For one, it was old hat. For the other, it was a head start on setting a legacy of her own.
Gordon Lee sophomore Gracie O’Neal and her freshman teammate Kaylee Brown entered the spring track and field season on opposite ends of the spectrum, but they finished it up in the same spot as the Lady Trojans’ duo share this year’s Walker County Girls’ Track Athlete of the Year honors.
O’Neal, quickly on her way to becoming the most decorated track athlete in Gordon Lee’s long and storied history, added two more individual state championships to her ever-growing resume this season.
After winning the 1600 last year and setting a new school-record in the process, she added two more gold medals last month at the Class 1A Public School state championships in Albany.
Dominant all season long, O’Neal won the Area 3-A title in the 800 (2:23) and the 1600 (5:25). She added a state sectional title in the 800 (2:25) - having automatically qualified for state in the 1600 by way of her area win - and swept both races at the state meet as she won the 800 (2:23) and the 1600 (5:20).
The 2:23 at state broke the school record in the 800, while she set a new record in the 1600 earlier in the year (5:17). All of that came on the heels of a state cross country championship back in November as she won the individual title (20:23).
“It was a surreal feeling (sweeping at state),” she said. “It didn’t come easy, but I knew I wasn’t running just for myself. I was running for the Lord. He’s the one that helped me through it. It takes a lot of training though. It doesn’t just happen.”
Even more remarkable is the fact that O’Neal continues to set and break records without any true challengers to push her in races. She won the 1600 at state by a whopping 25 seconds and was two minutes ahead of her closest competitor when she won the cross country title.
“Sometimes it’s tough to race out there without having anything to push you,” she explained. “That’s when you have to have self-discipline and know you’re running against the clock.”
Already with three individual state titles in track, O’Neal said she plans to keep working.
“You can’t get complacent,” she added. “I don’t want to stay where I’m at. I just want to get better because anybody get better, no matter what. You can always shave off some time.”
Head coach Dan Roberts called O’Neal one of the team’s hardest workers.
“She eats, breaths and sleeps running and it shows by her accomplishments”, he said.
While O’Neal’s accomplishments came as little surprise, Brown’s rookie season in high school track seemingly came out of nowhere.
Brown began racking up top podium spots and points from Day 1 and continued that trend into the postseason.
She was area champion in the pole vault (9-6), second in the high jump (5-0) and fourth in the 400 (1:07.68). She went on to win the pole vault (9-6) and the high jump (5-4) at state sectionals before turning her attention to the state meet.
In Albany, she broke the Gordon Lee school record to win the pole vault (10-7) and cleared 5-2 in the high jump, tying for the best jump, but finishing second on the tiebreaker (fewest attempts).
“It feels great. I wasn’t expecting this,” Brown said of sharing the award with O’Neal. “As a freshman, I was expecting to be worse than what I turned out to be, but it feels great. I’m just looking forward to the years to come.”
Brown said she put in plenty of hours on and away from campus to work on her techniques.
“I’ve been doing more work every week and more hours every day trying to get better and better each day,” she said. “I’m doing some more individual practice in Dalton and working with some others on my high jump.”
Already with her name beside one school record, she said she has the school high jump mark in her sights and hopes to set new pole vault records each year she attends Gordon Lee.
“Kaylee was a pleasant surprise,” Roberts explained. “They took the pole vault out of the middle school league, so she really hasn’t pole vaulted much, but she’s just a natural. She also surprised me at the high jump. She’s two inches from that (school) record and it goes back to 1979.”