NORMAN — The car is red. It’s a convertible mini Cooper, the kind of car almost any 16-year-old girl would hope to drive.
The girl is Haley Woodard. She’s a sophomore at Norman North and a favorite to win several gold medals at this weekend’s state track meet in Yukon.
The car is Woodard’s. But it may not have been if not for a fateful conversation she had with her father, Kevin Woodard, a year ago.
“My dad told me if I didn’t run track he wouldn’t get me the car,” Haley said. “I was complaining, saying I was too tired to go to track. He told me it was a waste of God-given talent if I didn’t go out and run.”
So she did. In fact, she ran faster than everyone else, taking down defending state champion Tyler Wisby to win gold in the 400 meters in last year’s state meet. She did it despite not fully joining coach Mike Ramsey’s track program until the Timberwolves soccer season ended, just in time for the regional meet that sent her to state.
It was one of the best individual performances in North’s 16-year history, and it was the one that convinced Woodard’s father and coach that she had a blindingly bright future on the track.
“She’s something special, that’s the only way to describe her,” said Ramsey, who has seen a number of college-bound athletes come through his program the last 15 years. “When you have an athlete that’s never lost an individual event, you can’t get much better than that. She’s the best female to ever run here.”
But success on the track wasn’t the end of the story for Woodard. Along with the medals, accolades and the talk of being the best in school history — which continue to make her uncomfortable — came some tough decisions.
The hardest arrived a few months ago, toward the end of basketball season. While Woodard was teaming up with junior Bri Kuestersteffen to lead the team to the state tournament, the soccer team began practicing. One day after practice, Kuestersteffen was leaving to have her picture taken for the soccer team, and she asked Woodard to come along.
Woodard had made up her mind to focus on track and see where she could get with a season of training under her belt. Still, she wanted to, so much so that she sat down in her red mini Cooper and drove halfway there before turning around.
“I wanted so much to go, but I didn’t,” Woodard said. “I drove back and broke down crying. I felt like I hadn’t really made my decision until right then. It was a really hard decision to give up soccer, something that was a part of me and that I had been doing since I was 4 years old. But I wasn’t enjoying it like I used to. It was the right thing to do.”
It’s a decision that’s paid dividends. Despite not having a traditional track background or even a traditional routine — she’s still not comfortable using starting blocks, for instance — Woodard has shown consistent improvement her first full track season. She’s already bested her state-winning 400 time and she’s less than a second away from setting state records in both the 200 and the 400, marks that have stood for a combined 30 years.
Also, Woodard’s presence at the track doesn’t just help her, but the rest of the team, too.
“The girls compete for a chance to run with her because they know they’ll probably get a medal,” Ramsey said. “She’s not a big vocal leader, but she is very coachable and she does lead by example. The other girls work harder because she’s there.”
For Kevin Woodard, watching his daughter compete at such a high level at every sport she tries offers its own challenges. Among those are understanding the concerns of parents whose kids may lose playing time to his daughter even if she isn’t practicing full-time with the team.
“It’s great but it’s hard,” he said. “It’s been an adjustment for us to realize what it’s like on the other side of the fence. Before Haley decided to quit soccer, we had to ask, ‘Is it fair to those other parents whose kids Haley may start over even though they’ve been at practice every day when she’s been splitting time with track?’ No matter what, there can be some issues.”
While those questions are gone with Haley’s decision to focus solely on track, she’s still keeping her father busy. She competes in basketball tournaments year-round and for a time did the same with soccer. There is a steady stream of college letters, of which Kevin Woodard said his daughter has received about 20 between soccer, basketball and track, with coaches from all sports jockeying to impact the decision Haley and her family will face when it’s time for college.
Still, it was one decision that didn’t take Kevin Woodard long at all to make.
“She was never not going to get the car,” he said. “I think I heard that story from someone else and thought it was a good idea. The girls pretty much always get what they want.”
Not that Haley begrudges her father’s white lie. She admits she needed the motivation, and is glad she made the decision to stick with track, even as she struggles to digest the consequences, the vast majority of which have been stunningly good.
“It’s still surreal to me,” she said. “I’ve never experienced anything like winning a state title before, and I didn’t even realize at the time it was such a big deal.”
Perhaps she’ll have a better idea by Saturday, when she figures to add more gold to her vault.
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