East Xtra: Forest Hills girl is showing her versatility

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When Samantha Gibson finished in eighth place at the 2012 National Junior Olympic Heptathlon Championships after completing her junior year at Trinity Christian School, college programs began to pay attention to this 18-year-old Forest Hills resident's accomplishments.

She had completed a successful spring a year ago at Trinity Christian, which has just 150 students in grades 9-12, placing second in the WPIAL Class AA 400-meter dash with a time of 58.85 seconds.

At the PIAA Class AA meet, she finished in fifth place in the championship race with a time of 58.15 seconds. She also was credited with a top effort of 107 feet, 7 inches in the javelin.

But Gibson believed she could be effective in a discipline that offered several events. And that's when she discovered the heptathlon -- a grueling seven-event competition -- while watching videos featuring heptathletes on YouTube, focusing on events she wasn't familiar with. She learned them all well enough to win the Junior Olympic Regional Heptathlon in Newark, Del., that qualified her for the national championship in Baltimore.

Her diligence paid off as her time of 2:21.88 in the 800-meter run -- the final event in the seven-event program at the national championships -- earned her enough points to vault from 14th place to eighth and a spot on the medal stand.

Her prowess at Trinity Christian and in the heptathlon earned her a scholarship to the University of Central Arkansas, where she will compete for the Sugar Bears in the heptathlon.

It was that effort in the national meet that earned attention from coaches and eventually led her to UCA, which is located in Conway, Ark., 33 miles north of Little Rock, the state capital. Gibson signed her letter-of-intent on Feb. 6.

Gibson will study exercise science while competing in the heptathlon, which is contested at invitational meets throughout the season and at the NCAA Track and Field Championships.

This spring, she will compete in four track and field events for Trinity Christian: the 100-meter hurdles, the javelin, the high jump and the 400-meter dash. Shortly after that, she'll start college at UCA.

Gibson is the first female athlete from Trinity Christian to earn a Division I scholarship. She'll also be practicing and competing on a track that is owned and operated by the school she will be attending. That's a lot different than her present circumstances.

Trinity Christian has a dirt track near its campus. When they want to work on a real track, athletes from the Forest Hills school work out arrangements with nearby Woodland Hills High School.

Gibson said both she and Central Arkansas had high expectations about each other.

"The tipping point for me was when I visited the school," she said. "They cared about my well-being and didn't view me as just another student-athlete."

Like its male counterpart, the decathlon, heptathletes must be proficient at running, jumping and throwing. The heptathlon events are the 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200-meter dash, long jump, javelin and 800-meter run.

Richard Martin has been the women's track coach at Central Arkansas for 27 years. Gibson's primary coach, however, will be Ken Ciolek, who coaches the decathletes, heptathletes and male and female javelin throwers.

Ciolek, a Bedford, Pa., native, was a national qualifier in the decathlon and an All-American in the javelin. He has coached 35 national qualifiers, 15 All-Americans and national champions in the women's high jump and triple jump.

Gibson will not compete in the 800-meter run or the shot put for Trinity Christian. She had different reasons for not competing in those two events this spring.

"I knew I could probably medal in the 800," she said. "But I felt I needed to do the events that would get me ready for college, so I'm going with the events that are the most explosive. And, I didn't want to learn one shot put technique and then have to learn a new one when I get to college. Every coach has a different way of teaching the shot put, so I'll just learn it from scratch at UCA."

Gibson said the UCA women's track and field team currently has four heptathletes competing in their senior seasons.

"I was recruited for the heptathlon, and so was Hadley Swanson, who's from Moraga, Calif.," she said. "Two other girls will compete in the heptathlon, but Hadley and I will be full-time heptathletes."

Gibson said Swanson also is studying exercise science.

"We'll be training buddies, and also working together in the classroom," she said.

Conway has a population of about 60,000 residents, and is known as the City of Colleges because Hendrix College and Central Baptist College are located in Conway along with Central Arkansas.

"I'm not really a city girl," she said. "I like wide-open spaces, but there are three colleges there. So, it's a college town and there's a lot of stuff to do. It's not in the middle of nowhere."



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