Following an unfortunate injury that sidelined her for her entire junior season, Warren Howland’s Nicole Pachol dedicated herself to her senior season and is in the state track meet after defeating defending state champ Amber Smith of Collinwood in the 300 hurdles at last Friday’s regionals.
Feel free to call it an upset if you wish. That’s perfectly all right with Nicole Pachol of Howland, who beat the defending state champion in the 300 hurdles at the Youngstown Regional track meet last Friday.
“Most definitely, you can call that an upset as much as you want because that’s what it was,” said Pachol about her stunning victory over Amber Smith from Collinwood. “I really wasn’t expecting it at all. So, definitely I’d call it an upset. I’m sure not many people were expecting that.”
Smith had the fastest preliminary time going into the finals while Pachol had the second fastest time of the two heats, less than a second behind her. But Pachol had a plan for their next race two days later that would send the four fastest finishers to Columbus for the state meet.
“Coming out of lane five, I did a lot of studying on Amber. I knew that she’d beat me to the 200 mark way before I got there, about 1.2 seconds before I did,” Pachol said. “But I knew that her ending close wouldn’t be as strong because we ended up being pretty neck and neck in our times. So I had the strategy that I just needed to hold her off on the curve and I knew if I could do that then I would be pretty solid.”
Despite having a solid game plan for the finals in the 300, Pachol had no idea just how realistic the chances actually were for her of beating the junior hurdler from Collinwood. She was really just thinking about making it to Columbus at that point.
“It wasn’t very realistic to me but my coaches always say that ‘if I think I can win then my body can achieve it,’ ” Pachol said. “But realistically I just really wanted to get second to make sure that I could get in lane three or six at the state meet. But I put my heart into everything. I was expecting to make regions, that was just my main goal, but whenever you’re so close to something like that, that’s when you pour your heart out and you try your best to just win whenever you know that you can try and do it.”
Trailing Smith so closely after the prelims on Wednesday was probably the best thing that could have happened to Pachol.
“I just knew that I messed up a lot in it and I knew that my time was still fairly decent and I had it in my mind that if I can improve the way I step, my steps between the hurdles, that my time would go down,” Pachol said.
“And knowing that my time was less than a second slower than Amber’s in the prelim heats gave me a little bit of confidence. I watched her race, she raced perfect in the prelims and I didn’t. So I knew that if I could have a perfect race then I would be closer to her than what I was in prelims. So, it definitely helped me out strategically to know what I needed to do on Friday.”
Pachol knew that if she was going to win the race then she had to win it during the early part of the race.
“When (Smith) gets around the 200 mark, she gets there in about 27 seconds and on Wednesday I had gotten there in about 28.2,” Pachol said. “So I knew if I could make her work and hold her off then I would have a better finish just by watching how she performed on Wednesday. So, definitely my strategy was that I was running a 200-meter hurdle race, my eye wasn’t on the 300 hurdle race, and I just went out with everything that I had for 200 meters.”
Her strategy obviously worked. Pachol had a comfortable lead around the curve, at least it looked that way, at the second-to-the-last hurdle.
“When I went over my second-to-the-last hurdle I couldn’t see her anymore and that’s when the adrenalin started to kick in and I’m saying in my head, ‘Oh my God, I’m in front of a state champion.’ That’s exactly what went through my head as I was running,” Pachol said. “And as I went over the last hurdle I said to myself that ‘I can’t afford to stutter.’ I didn’t know how far back she was. And when I made it over clean, oh my God, that’s when I knew basically when I crossed the line. I said, ‘Oh my God. I just did this. I can’t believe it.’ ”
And when the results were officially posted on the scoreboard, Pachol crumbled to the ground for a second.
“I knew my time had to have been in the 42s which I hadn’t accomplished yet this year and that was a great goal for me,” she said. “And to see a 41, it was just like surpassing everything that I hoped for for that day. And so, oh my God, it was indescribable.”
So will Pachol allow herself to think about actually winning a state title just yet? Her answer was, of course, all business.
“You always hope for the best but as of right now I’m seeded first but the disadvantage about winning a region is that people are gunning for you now,” Pachol said. “People know what they’ve got to do and they’re training hard to come out at me. I actually feel like there’s more pressure on me because I know that I have to perform at my peak and even try to improve on that time because there’s going to be girls that know I’m there and they’re coming for me. So, hopefully I can pull it out but I don’t know. I’m definitely not comfortable.”
But Pachol obviously already knows that the preliminaries, especially at the state meet, are very important in so many ways.
“I always tell myself, in the back of my head, that the top four in each heat are going to make finals and knowing that I can come out of lane five and be victorious definitely puts me at ease for my prelims on this coming Friday,” she said. “But I’ll definitely give it my all because there’s girls that know what my time was and they’re going to want to try to get that lane four assignment, just as I want it. I don’t think there’s any time at this point in the game to not give it your all.”
But, despite having the best time of any of the state qualifiers, her dreams heading into the state meet are actually just as modest as were her expectations about actually beating Smith at the regionals.
“(I dream about) just standing on that podium, really,” she said. “It would be great to be at the top of it but just to be on that podium, from where I’ve been at in my life thru the past year and a half. I didn’t even know if I was going to hurdle again after my hip injury. And all the work I’ve put in and all of the money my parents have put into this and all of the extra practices just to stand on that podium. Oh God, that’s what I dream about at night. To be at the top of it is my ultimate dream but just to stand on it will be great.”
This is where you realize that Pachol is already a champion even before she runs on the oval at Jesse Memorial Stadium on Friday.
“I didn’t even run last year. I tore my left labrum and I underwent arthroscopic surgery to my left hip in February of 2008,” Pachol said. “It was an eight month recovery period and it was tough. And it happened right before my season. I was out all season and I went to all the meets and it broke my heart every time.
“I think that’s another reason why I have so much heart in the 300 hurdles at the end. I’ll never quit because I’ve had it taken away from me and I don’t want that to happen again.”
But Pachol has all the respect in the world for Smith, the reigning champion in the 300 hurdles in Division I.
“She’s great. You look at all of the stuff she’s doing and, man,” Pachol said. “And she just looks cut. You could tell she’s into it. When I saw she won the state championship I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t think I could do it. She was ahead of me in the region the year before. But I saw how much heart she put into it and I did just the same, if not more this year, and it’s really paid off. And it’s a good feeling to know that all of your hard work is paying off.”
Ironically, as she alluded to, Pachol already has somewhat of an unfortunate racing history with Smith that taught her another valuable racing lesson. Pachol first ran against Smith in the 300 hurdles as a sophomore two years ago in the regional finals. Pachol was the eight-seed and was racing in lane eight. Smith was just a freshman at the time.
“That was a day when I learned anything can happen,” said Pachol, who finished in seventh place in that rather infamous meet, ahead of Smith who DQ’d. “Amber Smith, actually, she fell going over a hurdle and rolled in my lane. We had a couple of collisions during the race and it turned out we had to check the rule book and check to see how things worked. And it turned out I didn’t get so lucky. The fourth and fifth place girls got to re-race. That prepared me to know that anything can happen so you’ve just got to try and focus and get out in front of people.”
The two fierce competitors have come full circle now and have obviously developed a level of mutual respect for each other.
“We’re not friends but we’re very nice to each other on and off the track when we see each other,” said Pachol, who has also raced against Smith indoors this season in the 60-meter short hurdles and lost to the indoor state champion. “As soon as we crossed the line Amber looked at me and said that was an awesome race. No one is upset about anything. We’re both going to try our best to win, of course, but no one is upset at the end of the day.”
Pachol will now try to parlay that successful performance in the regional final into a victory at the state meet.
“I eat right, I eat stuff I never would have dreamed I’d eat, I’m sleeping right and I really don’t see my friends a lot,” she said. “But it’s all by choice and my friends are real happy for me. I’m making sure I get in my proper practices and I do what I need to do to get me through the next meet.”
Unfortunately, she’ll have to miss her official graduation ceremonies at Howland this weekend because of her next meet. But that’s another price that she’s willing to pay.
“Oh man that’s a whole other topic. Graduation is the same day as states so I won’t be walking across the stage,” said Pachol who is an Honors Student that scored 27 on her ACT. “So that’s a tough one. You work 12 years hard on your schooling, I would definitely pick to be at states because I’ve worked hard for that, too, but it’s tough whenever you can’t do it all.”
Her parents. Greg and Renee, will certainly be among those rooting hard for Pachol in every second of both of her races at the state meet.
“I have my mom and my dad always,” Pachol said. “And my grandpa came (to the regional) and he’s not from anywhere near (Youngstown). And I knew before my race how many people were pulling for me and how many people said they would say a prayer for me. And that all runs through my mind before I start. Not just that I don’t want to let them down but I just want to show them a big thank you for putting all of this effort in for me.”
To say that she’s both elated and proud about participating in the state track meet might actually be a bit of an understatement.
“I’m so excited. I never even thought I’d make it to the state meet,” said Pachol, who just signed for a track scholarship to Youngstown State University. “I’m the first female to make it in the last 19 years from my school. You can’t ask for more. A state championship would be wonderful, I’d be really ecstatic, but at this point you can’t ask for more. No way. Never in my mind did I ever dream of this. Ever! I’m really happy.”
Photo Gallery: Nicole Pachol – Howland High School