CLARION, Pa. – They always say sister knows best.
That was definitely the case for Union’s Hayden Smith, whose meteoric rise to one of the nation’s best young high jumpers wasn’t even in the back of his mind five years ago.
Heck, Smith, a soon-to-be senior, wasn’t even sure he wanted to participate in track and field when his older sister, Sierra Shick, mentioned it to him during the winter of his eighth-grade year.
“My sister mentioned it to me back in eighth grade during basketball season,” Smith said recently during an interview at Michelle’s Cafe in downtown Clarion. “She’s like, you know, I think you could be really good at this, too. I was thinking, I don’t know about track. I don’t know. But then I was like, you know what, I may as well. It will keep me in shape, so let’s do it. And it was just great. It was great.”
So great that it now has Smith dreaming about a possible chance at the Olympics someday.
And before anyone thinks that is a pipe dream, keep in mind that Smith arguably is the best in the United States at his age group.
In early August, Smith, who is 6-foot-2 with long legs and a lengthy wingspan, won the AAU Junior Olympic 17- and 18-year-old national high jump title for the second straight year with a duplicate jump of 6 feet, 10 ¾ inches. That came on the heels of finishing tied for second in the event at the Nike Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Oregon. He is also the two-time PIAA Class 2A and District 9 Class 2A high jump champion.
“Yeah, (the Olympics) is definitely something I would love to try for,” Smith said. “Once I was done with the AAU there was a track coach there that actually reached out to my mom and was like I think you have great potential and he would love to work with me. I thought it was pretty cool because he talked to me and was like he had jumped 7-4. He was like I can get you a personal record before you off to college and then you have a chance to go big.”
Smith’s primary coach for the A-C Valley/Union co-op track and field team, Dave Sherman, who was the former head coach at A-C Valley and is an assistant in the co-op, believes the sky could be the limit for Hayden.
“I have never been around anyone with his physical ability,” Sherman, who has coached for three decades in various sports after a standout athletic career at A-C Valley, said. “I have never coached anyone (as gifted). I have had some fantastic athletes including Chris Gilman and Mike Stewart who were state medalists, but I have never worked with anyone with as much talent and God-given ability as Hayden has. If he gets it channeled in the right direction and gets serious about working out, he can do something special.”
In order to take the next step, both Sherman and Smith realize that Smith is going to need specialized training.
“I can only get him so far,” Sherman said. “To get to the next level, he needs to branch out and do some stuff. I don’t have that level of knowledge. He needs more than me.”
Smith sees that as an option.
“We will just have to see how it goes,” Smith said.
Smith has the build and natural talent to see it go far.
“Part of it is his given physical ability, the build of his frame, his quick twitch muscles,” Sherman said. “And I keep telling him he is 17 or 18 years old. He is not even a man yet. My prime years were 21, 22 when I was at the peak of my physical abilities. He has a ways to go still.”
The God-given ability has allowed Smith to rise through the ranks in a hurry, something that still leaves him surprised.
“For sure,” Smith said when asked if how good he has gotten so quickly was a bit of a surprise. “Especially, starting in ninth grade. I would have liked to have started in junior high meets, but I never knew about them.”
According to Smith, one of the keys to his success has been consistency and patience.
“It (physical vs. mental) is about 50-50 even,” Smith said.
The mental aspect is a big part of Smith’s success, Sherman believes.
“He is able to self-critique,” Sherman said. “One of the biggest strengths of track athletes is to be able to say this is what I did and it didn’t work out what do I have to do to get better? He has gotten really good with that. We have worked on that.”
Sherman also said the physical ability is there as well.
“The other thing he can do is if you tell him something once or twice, he then all of a sudden does it,” Sherman said. “That kinesthetic awareness is one of his strongest traits as an athlete. He can make his body do something just because you tell him.”
While many athletes get nervous on game or meet days, Smith said he thrives on competition and especially likes the individual nature of the high jump.
“I love (the waiting around while others jump),” Smith said. “I love that part, just watching people and watching what they are doing. It gives me a chance to watch them, sit down and take a break. I love the warm-up part, too. It gives me time to warm up.”
Smith credits Sherman for helping him with the mental aspect.
“It has been a bit of both, Dave and me,” Smith said. “
Sherman said the growth he has seen in Smith in just a couple of seasons has been amazing.
“The first year I saw him before we co-opted, I saw this kid and was like someone has to work with him,” Sherman said. “When we got the co-op, he told me he taught himself to jump off YouTube videos. I showed him a few little drills, and it was instant. But I don’t take credit for that. Anyone could have shown him that.”
Smith really burst onto the scene as a sophomore in 2022 when he won the District 9 title with a jump of 6-5 and then went on to win the PIAA title with another leap of 6-5.
“It was probably at the Redbank Valley Invitational (in 2022) when I jumped 6-9 that I really started to think I was pretty good at this,” Smith said.
Then, this past spring, he defended both titles winning the District 9 title with a record-setting jump of 6-8 1/4. That leap broke a record that had stood for 24 years after being set at 6-8 by Clarion’s Mario Bernardi in 1999. He then went 6-8 to win another state title.
“I wasn’t nervous trying to repeat,” Smith said. “I was a junior. I still had another year left, so, no, not really.”
Sherman believes the influence Shick has had on Smith goes beyond just convincing him to try the high jump.
“His sister was a really good gymnast (she finished sixth in the floor event at national in Wisconsin when she was younger),” Sherman said. “She taught him how to tumble, and he can walk on his hands and do backsprings. He has gymnastic skills. For his physique, he is super strong. His core is very strong for his body weight. He can do things I could never do in high school.”
Smith also credits his mom, Tressa, for helping him expand in terms of getting to more meets outside of high school competition.
“She has found some events for me,” Smith said. “It’s fantastic.”
Getting to national meets has helped Smith grow as a jumper.
“It’s a wonderful learning experience,” Smith said. “Getting to see what the other guys do, seeing how they approach the bar, it’s great.”
Smith said competing against the best has helped him refine his skills.
“A lot,” Smith said. “A lot. Especially, going to those meets you get more locked in.”
Sherman, the coach, believes Smith can accomplish anything, even the Olympics.
“He absolutely can do it,” Sherman said. “I think that is what the guy (the guy who talked to Smith after the AAU championship) saw. He was an Olympic-caliber jumper and he told Tressa that he could be in the Olympics. I hate to put that kind of pressure on him because that is big. But, honestly, I don’t see why not if he gets with the right personnel, the right people and starts doing the little things and training and working out. He can do whatever he wants. And that is amazing when you think about coming from Clarion County, District 9, Western Pennsylvania. (From District 9) we have (Kane’s) Amy Rudolph and Shuey (Johnsonburg’s Mike Shuey) who have made the Olympics. It is just a big thing going Division 1.”