For most people, improving by an inch wouldn't necessarily be a huge reason to celebrate. For Kenai Central High School senior Dallas Baldwin, clearing one more inch would be the high point of an already impressive career.
Baldwin, the defending state champion in the girls high jump, has a personal best of 5 feet, 5 inches. The Alaska high school record, set in 1983 by Soldotna's Renae Pickarsky, is 5-6.
Baldwin already has broken one of Pickarsky's marks as Pickarsky had been Kenai Central's school record holder with a jump of 5-4 set during her freshman year in 1980. Pickarsky then moved on to Soldotna High School, which opened in the fall of 1980, where she set the state mark.
There are other longstanding records on the books -- Lisa Carr of Palmer set the region meet record of 5-5 in 1979 -- but Baldwin has been focused on the state record since she first started jumping in middle school.
"She's very goal-oriented," said Sharon Thompson, who has coached Baldwin in the high jump since she took up the event in middle school. "Right at the beginning of the season, she determines what she wants to do by the end of the season. She made some comments as an eighth grader that she wants to be a state champion and set the state record."
Since then, Baldwin has been steadily working toward that goal, attending camps in the summer and getting into the gym once a week to jump during the winter. With a tall, lean build, Baldwin has the look of a jumper. She claims not to have a very good vertical leap, but something about the mechanics of high jumping certainly has clicked for her.
"My eighth grade year was difficult, but once I got the hang of it, I jumped 4-10," Baldwin said. "That would have qualified me for state if I was in high school. It just comes pretty naturally."
Baldwin has improved by two inches in each of her high school seasons, making 5-6 such a tantalizing goal this season.
For Baldwin, the improvement has been a logical progression.
"At the end of my freshman year, I got fifth at state. I felt pretty good about it," Baldwin said. "I got second sophomore year, and the girl (that won) graduated, so I figured I would get first my junior year."
Because it stood to reason that she would take first, and because the state record had been so close but eluded her grasp, Thompson said Baldwin wasn't quite as excited as most state title winners would be.
"Last year, she barely missed it at the state meet," Thompson said. "Each year, she sets goals, and a goal of hers is to break that mark.
"Last year at the state meet, you never would have known she won a state title because she wanted that record so bad."
The role of defending champion has brought some new pressure for Baldwin, and she's already had a setback, reinjuring on the first day of track practice an ankle she rolled during the basketball season.
Still, Thompson said Baldwin handles the psychological aspect of the sport well. She jumped in competition for the first time last week, clearing 5 feet to win the event and put herself at the top of the list of the state's best performances.
"There's some times you have to say, 'Take a break, you need to get your head back on,'" Thompson said, "but she has that look. You know when she's ready to jump."
"She doesn't get rattled too easily," said Kenai head coach Liz Burck. "She can stay pretty focused on what she needs to do."
Baldwin said it is her coaches' support that keeps her in the game mentally, and recalled a practice session during her freshman season when she was having trouble clearing a height and instead, kept landing on the bar.
"It hurts pretty good, but (Thompson) wouldn't let me leave the gym until I had cleared it," Baldwin said. "She made sure I wasn't psyched out to where I wouldn't want to jump again."
High jumping at Kenai Central is somewhat of an individual sport -- after warming up with the team, high jumpers head to the gym for practice while everyone else heads out to the track, and there haven't been many high jumpers on the Kenai roster for the past couple seasons -- but it's another aspect of the sport Baldwin handles well.
"She has a lot of respect from members of the team because of her abilities, and because of the unobtrusive way she goes about working on her own goals," said Burck. "One thing I really notice, especially this year, three freshmen have been jumping, and she has really spent a lot of time working with them. That's cool to see. I've never seen her in that light before."
Thompson also said Baldwin has been an excellent mentor.
"She's been a really good influence on the younger jumpers coming up now," Thompson said. "She's a good role model -- you don't come across a state champion too often in your own area that you can work with."
Baldwin also has been a big part of Kenai's basketball team. Baldwin said she took up the sport in sixth grade as something to keep her busy through middle school. She swung between JV and varsity as a sophomore, and was on the squad that placed fourth at the state tournament last year.
Baldwin stepped into a more prominent role with this year's team, and while the Kardinals failed to return to the state tournament, she said it was a successful season nonetheless.
"With five seniors, we all really wanted to go to state again," Baldwin said. "We had to fill some big shoes, and that made us work harder. (Coach Jim) Beeson says the sign of a good team is that we improved. We were better at the end than when we started."
Baldwin is considering Black Hills State University in Spearfish, S.D., where she'd like to study mass communications and photography. She's also in the hunt for some scholarship money as a potential member of the Yellow Jackets track and field team.
In the mean time, there's a the matter of that one inch Baldwin would like to take care of by the time her high school career concludes at the end of May.
"Going to the state tournament in basketball was definitely a highlight, but winning the state championship also was a highlight," Baldwin said. "All that hard work I had put into it paid off, but seeing my name on the state record -- that would be the highlight."
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