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Shooting star for Gaither track

Long-jumper Caldwell is moving on. Before she goes, she'll try to ink some records.

By TERRY JONES
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 7, 2002


CARROLLWOOD -- Natalie Caldwell can fly.

She streaks down the narrow runway, steadily gaining speed, then launches herself into the sky. She does a dance in the air that helps her fly higher and farther than her competitors.

A junior at Gaither High School, Caldwell is one of Hillsborough County's best track and field athletes in three events -- the long jump, triple jump and high jump events. She also is one of the Cowboys' most consistent point scorers.

Caldwell, 16, has lived in Lutz and attended Gaither since late last summer, when her parents moved to Florida from Winston/Salem, N.C. As a sophomore in North Carolina last year, she placed third in the state in the long jump.

"I started competing in Amateur Athletic Union youth track at the age of 7 in Pennsylvania, where my dad was one of the football coaches for Penn State," she said. "During the years, I have put a lot of time and effort into track. At 13, I placed third in the nation in the long jump. I just enjoy the jumping part of the sport."

Caldwell and her family moved to Tampa when her dad, Jim, joined the Buccaneers coaching staff. When Tony Dungy joined the Indianapolis Colts, Jim Caldwell followed, so now the family plans to move back to North Carolina this summer.

But Natalie, a junior, is making the most of her time in Florida. She joined the Cowboys track team hoping to set a school record in her best two events, the long jump and the triple jump.

She claimed the school record with a long jump of 18-feet, 4-inches earlier this season; the old record was 18 feet. And, she's a half-inch short of the Gaither triple jump mark of 35 feet, 11 inches. Her long jump mark also was the best in the county as of Thursday.

Her best high jump mark so far is 5-feet, 2-inches, 2 inches shy of the Gaither school record for girls. Caldwell hopes to rewrite that mark before she moves away.

"Natalie is a very hard worker and we will miss her being here for her senior season," said Ladd Baldwin, the girls track coach. "But we are glad to have her on the team now. Along with Dara Altman (a state champion pole vaulter) and a few others, we could do well in districts."

Caldwell is versatile. She played with the Cowboys basketball team and is also on an AAU girls basketball team. She carries a 3.0 GPA and enjoys hanging out with teammates and friends at the mall or the movies.

When she's on the track, Caldwell stays focused. Not only does she want to set records in her events, but also she wants an individual state championship in the long jump.

"I have read about some girls in the state jumping as far as 18-9, so I am going to work as hard as I can to add six more inches to my jump," she said. "Not all at once, but inch by inch, I hope to be a front runner at the state meet. It is a high goal, but I have a good coach and I am not afraid of hard work."

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