Lakewood Ranch junior continues impressive performances in the long jump.
Sophia Falco was ready to walk away from her signature event.
It was the second meet of the 2015-16 season and the Lakewood Ranch junior completely forgot how to long jump.
Falco, who finished sixth in the state in the long jump as a sophomore, only mustered a jump of 17 feet, 1 inch at the Spoto Spartan Invitational Feb. 20, nearly two feet off her personal best mark at the time.
“I completely shut down,” Falco said. “My coaches tried talking to me, but I kept thinking too far ahead and asking myself ‘Why am I doing this?’”
Going into the meet, Falco knew what she was capable of accomplishing this season. She had the potential to be state champion. She was coming off a solid year, and in the eyes of everyone around her, was destined for great things her junior year.
Those expectations took a hard hit when Falco looked back and realized her attempt was the same mark she had hit during the first meet of her freshman year.
Her mechanics were completely off and she said it felt like she had walked to the long jump pit for the very first time. It was as if she was moving backward instead of forward.
"It was pretty much a letdown," Falco said.
Besides having problems with her mechanics, the 16-year-old Falco also was battling shin splints. Midway through the season, she decided to take a month off from jumping, giving both her shins and mind a break, focusing solely on her two running events.
Falco returned to the long jump at the district meet April 20, at Booker High, where she jumped 18 feet, 8 inches.
She has continued setting personal bests in the long jump since en route to winning regional and state championships.
“She is always pushing herself to beat her own records and doesn’t settle for anything but her best effort,” teammate Kailyn Scully said. “Watching Sophia compete is inspiring because I see her push herself every day at practice and then I get to see all of her hard work pay off."
Despite her records and titles, Falco questions her ability.
“It’s like she needs conformation that she did that well,” Lakewood Ranch coach Mark Napier said. “It’s that look that says ‘Are you sure that was me?’ Her humbleness is amazing and she is a true joy to coach.”
Following the state meet, Falco continued to excel by setting a personal best mark of 20 feet, 5 inches to win the long jump at the Flo Golden South Track and Field Meet May 28, at the National Training Center, in Clermont.
“It definitely put things into perspective college-wise about what my future holds,” said Falco, whose one scratch attempt at the Flo Golden meet measured close to 21 feet.
She then teamed up with Lakewood Ranch teammate Kristine Akervold, Spoto’s Janae Caldwell and Oakleaf’s KaTia Seymour to win the 4x100 relay in 45.12 seconds. The girls also finished fourth in the 4x400 relay.
Falco, who has been training practically every day since the end of July, is now preparing for her final meet of the year.
On June 17-19, Falco will compete in the long jump, triple jump and 100 at New Balance Nationals Outdoor, in Greensboro, N.C. Falco is currently ranked fifth in the nation among high school athletes in the long jump.
“It’s definitely hard training for track, but it’s worth it,” Falco said.
While Falco would love a big performance at the New Balance Nationals, she’s looking forward to enhancing her college possibilities.
She has put a lot of work into landing a top college scholarship. After dabbling with the long jump in eighth grade, Falco joined Lakewood Ranch’s track team as a freshman, following in the footsteps of her older sisters Gabrielle Falco, who was a hurdler at Riverview, and Talia Falco, who is a pentathlete and decathlete for Kent State University. As a freshman, Falco helped lead the Mustangs soccer team to the Final Four and missed the first month of track season.
She started in track as a way to keep in shape for soccer, but after clocking under 12 seconds in the 100-meter dash and qualifying for the state meet in the long jump as a freshman, Falco started to realize she was on the verge of being something special.
“I did some spectacular things,” Falco said.
As a sophomore, she jumped 19 feet and finished fourth in the state in the 100 with a time of 11.78 seconds.
“People literally talk about her before the race and after,” Napier said. “I think it blows people’s minds to see this young, thin, cherry blonde, distance body girl running with the best and even beating most of them.”
At that point, Falco knew she had a decision to make.
She ultimately gave up soccer, a sport she had played since she was 5 years old, to focus on the possibility of running track in college.
“It wasn’t my destiny,” Falco said of soccer. “I still miss it, but not as much as I expected.”
In track, she typically competes in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, and the long and triple jumps.
Her best event, though, is the long jump.
“I’m a natural, I guess you could say,” Falco said. “There’s not a lot of running involved. Go run 100 feet and jump, the idea was good.”
Prior to each jump, Falco stretches and visualizes everything she needs to do from take off to her landing. Then she takes off down the runway. The run is the most important part. Relying on her instincts, Falco takes off from the board and spends the next half of a second feeling out her jump.
"Coming down the runway, in a sense it's like you're floating," Falco said. "When I am in the air, it's kind of natural. I'm flying in a sense."
Falco rolls into the sand about as quickly as she reaches the air and turns back toward the tape measure. She knows when she's made a solid jump, but when it comes to personal records, that's up to the officials to decide.
"I've been doing it for so long that I know the technique and I can feel how the jump is going to turn out," Falco said. "Every little thing counts."
Her preparation paid off at this year’s state championships where she finished first in the long jump and second in the triple jump, in which she set a personal best mark of 40 feet, 2.50 inches.
Falco finished the season with four individual state medals while helping the Lakewood Ranch girls track team to its first state championship in school history.
“Sophia brought an air of encouragement and aggressiveness to our team,” Scully said. “We always knew that Sophia would be giving it her all whether it be on the track or in the sand pit. So I think that pushed everyone else on the team to work harder because we knew we always had a good chance to win whatever meet we were at.”
After an unprecedented junior season, Falco, who stands 5-foot-7 1/2, is now looking ahead to the future, having already received recruiting materials and information from colleges across the country, including the University of North Carolina, Stanford, Miami, the University of Southern California and Baylor, among others.
Falco doesn’t expect the letters to stop anytime soon. July 1 marks the first day that Division I coaches can officially begin contacting Falco and scheduling official visits.
“Sophia is ready for the college level,” Napier said. “She would be very competitive in some of the top conferences in the nation right now. She has potential to be one of the best in the national at the NCAA level her freshman year in college, but she will need to continue to develop the technical aspects of her jumps.”