By the end of the first lap of the 3,200-meter run, Philipsburg-Osceola seventh-grader Justice Decker started to have some trouble breathing.
It was her first time ever competing in a running event — Decker throws the shot put, javelin and discus — and she didn’t know how to approach the long-distance race during P-O’s meet last Wednesday. She started in a sprint during the first lap instead of pacing herself. By the fourth lap, she started to feel as if she was going to pass out and began to doubt her ability to finish the race.
That’s when Decker received a boost as her opponents — athletes from Penns Valley and Bald Eagle Area — offered her encouragement.
With two laps left, in a scene that left few dry eyes in the crowd, 40 to 50 athletes from Penns Valley, BEA and P-O ran alongside Decker, helping her push through the pain to finish.
“It was one of my biggest achievements to have so many people coming with me when I’m running,” Decker said. “I’ve never had that many people cheering me on.”
Added Penns Valley coach Caroline Witter: “Everyone in attendance said that they actually were starting to get tears in their eyes.”
The act of sportsmanship left an impression on Decker, fans and the teams’ coaches. Witter tries to instill in her athletes that it’s about giving their best effort — she doesn’t care if they win. BEA coach Kristen McCarty said she’s talked with her team about sportsmanship since the beginning of the season, telling her athletes that they can cheer for opposing teams.
The BEA and Penns Valley athletes made their coaches proud and blew P-O coach Andy Bowen away with their support of Decker.
“It was just an amazing sight — I mean brought tears to your eyes just to see that level of compassion and kindness and sportsmanship,” Bowen said.
Before the 3,200, Bowen asked girls who weren’t currently competing in an event if they wanted to run. With only one girl from P-O, one girl from BEA and two girls from Penns Valley signed up for the event, Bowen saw an opportunity to for the team to earn some more points. McCarty said coaches always ask for volunteers for the 3,200, but not many are willing to compete in the most difficult race. Still, Bowen approached his team.
“Normally when you ask kids, ‘Hey can you run the two-mile?’ It’s, ‘Oh no, not the two-mile,’” Bowen said. “Because it’s eight laps. It’s a very tough race. I don’t think I could personally run it.”
Decker volunteered without hesitation, impressing both McCarty and Witter.
“She showed that determination that you don’t have to be just a thrower, just a jumper in track,” Witter said. “You can prove anything can be done.”
Decker said she started to have second thoughts at the starting line. McCarty noticed Decker started to slow down after the first lap and hoped she would persevere. At one point, Witter noticed her team started to spread around the track to cheer for Decker.
“The other teams were who started it,” Decker said. “You would expect that not the other teams would start it, and that it would have been like P-O who started it. No, it was Penns Valley, and it was really good sportsmanship. Both schools had good sportsmanship.”
McCarty saw a few athletes encouraging Decker during the second lap when she went to check on the scoring in a shed next to the field. The BEA coach then heard the roar of the crowd and went back to the track to see a huge crowd following Decker.
As they ran with Decker, they chanted, “Let’s go, Justice.”
“It was probably one of the most amazing sporting events that I’ve seen,” McCarty said.
The next day at practice, McCarty read an email from Bowen to her team that praised BEA for its sportsmanship. The P-O coach said he’s proud of all three teams for helping Decker finish the race.
“You hear people talk about kids today sometimes and they talk about maybe they’re rude and maybe they’re ungrateful and maybe they spend all their time on electronic devices and don’t socialize or whatever the stereotype may be,” Bowen said, “but in times like that, you see that they really are great kids.”
Decker appreciated all the support from people she didn’t know, and she said she looks forward to track practice every day. Though she didn’t like running before last week’s meet, she’s already shown improvement.
“I could before barely do one lap around here and now ever since I’ve done that, I can do two laps,” Decker said. “It’s like a breeze.”