AOTY BOYS JUMPS Hunter O'Brien Vaults To Gold


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One in a series of articles profiling 2022 track and field athletes of the year by event grouping as selected by MileSplitCA editors.

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After the success he saw with girls, Eastvale Roosevelt (SS) pole vault coach Livio Centanaro jokingly told assistant athletic director Dorcas Schnakenberg to keep an eye out for any boys gymnasts who might want to try something different.

Jokingly -- sort of.

Enter Hunter O'Brien, longtime gymnast and baseball player who decided to try something new after his freshman season, which meant he'd have to become a regular P.E. student. Schnakenberg remembered.

"It has been almost three years to the day that I dropped baseball," said O'Brien, who was pointed toward the track by Schnakenberg and as a result, had his life change.

A CIF-State championship, a track scholarship to UCLA, a couple of Riverside County records, and a whole new direction in his life.

Also, 2022 MileSplitCA Boys Jumper of the Year.

"When he came out, I was so excited," said Centanaro, who is actually the co-vault coach with his wife Rosario. "Having had girls gymnasts before, I knew that they often brought not just the physical, but the mental part. Still, you never know. Vaulting requires millions of repetitions, and you fail a lot before you get better.

"He didn't know the pole vault and at first he decided to go back to baseball. He realized, though, that his first thoughts hadn't changed. He just fell into our laps and once he started, he loved it."

Still, being a 13-foot competitor his sophomore season that ended before it was really underway because of COVID, to a 16-9 vaulter who won the State Meet at 16-3 because in addition to clearing that height, he had zero misses at the lower attempts, could never have been predicted.

Before the 2022 season ended, he'd cleared 16 feet seven times, with the 16-9 coming at the Arcadia Invitational en route to what he says was the highlight of the season.

"I was seeded second (behind Brandon Helms of Emmett, Idaho) and wasn't doing all that well," said O'Brien, who won't turn 18 until August. "Then we got to 16 feet and I just reset and suddenly I was jumping well."

Indeed. He cleared 16-3 on his first attempt and got his PR on his second try while Helms took three attempts to clear 16-3 before missing all three at 16-9.

Winning the championship at State was no small accomplishment.

Some thought he was in trouble after clearing 15-3 in the prelims, but all that did was get the jitters out. In the finals, he came in at 15-1 before clearing 15-5, 15-9, 16-1, and 16-5 on his first attempts. No misses.

Only Buchanan junior Hilton Green, playing to his home crowd, could stay with him but he had a miss at 15-5, two at 15-9, and then, like O'Brien, three misses at 16-9.

"The prelims didn't go so well so we went back and just reset at the hotel," said O'Brien. "The next day we watched the movie "Top Gun," then went to the meet. It was such a great facility and a fun competition.

"All I wanted was to win by being consistent. I knew no misses would be important and I just put blinders on and focused on the bar. I didn't watch the others, I just focused on every jump. The people running the event were so good that because we had a big tailwind and just brushing the bar would bring it down, they kept the bar up until we jumped.

"I told myself that the only thing I could control was myself, so I didn't need to watch the others. But I did watch some of the other events and they were so good. That good crowd was special, too. We all got to watch some of the best athletes in the nation."

Focusing on the bar was something that Centanaro had drilled into his vaulters over the past 14 years.

"There are times to take a chance and times not to take a chance," said Centanaro, who is the coach of the Ultimate Pole Vault Club, which found a way to keep active during the pandemic. "This was one of those times where he probably only used two poles instead of taking a chance and adding a bigger pole.

"He went through every pole we had (and he has hundreds) from 13 to 14 to 15 and 16 feet. We tell them to focus on the crossbar and he never questioned what we were doing."

By improving almost four feet in three years, Centanaro sees a very big future for O'Brien.

Asked if O'Brien will continue his mercuric rise at UCLA, the coach took less than a nanosecond to answer.

"He could be the next 20-footer," said Centanaro, looking ahead. "He'll get stronger and faster.

He's so coachable -- I tell others he's hungry and humble."

A perfect combination.


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Steve Brand is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to MileSplit.

Photos by DeAnna Turner.