CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The bonds that tie coaches and athletes to one another often last a lifetime, but for several of the state’s top high school track and field athletes, the relationships are inseparable.
Coaches Brent Walker (George Washington) and Jason Henley (Hurricane) will each direct his son at this weekend’s state championship meet, while University seniors Andy Paladino and Millie Paladino, a brother-sister twins set, will also compete. Each of the family duos lists among the state’s top coaches and athletes, and while all individually seek success, the most rewarding moments are spent sharing those achievements with one another.
“Isn’t that what makes athletics so great, to be able to share in some fashion whether it’s a father-son or a sister-brother?” Brent Walker said. “It’s just extremely exciting.”
While the Walkers and Henleys enjoy a father-son relationship on the track, the Paladinos, being twins, often share not just in each other successes, but emotions.
“Since you’re twins, you really know what the other one’s doing a lot of times,” Millie said. “It’s not like telepathy, but just because you know each other so well. When he’s nervous, I’m definitely nervous.”
The Paladinos’ successes certainly come in pairs, too. Millie, the older sibling by 35 minutes, signed to run at West Virginia, while Andy will run at Syracuse.
Millie, the girls AAA state-record holder in the 3200-meter run, won state titles in the 1600 the past two years and 3200 last year. Millie is expected to sweep the 800, 1600 and 3200 at this year’s meet, and she’s also a two-time cross country individual state champion. Meanwhile, Andy ranks second in the 1600, just a second behind the state’s No. 1 Andrew Milliron, of Jefferson, and ranks sixth in the 3200, according to www.runwv.com
When one twin watches the other succeed, Andy said the motivation to match that effort increases.
“Whenever we have good races we congratulate each other, but she helps me a lot,” Andy said of his sister. “She motivates me a lot. Whenever she steps off the track after a good race, I always say to myself maybe I should have a good race now.”
As the Paladinos grew up together running, Jason Henley, a former coach at the University of Charleston and St. Albans, said he worked to make sure he did not force the sport on his son Jake Henley.
“I was never going to push him into running,” Jason said. “If he found it, he found it, and he found it later. He found it midway through middle school.
“It wasn’t one of those things where I drug him out to every road race under the sun to try and make him into a runner, so when he chose it, he chose it whole heartedly and he never looked back.”
Jake, a junior, matured as a runner under the direction of his father, but did not run for his father’s team until the 2013 cross country season, when he transferred from St. Albans to Hurricane. At first, Jake said he felt apprehensive about having his dad as his coach, but the changed proved rewarding.
“He never presses, especially at home,” Jake said. “He’s never pressing on me to do this, ‘You need to be in bed by this hour. You need to stay to a strict schedule.’ He’s really good about balancing the coach and the dad aspect, so I really like having that.”
This year, Jake will individually compete in the 1600 and 3200 at the AAA state meet. For GW, junior Will Walker will also compete in two individual events under the direction of his father, as Will enters the state championship after securing Region 3 titles in the 110 high hurdles and 300 intermediate hurdles.
Brent Walker’s experience as a former state champion hurdler and University of North Carolina track athlete provided Will with not just the inspiration to start in the sport, but guidance to achieve great heights.
“Knowing how my father was in high school and college, it really pushed me to excel in this sport like he did,” Will said. “I wanted to be like him growing up. He really encouraged my dreams to come true.
“He knows a lot about hurdling, so it’s a really big impact on myself running. It’s really helped me know what to do in the race. When I get nervous, he’s always there to calm me down and tell me that we’ve done the right things and we’re ready for anything.”
For Jake Henley, the experience is much the same as he looks to his father for both wisdom in preparing for a race and reassurance even as he competes.
“He always says the same exact thing, the last thing before a race,” Jake said of his dad. “The thing that he says after every workout is, ‘The hay’s in the barn. There’s nothing more we can do to get you better or get you worse.’ That’s always nice to hear.”
Simple words from his father in the moments preceding a race bring Jake to the line with confidence.
“He’ll look at me and say ‘Go have fun. Run fast. Turn left,’” Jake said, “and that’s usually about all I need.’”
Whether the father-son tie or brother-sister tie, the relationships strengthen as a result of the connections made on the track. This weekend, the Henleys, Walkers and Paladinos each hope to build upon bonds and successes.
“Me and my friend (on the University track team) have a saying, ‘Where team means family,’ so it’s kind of cool, because for me and Andy’s case, team is family,” Millie said. “We get to hang out together all the time, and I don’t think we would be as close as we are, if it weren’t for running. I definitely think we’re closer because of it.”