the 300 hurdles. The top four times from the four sectionals advanced to the state meet.
"With all the times the rest of the girls have gotten in their sectionals, I'm kind of up there, but I probably need to knock off a second or so, which I'm hoping the adrenaline of being at the state meet, I'm hoping that will help kick in," she said. "Also all the training that's leading up to this meet, I'm hoping I can just go out there and give it everything I've got and get my time a little bit lower."
Hemmann plans to enjoy herself at her final track meet. She doesn't plan on competing in college, so she wants her final meet to be a memorable one.
"This weekend will be it for hurdles," she said. "I'm sad that I have to kind of not necessarily give up hurdling, but I'm also happy that I could possibly go out on top."