When asked how tall she is, Ashley Preston says, "I’m just five feet.”
The diminutive Delsea High School senior, though, isn’t the only one who felt small at the Penn Relays this weekend. Really, the event is that big. After all, it is the oldest and largest track and field carnival in the country.
And, the fabled relays are staged on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania at historic Franklin Field.
“It was great, it was really cool,” she said, “I didn’t expect the stadium to be that big.
"It was huge.”
The stage, however, wasn’t too big for the fearless pole vaulter.
Preston, who didn’t qualify for the Penn Relays last year, soared a personal best 12 feet, 7 and a half inches to place second and record the best height in New Jersey this outdoor season.
She felt some internal pressure at her Penn Relays debut when it took three tries to clear the opening height of 10-11.75.
“I was freaking out,” Preston admitted candidly. “I was, ‘like just relax you didn’t come out here to no height.’ So I gathered myself.”
The 12-7.5 vault was especially impressive considering Preston has had limited time on the runway to practice.
“The weather has been crappy, so my first two meets I only went like 11 and 11-4, it was always windy and cold,” Preston said, “so this was the first meet that the sun was shining.”
Even when she has been able to workout, practice hasn’t been kind either to Preston as she cut her nose landing on the bar.
“Yeah, I split my nose open,” Preston said. “I had to get stitches and they were worried I had a concussion and they told me I shouldn’t jump for two weeks.”
Preston, though, jumped the next week with the stitches that hadn’t dissolved yet. Her daring determination certainly will serve her well the final months of the outdoor season and in the future, both as a competitor and a compassionate medical provider.
“I want to go in the medical field,” said Preston, who will vault at Villanova University next year. “I want to become a physicians assistant.”
Even with a personal best behind her, naturally she wants to fly higher.
“Once you reach a certain point, it’s just trying to get better by inches rather than by six inches at a time,” she explained before adding, “yeah 13-feet has been on my mind since the indoor season when I cleared 12-7.”
“It’s definitely something I’m aiming for,” she added, “and I’m really close to it.”
In the quest to vault 13 feet, Preston is focusing on her approach.
“I’m working on pulling harder and dropping my shoulders, so I can get full extension at the top,” she said,
Preston topped 12-7 during the Indoor season at the South Jersey Track Coaches Association Meet. She cleared 12-6 to win the South Jersey Group 2 title, but slid to 10-6 at the state championship for sixth place. She rebounded at the Meet of Champions with another vault of 12-6, which she cleared a total of four times over the winter, to place second.
Obviously, she wants to win the M of C in June.
“It could be anyone’s game because we all jump around the same, so it’s whoever will be on that day,” Preston said.
Preston was introduced to athletics by flying and tumbling in the air as a gymnast, eventually competing in the Junior Olympics national program
“It consumed better than half my life because I was a gymnast for 10 years, so it was really like starting over,” Preston said when she switched to pole vault when Delsea girls track coach Linda Marchese first handed her a pole as a freshman.
Gymnastics probably has contributed to making her fearless since she broke both ankles on a landing as a kid.
“In a way, but if you don’t do certain things right it can be dangerous and I kind of learned that the hard way,” she said when asked if her courage helps her soar in the pole vault.
“I never thought I’d make it this far,” Preston continued. “It was a very long and bumpy road.
“It’s very exciting, I didn’t think I would ever get this far.”
All the way to Franklin Field, which is big for anyone no matter what their size is.