By David Krueger Herald Writer
The Mountlake Terrace boys and girls track and field teams each found a first-year athlete this year that is helping take the Hawks to new heights.
Both of those athletes happen to have the same last name: Okoronkwo.
Siblings Gifton and Chinne Okoronkwo are helping lead one of the strongest Hawks track teams ever by notching some of the top jumping and pole vaulting distances and heights in the state in their first month and a half on the teams.
For Gifton, a senior at Mountlake Terrace, the track team lured him over from a different sport. He spent the past three years on the Hawks’ soccer team in the spring, but decided to give something a new a try his senior year.
“Actually, one person on the (track) team, Tye Esparza, really convinced me that it was a good idea to come,” Gifton said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to try. I’ve always stuck with soccer. It’s always been something I’ve done all my life. So I decided my senior year to switch it up a bit and see how I could do with track and it’s definitely been worth it.”
As for Gifton’s sister, Chinne, Hawks track and field coach Russ Vincent has known she’d be an impact athlete for a while, having seen her at clinics he’s attended.
“I’ve been looking forward to her getting here,” Vincent said. “A few years ago we saw her perform. Looking forward to keeping her healthy these next three-plus years and seeing how things will progress.”
The elder Okoronkwo acknowledges that his sister may be the track and field expert of the two.
“My sister was the one who started out doing track. She’s been rigorously doing this for years,” Gifton said. “I’ve played soccer all my life. This is my first year doing it. It’s been awesome honestly. The entire team’s awesome.”
Gifton said that some of the soccer players were “a little annoyed,” but that his head coach was very positive toward his sporting change. Now, the former defender wishes he had made the transition even earlier.
“Oh yes, I wish I would’ve started freshman year. If I would’ve started earlier I would’ve been more like her,” Gifton said nodding toward Chinne.
“He says that every day,” Chinne quickly added.
In his short time with the team, Gifton has already notched the third-highest triple jump in the state this year at 45 feet, 9.25 inches. He said he’d like to break 50 feet before the season is over.
Vincent was adamant he did not recruit Gifton over from the soccer team. He said the rest of the Hawks track and field team did that for him. The coach isn’t upset about the three years he didn’t have Gifton. He’s just focused on making the most of the year he has with him.
“If I moped on things like that I’d never get off my rear end,” Vincent said. “It’s just a great honor to have him out now. I’m thrilled to have him for the year we do.”
He is also thrilled to have three more years with Chinne to look forward to.
The younger Okoronkwo, who did eight years of gymnastics before switching to track, has quickly burst onto the scene. She has the third best triple jump distance in the state in all classifications (39 feet), fourth best pole vault distance (11-6) and the eighth best long jump (17-9.25).
She is the highest ranking freshman in each of those categories.
“One of the hard things with her is to not run her in every single event,” Vincent said. “She’d be our No. 1 in probably six events if we wanted her to. She’s already broken three school records, which is exciting.”
Chinne, who says “it would be a tie between pole vault and triple jump” for her favorite event, said it was really nice to have her older brother join the track team with her.
“I was super excited because, you know, it’s freshman year. People were kind of like, ‘Oh another Okoronkwo,’” Chinne said. “That was really nice having him around.”
The Okoronkwo siblings aren’t the only athletes having great years for the Mountlake Terrace team.
Mason Stone (200-meter dash), Jack Pearce (3,200) and the 400-relay team of Josh Kim, Stone, Quinnell Mason and Duane Dahl have the Mountlake Terrace team looking as strong as ever. Throw in Gifton and Beau Kennedy, who has thrown a javelin over 165 feet this season, and there’s a strong state contender in Mountlake Terrace.
“This is the strongest boys team Terrace has probably ever had in the history of the school,” Vincent said. “We’re about as balanced as you can get. We’ve got really good sprinters in Stone, Duane Dahl and Quinnell Mason. Our 4-by-100 (relay) is doing well. There’s Jack Pearce in distance running. The jumps. We have a District One-leading javelin thrower in Beau Kennedy. It just goes on and on. We’re very solid throughout.”
Gifton said the boys team knows they have a chance to do something great at state this year, where the Hawks hope to top the school’s best ever finish at the state meet: fifth place.
“I know that the boys team that we have is real good this year,” Gifton said. “We have the ability to do some real good work at state this year. We might be able to place as high as any boys team ever has at Mountlake Terrace High School, which would be real cool.”
On the girls side, McKenna Hunt has had a strong season in the hurdles, Marie Auch-Schwelk “can do some damage in the 800,” according to Vincent, and the Hawks have another freshman, thrower Hailee Malins, who also has Vincent raving.
“You’re going to see her in the next few years,” Vincent said. “I’m going to predict that by the time she’s a senior she’ll be going to state in three events and scoring in three events.”
“I think we kind of want to win state,” Chinne said laughing. “The girls team is good. We’re really small, but we have some really strong athletes. …Our team’s strong, just small in numbers.”
Both Okoronkwos say a top finish at state would be their dream ending to the season. Vincent predicts a strong showing for them at their first — and Gifton’s last — state meet.
“I think both of them will do very well at state,” Vincent said. “I don’t like to look that far ahead right now, but who doesn’t?”