Obituary: Marla Puryear Smith / Top athlete, champion sprinter
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Marla Puryear Smith didn't need much in the way of coaching.
"Great sprinters are just born to run fast," longtime Thomas Jefferson High School track coach Chuck Stout said. "As a coach, you dream of getting a great one once in your coaching career. I got a great one in Marla."
Ms. Puryear Smith, who as a sprinter at Thomas Jefferson High School in Jefferson Hills in the late 1980s by her maiden name of Marla Puryear was one of the most decorated track athletes in WPIAL history, died Monday after a lengthy, undisclosed illness. She was 38.
A 1989 Thomas Jefferson graduate, Ms. Puryear Smith was a two-time Post-Gazette scholastic female athlete of the year and still holds the WPIAL girls' 100-meter dash record at 11.2 seconds, which she set during her senior year.
Mr. Stout, who was the head coach at Thomas Jefferson from 1980-2006, knew Ms. Puryear Smith had something special before he even saw her settle into the starting blocks.
"She didn't need to lift a weight to have a perfect body for a sprinter," he said. "Her quads were huge and she had this little waist where her shorts never fit her right. She just looked perfect out there. She just looked like a champion."
She didn't just look the part, either.
Ms. Puryear Smith won PIAA gold medals in the 100 and 200 in 1986, 1988 and 1989. That feat -- a WPIAL female sprinter from the largest classification capturing gold in the statewide track meet in the 100 and 200 in the same year -- has only been matched by Laurel Highlands' Breehana Jacobs.
Also, Ms. Puryear Smith is one of only four WPIAL girls to win six gold medals at the PIAA championships.
Ms. Puryear Smith, Ms. Jacobs, Lauryn Williams of Rochester and Beaver Falls' Candy Young are widely acknowledged as the premier sprinters in WPIAL girls' track history.
Chances are Ms. Puryear Smith would have won PIAA gold in both the 100 and 200 as a sophomore in 1987 as well -- or at least have been a heavy favorite -- if not for an injury. Just weeks before WPIAL qualifying that year, she pulled a hamstring during a cheerleading tryout and was unable to run, denying her a chance to qualify for the PIAA meet.
"Marla wanted to be a cheerleader, too; well, we saw how that worked out," Mr. Stout said. "There is no doubt, had she not been injured right there, she would have won [PIAA] gold medals in the 100 and 200 all four years.
"I remember her going to the WPIAL qualifier and trying to warm up and she just couldn't compete. She was sitting there, at Baldwin, crying and crying. I felt so bad for her because she was such a little sweetheart who was the nicest girl and she just wanted to run, that's all she wanted."
Perhaps she wanted it so much because of her bloodlines.
Her father, Norman Jones, a 1971 Clairton graduate, was one of the most feared WPIAL sprinters of his time.
And the athletic prowess looks to be moving to a third generation.
Ms. Puryear Smith's son, Trenton Coles, is one of the WPIAL's bright young athletes as he enters his sophomore year at Clairton in the fall. As a freshman, Trenton won the WPIAL Class AA 400-meter dash in 49.47 seconds and was a member of the Bears' football team that won the WPIAL Class A title and went to the PIAA championship game in Hershey, losing to Steelton-Highspire, 35-16.
Ms. Puryear Smith is survived by her husband, Don Smith and four sons, Kevin Coles, Keith Coles, Trenton Coles and Karvonn Coles, all of Clairton; her father, Norman Jones and his wife, Shirley Jones; and her mother, Pamela Puryear, all of Clairton; five sisters, all of Clairton: Ebony Moody, Kiera Johnson, Marlese Johnson, Alexis Jones and Cierra Hilliary.
The Robert A. Waters Funeral Home in Clairton is handling arrangements, which were incomplete yesterday.
First Published July 29, 2009 12:36 am