Baldwin senior peaks at WPIALs, wins gold in 800

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Sunday, May 30, 2021 | 11:01 AM


Lena Barakat is one of the smaller athletes in the Baldwin girls track and field program.

But she was a giant of a competitor — all 5 feet, 2 inches of her — at this year’s WPIAL Class AAA championships.

A senior runner, Barakat logged a career-best time of 2:16 to finish first in the girls 800 meters May 19 at Slippery Rock University.

“I was shocked and so happy,” Barakat said. “Before the race, I knew I would put myself in a place to at least make it to states, but I honestly didn’t think I could come out as the WPIAL champion. I proved myself wrong.”

Indeed she did.

“My 800 went way better than I thought it would,” Barakat said. “I listened to my coaches’ advice to control the race from the start, and it worked out great. It also cooled off a lot by the time I ran the 800, so that helped a lot too.

“I went into the race with plans to cut into the first lane on the back stretch and to try to control the pack or stick behind whoever was leading. I ended up cutting into lane one and leading the entire race. I didn’t think I was capable of pacing an entire race and also running a 2:16.”

Barakat, who participated in cross country in the fall, also was a WPIAL medalist in the 3,200 relay, along with senior Gina Bolla, sophomore Rebekah Priano and freshman McKenzie Hirt.

The Baldwin relayers placed sixth in 9:49.68.

“In the morning, my relay split was much slower than I thought it would be,” Barakat said, “but it was really hot out and we were already pretty far behind the leading pack, so there wasn’t much we could do. Overall though, we came out with medals and tried our best, so it was still a good race.”

Barakat, who owns a 4.2 GPA, has participated in indoor and outdoor track since her freshman year. She is a vice president of her school’s Earth Club and an editor for the Purbalite school newspaper. She plans to attend Chatham to major in sustainability on a track for veterinary school.

“Lena has worked very hard this year and deserves all the success she’s achieved. She has been a role model to her younger teammates,” Baldwin coach Ed Helbig said. “Lena did something this year that she didn’t last year, and that was she ran cross country in the fall. In previous years, she didn’t run cross country and always seemed to come down with an injury that affected her performance.

“An example of this occurred last year when after qualifying for the PA Indoor championship as a member of our 4×800 relay, she was diagnosed with a stress fracture in her foot and needed three weeks to recover. The team decided not to compete in the championship meet and get ready for the outdoor season. Lena was getting ready to rejoin the team for workouts and covid canceled the season.”

Barakat narrowly missed qualifying for the PIAA cross country championships.

“She decided her senior year would be different,” Helbig said. “During the indoor season, Edinboro (University) was shut down and the season was also shut down. Lena was able to train during the winter. We also added a weight-lifting component.

“When the outdoor season began, Lena had a strong base of training and lifting, and she has been fairly injury free. She ran four events in our section meets and was able to concentrate on the 400 and 800 at the invitations, along with the relays. Once the decision was made for her to concentrate on the 800, coach (Rich) Wright and I believed she was capable of running in the 2:15s.”

Wright delayed his imminent retirement plans to return to Baldwin in 2020-21 to coach cross country and as an assistant track coach.

“Lena texted me last summer and said she was committing to be a cross country runner and planned to come to practice,” Wright said. “During the indoor season, she worked hard. Outdoor, she was the glue that kept the 4×8 and 4×4 running their fastest times of the year.

“She trusted me to choose either the 400 or 800 for her. I felt the 800 was her better shot; the rest is history. Dreams do come true. She is a WPIAL champion and is seeded seventh in the state. We are very proud of what an outstanding runner and teammate she’s become.”

Bolla, meanwhile, placed 10th in the 3,200-meter run at the WPIAL finals with a time of 11:29.27.

Barakat, Hirt and juniors Nikki Crough and Morgan Altavilla also qualified for the WPIAL meet in the 1,600 relay, as did Altavilla (400) and junior Abbey Herrle (high jump, discus) in individual events. Barakat ran a sub-60.

The PIAA track and field championships were scheduled for May 28-29 at Shippensburg University.

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