Westhampton Beach senior Annica Penn had more than one reason to smile at graduation on Friday evening.
A week before walking on stage to get her diploma, Penn successfully defended her national title in the one-mile race walk at the New Balance Outdoor Nationals at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Penn finished the championship race in 7:29.87, about eight seconds ahead of Connetquot’s Monika Farmer. Penn trailed for much of the race, but in the final lap, at the 200-meter mark, she kicked into gear and was able to take the title.
Penn, and Westhampton Beach track head coach John Broich, both said that trailing for much of the race was just part of their strategy. “We worked a lot on how I was going to come back from the winter season, and race strategy was one of the things Coach Broich helped me out with,” Penn said. “I was very, very excited to win again, very relieved that I got to win my second national championship.”
It was Penn’s third time at Outdoor Nationals. She has been to Indoor Nationals twice, and this past winter was a bit of a downer for Penn: She was called for three fouls during the championship race and was subsequently disqualified.
“There’s definitely a little bit of redemption with this win,” Penn said. “That’s what made the win a little better, I think.”
Broich said that Penn finally gained her confidence at the St. Anthony’s Invitational back on May 4, which she had won with a time of 6:39, a full 12 seconds ahead of Farmer. “By that time, she knew she was the best,” he said. “She knew she could win a race.”
Penn, who will be running cross country at Siena College in the fall, continues what has become a hallowed tradition of race walkers at Westhampton Beach. It started with Bridget Malone in the early 1990s; after a short reprieve, the Buletti sisters, Leah and Heather, rejuvenated the program. Heather Buletti still holds the race walk record time at nationals, 7:00.87, which she set her senior year in 2006.
“I think it’s funny how we’re now known for race walkers,” Penn said. “But I’m just proud to be part of it.”
Broich said race walking is hardly an easy sport. Athletes must keep in contact with the ground, with at least one foot, at all times, which results in short, quick strides. Penn said it’s hard to train for it—it simply stresses different muscles than, say, training for a long-distance race would.
As for his long line of success with race walkers, Broich couldn’t really explain it and said a lot of the credit has to go to the girls who have put the time in to train for it. “I’m not a real big technical guy,” he said. “I look at the kids and make a suggestion.
“Private coaching, and things like that, I’m not a real proponent of that,” he continued. “People think coaches have a magic wand out there, but it really depends on how much effort the kids put in. It’s all about putting in the distance, because I train them like I would a distance runner. A lot of people don’t understand how hard it is. It’s a real hard event.”
With Penn now gone, Broich will now look to Sabrina Mason and Ellen Griffen to continue the school’s success in the race walk. Broich said there are number of junior high girls who have taken to the event as well.
Although family and friends would like to see her continue to race walk, Penn said she’ll be giving up the event for the time being and focus on running—but it’s something she’ll surely miss.
“I think being on a team is one of the best experiences in high school,” she said. “Just with all of the people I met through track, it’s just incredible. And I’ve always had my parents’ support in all three seasons. It’s been really fun, and I’m going to miss it next year.”