Childhood Friends Ahrens and Leeling Poised For Success
Mike Motz, Sidney Sun-Telegraph
A close friendship that started in fifth grade through their interest in sports has two Sidney High School juniors on the brink of winning state championships at the NSAA Track & Field Meet in Omaha this week.
Sidney juniors Chloe Ahrens and Karsyn Leeling visited with the Sun-Telegraph, and told their stories of how they met, the years of competing in multiple sports, and the rewards that all of that hard work and dedication have brought.
Readers may recognize Ahrens and Leeling, as both are multiple Sun-Telegraph Athlete of the Week winners and both have broken numerous meet records in their respective events during this year's Track & Field season. Ahrens is a specialist in the 100 and 300 Meter Hurdles while Leeling excels in High Jump, Triple Jump and Long Jump. The focus was on Leeling in the beginning of the season as her previous year's performances earned her many wins in her events, mostly by large margins. But quickly Ahrens gained much attention, racking up seven gold medals in the 100 and 300 Meter Hurdles in the first four meets of the season.
The pair first really met in fifth grade, when Leeling moved to Sidney from Chappell. "We immediately clicked," said Ahrens. "We had known each other a little bit from competing in sports at the Community Center, but after she moved here we became very good friends, both in school and outside of class." Both of the girls had a deep interest in sports, playing basketball and volleyball at the Community Center, and then continuing with athletics at Sidney Middle School.
Leeling said, "We started really getting into track in middle school, and we both qualified for the state tournament in 7th grade." Both girls would likely have qualified in 8th grade also, but those plans were put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic that cancelled most interscholastic sports. Since they've been in high school, both have qualified for the State Meet all three years they have been Red Raiders.
Ahrens said, "The trip out there is kind of old hat by now, as we've done it multiple times, not just in track but in volleyball and basketball." Indeed, both Leeling and Ahrens are standouts on the very successful Lady Raider Volleyball and Basketball teams. Although the girls are great teammates in both sports, there is something about the individual nature of competing in track that the girls find compelling.
Leeling said, "Although you're competing against other athletes from different schools, in reality you're actually competing against yourself. Can you jump a little farther than last time? Can you clear that bar and get a new benchmark to strive for? It's all about pushing yourself and being better than you were last time."
Ahrens is a fast sprinter that found that she had a knack for hurdles back in middle school, and has diligently worked on her technique to consistently shave time off of her runs in every race. Leeling started with Pole Vaulting in middle school, and then switched her focus to jumping events. Her brother Cameron, a senior at Sidney High School, is an excellent High Jump competitor and along with senior Jacob Dowse, a State Qualifier himself, they were instrumental in her development in the event. "There really weren't other girls doing the High Jump so I practiced with Cam and Jacob, and they really helped me with my technique and elevation. Just trying to keep up with them made me a better High Jumper," said Leeling. Ahrens also has an older brother, 2020 Sidney graduate Elijah, that helped her development as an athlete.
Although both are focused on athletics, they are both outstanding students. Ahrens took a little longer to become a good student, as she remembers, "when I first got to high school I really didn't take my studies seriously. But I changed my attitude and applied a lot of my athletic training discipline to my studies, and my grades improved dramatically." Her favorite subjects include biology and science, and she sees a career in nursing for her future. Leeling initially committed to Doane University, but is considering withdrawing her commitment as her outstanding season has attracted attention from other outstanding universities. Leeling wants to pursue a career in business, and is going to leave her college options open and see how everything develops.
Focusing on the upcoming competition at Burke Stadium in Omaha, the girls are in the right state of mind to compete. "The stadium is big and impressive, but all of the distances are the same, the hurdles are the same size and I will need to just focus on myself and my technique," said Ahrens. At the athletic level the girls are at, mental preparation is what separates the winners from the runners-up. "We have a routine. The first night we are there, the team goes out to Spaghetti Works for dinner, and we load up on carbohydrates. Then the day of the competition, it's all about warming up properly and then listening to music to clear your mind and focus on your technique," said Ahrens. She added, "That little bit of time before the event to clear your head and get in the zone is crucial."
As both girls are juniors, they still have another year to get back to the State Meet if this week's competition does not pan out for them, but both competitors know that they need to take advantage of the opportunity they have now, as next year is not a certainty. "Yes, it's very important to do our best right now, because you can't rely on getting back next year. You never know what can happen, be it an injury or something else that knocks you off-track, so you have to take advantage of your opportunities now," said Leeling.
Ahrens is ranked number one in Class B in the 100 Meter Hurdles and number three in the 300 Meter Hurdles. She has consistently been about two-tenths of a second faster in the event than her main rival, Paige Horne of Scottsbluff. If Ahrens runs her race to best of her ability, she is the favorite for the gold medal. Ahrens is ranked third in Class B in the 300 meter Hurdles, about a half second behind class leader Karyn Burkholder of Cozad. Again, if Ahrens can run her race and hit her marks, she had a very good shot a gold medal in this event. Leeling is a big favorite in High Jump, with her personal best height of 5' 10" a full five inches higher than her nearest competitor. Leeling is a marvel to watch in High Jump, as most competitors use the sheer power of their legs to battle gravity and get over the bar. Leeling, on the other hand, springs up and forward with her jumps, and it seems the wind just carries her effortlessly over the bar. There's something to be said about the best making it look easy. In Leeling's other stronger event, Triple Jump, she is also the favorite, with her personal best jump being nearly three inches further than the number two competitor. Leeling is the second-ranked athlete in Long Jump, and has a good shot at a gold medal, but number one ranked Taylor Bredthauer of Norris has a personal best jump nearly two and a half feet longer than Leeling's. When asked about the disparity in her dominance in Triple Jump versus Long Jump, Leeling laughed and said, "I don't know why – I guess those two extra jumps must make a big difference." After the hurdles and jumps, both girls are also part of the Sidney 4X100 Meter Relay team that is looking to excel and get into medal contention.
The girls are on their way to capping off their outstanding seasons with gold medals in Omaha, and perhaps having record-breaking performances. It has been a long way from two little girls playing basketball and volleyball in the Community Center, and it has taken a lot of work and dedication, but the efforts have paid off for the two, and now it is time for them to take what they have learned and bring the medals back to Sidney. Ahrens said, "Our families, our coaches, especially coach (Matt) McKay helping us keep getting better has been a huge part of our success. But most importantly, it's our teammates that deserve a lot of credit for our success. They're always there, rooting us on and doing whatever possible to get us a little better, every day. Our success is their success too, as the team is like a family."
It's not just a team and coaches that are rooting for these two to bring back the golds from Omaha, but the entire Sidney community. We are so very proud of all they have accomplished so far this season, and we hope that they can cap off the year with the gold medals they truly deserve.