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Wildcat two-stepped to stardom

Wharton's Kendra Smith set five individual school records ... after being convinced to try the sport.

By FRANK PASTOR

© St. Petersburg Times,
published May 30, 2001


TAMPA -- Wharton's Kendra Smith is a dancer, not a runner. At least that's what she told girls track coach Wes Newton two years ago.

But Newton saw potential for more in the athletically gifted, long-legged student.

So he persisted.

"Kendra, are you a runner?" he asked Smith each day at school.

"No, I'm a dancer," said Smith, who has taken ballet, tap and jazz lessons.

When Newton would not relent, Smith consulted her mother, Deborah Mullinex, who holds the Everett (Wash.) High record in the 75-yard run.

"She was excited because she ran track and thought it would be a good thing for me to do," Smith said.

Now, Smith is a dancer and a runner.

Last spring, Newton and his wife, Laura, who is also a Wildcats assistant, showed her a couple of events, including the triple jump. She broke the school record on her first attempt. "After we measured, Wes came over and said, "That's 2 feet further than anybody's ever jumped,"' Laura Newton said.

It was a sign of things to come.

One year after taking up the sport, Smith holds most of Wharton's hurdles and jumping records. This past season as a junior, she led Wharton to conference and district titles in the school's first season in Class 4A. "She's very versatile," Laura Newton said. "If they had a heptathlon for women, she'd be a great candidate for it."

Smith displayed her versatility at the Bob Hayes Invitational in Jacksonville, setting personal bests in the triple jump (38 feet, 4 inches) and 300-meter hurdles (45.9 seconds).

In April, she won the 100 and 300 hurdles and triple jump as Wharton successfully defended its Western Conference championship.

Two weeks later, Smith overcame a pulled hamstring to win the 100 and 300 hurdles, long jump, high jump and triple jump at the Class 4A, District 5 meet.

"That's just phenomenal," Laura Newton said. "Very few would be able to attain something like that, especially at the district level."

Smith qualified for the state meet by placing second in the 100 hurdles, high jump and triple jump at the Class 4A, Region 2 meet.

Tight scheduling forced her to compete in the three events almost simultaneously at the state meet. She did not qualify for the hurdles final but finished fifth in the high jump and eighth in the triple jump.

Along the way, she set school records in the long jump (17-3), triple jump (38-41/2), 100 hurdles (14.7), 300 hurdles (45.5) and 400 (1:01.43) and contributed to the record-breaking 4x400 relay (4:16.5). Boys coach David Watson said Smith is capable of clearing 40 feet in the triple jump, 5-8 in the high jump -- where she has cleared 5-5 -- and breaking 15 seconds in the 100 hurdles before she graduates. "You're probably going to see some outstanding performances out of Kendra next year," Watson said.

Still, her most impressive performance might have come at her dance recital, which the Newtons attended.

"What can I say?" Laura Newton said. "She knocks your socks off."

Introducing: Kendra Smith

AGE: 17

GRADES: 4.7 weighted grade point average, 3.7 unweighted

ACTIVITIES: Thespians, National Honor Society, newspaper staff

INTERESTS: Dance, shopping, sleep ("Rest is key to me. Whenever I can sleep, I can.")

FAVORITE FOOD: Italian

FAVORITE MUSICAL GROUP: Destiny's Child

FAVORITE MOVIE: James and the Giant Peach, The Bear, Love and Basketball

FAVORITE MAGAZINES: Cosmopolitan, Glamour

FUTURE: Hopes to earn a track scholarship and study psychology or sociology

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