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Howard's Trey Clark wins pole vault gold 'Down Under'

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Howard's Trey Clark has had a summer to remember.

Instead of partaking in the typical beach vacations, summer camps or extra-curricular activities that many high school students do, the rising senior had a goal to accomplish first: win a track and field medal on the international stage.

And, traveling to Griffiths University in Brisbane, Australia to compete in the Down Under International Sports meet in mid-July, Clark did just that. Delivering a jump of four meters in the Pole Vault Under-20 against his lone competitor, he brought home a gold medal.

"To be honest, when I first heard about (Down Under Sports), I was excited and nervous at the same time," Clark said. "As my time there progressed, I got a lot more comfortable. And by the time competition rolled around, I had the mindset of, 'I'm here, I'm going to compete, and I might as well do the best that I can.'"

Down Under Sports meets are annual collections of athletes from across the world, brought together for various athletic competitions. International Sports Specialists Inc. has been sponsoring the games since 1989.

What was once just an experiment in bringing American football to New Zealand, the event now welcomes athletes in cheerleading, basketball, volleyball, golf, cross country, track and field, freestyle wrestling and swimming.

This year, the United States narrowly edged Gold Coast Victory by half a point for first place overall.

"We send out over 10,000 letters over the United States," said Dwight Pankey, one of Clark's track coaches during his 12-day stay in Australia. "Once we get data on these athletes, we send out our invitations. We don't turn anyone down. If they want to go, we'll send a letter."

Clark, a 4A state champion outdoor pole-vaulter earlier this year, became the fifth Howard County athlete to receive an invitation and take part in the games, joining Ryan Hassan of Mt. Hebron, Tayler Wheeler of Oakland Mills, Stephanie McCartney of River Hill, and current Howard teammate Taylor Scaife.

Upon receipt of his own invitation, Clark consulted Scaife about the opportunity.

"I asked her about how Down Under Sports operates with getting kids over to Australia and the accommodations," he said. "She said everything was top-notch."

Once Clark arrived at his destination, that advice proved to be true. "Everything was beyond my expectations," he added.

Clark's experience in being away from home previous to that point was simply going to summer camp. Since this was his first international track and field competition, he was mentally prepared to get out of his comfort zone.

"As a mom, it was very, very hard," Clark's mother, Shannon, admitted. "I had a lot of anxiety when he was leaving."

Once he got settled into his surroundings in Australia, Clark's mind turned to the task at hand. The United States track team had three days of training before the real action began.

The meet consisted of 36 different teams from countries across the globe, including Australia, New Zealand and Brazil.

During those first few days, Clark needed to get familiar with the poles he would be competing with. He also battled a hurt knee that very well could have hindered his chances in the meet.

Pankey, a 37-year veteran high school track coach from Oklahoma who has been working with Down Under Sports for more than a decade, stressed the importance of stretching with his athletes before workouts, which ultimately helped Clark ease into his routine despite the injury.

Pankey is a fan of Clark's resolve, especially after he told his coach his goal was to be a 15-foot pole-vaulter — one foot better than his current personal record in high school competition.

In the meet, Clark also competed in the 100-meter dash, high jump and 4x100 relay.

"Honestly, it was one of the hardest competitions that I had ever been a part of," Clark said. "It was a great honor to receive a medal, and to get gold, in an international competition for Maryland, and the United States."

During his stay, Clark and his peers got to take in some of the local culture as well. One of his favorite activities was visiting an Aboriginal sanctuary, where the athletes could get a close look at animals native to the country, like kangaroos and koala bears.

"The Aboriginals had a show for us," he added. "We got to see some of their dances and their culture. That was one of the most incredible things I've ever seen."

Pankey likes Clark's chances for success as he enters his senior year at Howard. He even wants to make the trip to Maryland to see Clark compete this year if he can.

"I think he has the potential, he just has to believe in himself and put in a lot of work," he said, adding that, with some additional strength and endurance training, Clark could be well on his way to a promising future in the sport beyond the high school circuit.

Clark also boasts a 3.8 GPA and membership in the National Honors Society, proving he can handle his business off the track just as easily as he can on it.

He now shifts his focus to his senior season, for which he's already continued his training with the Columbia Express summer track club.

Still, he says he'll never forget his first international meet, and the experiences that came along with it.

"This year, I plan on coming in as I always have. Howard County is going to be a little bit different from the competition overseas, but I can't let that stop me from doing the best I can do," he said. "I'm grateful for every second I had over there."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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