He could feel the breath of his last opponent as he hurdled the final barrier, overpowering the fellow 16-year-old to the finish line. It was his first time racing steeplechase — an itch he long had was finally scratched.
Luke Gaddis was thrown into fire and came out wet, slightly warm and victorious.
“Right afterwards, I was super dead at the end, but when I had realized what I’d done, it was super exciting,” he said. “I just feel super blessed by what God had allowed me to do by running.”
Gaddis had just won the 2000-meter steeplechase at the Junior Olympics State Championship at Westlake High School as a member of the Lanier Running Club. In order to qualify, the rising junior at Chestatee High School placed in the 3000-meter preliminary race in Stockbridge.
From that point forward, he decided to compete in the 2000-meter steeplechase and 3000-meter race at state, taking gold in each.
Wes Wessely, president of the Lanier Running Club and community coach at Chestatee High School, knew that Gaddis was a prolific distance runner, so the former professional runner asked if he’d be interested in competing in the 2000-meter steeplechase. Gaddis loved the challenging idea.
Training for the event he’d never previously competed in began three weeks to the race date.
First, they began practicing on regular hurdles, as steeplechase barriers weren’t accessible. The coach tried incorporating random distances with different repeats and reps to tire the cross-country runner out. Sometimes it worked; most of the time it did not.
The last practice before state, Wessely made Gaddis run 1000-meters with four hurdles scattered across the track.
“‘Gah-lee! You didn’t tire out?’” Wessely asked him.
Never hitching over a steeplechase barrier before, Wesseley denied some veterans of the event the top achievement.
After the first lap, he was dead last, but once he started moving up, no one could mimic his pace.
“Over the last hurdle, he catches (the leader) and outsprints him at the end and has a fantastic time,” Wessely said. “His first time ever doing steeplechase, I was amazed. I’ve been around 40 years and I was shell-shocked. It was tremendous time, tremendous effort and couldn’t have happened to a nicer kid.”
Gaddis was always fond of jumping.
Even when he was younger, reaching to touch the ceiling in his garage was a daily routine. The now 5-foot-9, 126 pound athlete continues to jump and touch the ceiling in the field house.
Jumping turned into a fascination, and the fascination turned into an obsession — the productive kind.
Hurdles gave the young distance runner a feat worth thirsting for. Once overpassing hurdles became second-nature, Gaddis switched his sights toward steeplechase. The race always intrigued him — the splash of the water after hurdling the first barrier, the barriers’ unforgiving structure and height.
“You have to have jumping ability,” Wessely said. “Jumping ability is tied to speed. ...You have to snap your legs up real fast and then push away. Timing is very important. ...You’ve got to measure your steps and stutter-step enough so that the foot is exactly getting on top of or over the hurdle completely because it won’t give.
“Regular hurdling you knock it over and you keep on going. These they go nowhere. You go headfirst.”
With Wessely’s experience in racing and track and field, he’s quick to point how rare Gaddis’ accomplish is.
“It’s very much extraordinary and beyond,” he said. “I’ll tell you something else: There’s a lot of college coaches that come to Junior Olympics. ...There was a college coach there and he saw him run and saw the way he ran, he said ‘(Gaddis) has got himself a ticket to any college that does track and field because they can’t get enough steeplechasers. People are scared of it because it’s coordination and you’ve got to have no fear and the talent and to get all three of those are hard to come by.”
The 71-years-young man has made an irreplaceable mark on the 16-year-old. Gaddis doesn’t even know where to start when speaking of the role model.
“Coach Wes has made the person I am today,” Gaddis said. “Since five years now, I’ve been training with him and he’s such an amazing man and person. During the training, he’s so knowledgeable in the sport. ...All the workouts he’s taken me through, I wouldn’t have thought of or been able to do by myself. Where I am speed-wise today, I wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for him.”
Now, the next battle lies ahead on July 5th at the Junior Olympics Regional Championship in Rock Hill, S.C., where he will compete in the 2000-meter steeplechase and 3000-meter race.
“It’s going to be a lot different experience with a lot more people in the steeplechase race, trying to navigate the barriers and the people,” Gaddis said. “I’m super excited.
“Each race is going to build my experience for races to come.”