Freshman sprinter is motivated by tragedy all too close to home
BY CHRIS HOOKER, SPORTS EDITOR
Once you set foot on a college campus, nobody really cares where you are from.
They’ll ask, it’s the polite thing to do. The classic icebreaker. But unless this is a future friend, a possible acquaintance even, the information travels to the back of our heads and disappears.
For freshman sprinter and Landmark Athlete of the Week Peter Kerns, it wasn’t about ‘forgetting’ where he was from, but finding a way to move past it.
“Newtown, Conn. is definitely a small town,” Kerns said. “I would really classify it as a commuter town. I had a lot of friends who’s parents worked in other towns. There isn’t a lot of business in Newtown. You drive through sleepy old Sandy Hook and there is a general store, a Subway, a tiny little toy store. It’s a very unassuming place, I guess.”
Kerns is in the midst of an outstanding freshman season on the track and field team. He broke the record for the 300 meter dash in his very first meet as a collegiate athlete with a time of 36.59, shattering the previous mark by nearly a second.
“That was really exciting,” he said of the record that he also holds at his alma mater, Sandy Hook High School. “I was used to the race, but I didn’t think I was in as good of shape as I was in my senior year of high school. I kind of surprised myself.”
A converted soccer player, Kerns went out for high school track after injuring himself his junior season. He used track, at first, as a means to get into shape, but it blossomed into a much greater passion.
After the opening meet in Bucknell, it was difficult not to see the potential in Kerns as an underclassman.
“If anybody saw him run that first meet, it’s not a surprise what he is doing,” head coach Marty Owens said. “It’s good to see the impact that he can make as a freshman.”
Just a few weeks after he took first his place as a sprinter, his “unassuming” hometown changed completely.
“I was waking up around 12:30, and I got a text message from a friend of mine from Vermont,” Kerns said. “All it said was, ‘I’m so sorry about the shooting that happened in your town.’”
At first, Kerns said that he thought it was a mistake. He’s heard people mispronounce where’s he from too many times (“Newton” instead of “Newtown”) and immediately figured it was had happened someplace else.
“I texted a few of my friends who were home for break and they just said, ‘Peter, turn on the news.’”
He began to realize that the incident had indeed happened in his town. His elementary school.
“I was stunned,” Kerns said. “You would think a small town like that, nothing bad would ever happen. All it takes is one messed up person.”
“When they were talking about how the whole thing happened and where he shot, what the classrooms were, it was weird. I remember walking through those glass doors and the principal’s office was straight ahead and the nurse’s office was behind that. As you walk in, to the left, down the hall, that was where my second grade classroom was. It just seems crazy that something like that would happen there,” he said.
Kerns also said it was even stranger when the face of Adam Lanza, the shooter, was revealed on television.
He said: “I recognized him as soon as I saw a picture of him, he was two grades above me and in the tech club. I remember being in the same room as him.”
Newtown is a small enough place that everybody has a connection, everyone knows everyone, and that was what Kerns realized when he returned home for the first time. Everyone had their own story.
For Kerns, it was his third grade teacher, Natalie Hammond, the woman who pressed the intercom and saved the lives of many students and faculty because it helped them understand what was going on in the building.
Hammond was shot three times by Lanza but has since been released from the hospital.
He also knew of two girls in his grade who lost their younger siblings, as well as the younger sibling of a boy he coached track and field in middle school.
Coming back home in light of a devastating tragedy is no easy thing, but what made it easier was the way Newtown came together in support of the deceased.
“One of the most incredible things the town put together was a nighttime vigil for all the lost students. The memorial was put together and a lot of it was donated from other states and from neighboring towns. A lot of schools donated teddy bears and at one point, about three or four days after the incident, we had over 8,000 bears,” Kerns said.
“Surreal” was a word Kerns, and surely any other resident of Newton, used frequently to describe the situation. Even flipping on the news and witnessing President Barack Obama giving his address to the families at the very high school of which Kerns recently graduated fell under the umbrella of the word.
Now, returning to campus meant returning to the track, returning to the sprints, which was something Kerns was not afraid of doing.
“It had only been about three weeks and it had been assumed it was better to not talk about it and put it behind us so it doesn’t keep coming up,” Kerns said. “Sometimes, I try to run for those lost students, but a lot of the time, I try to block it out. I find it’s better to focus on what I have at hand and hope that I do my town proud.”
Owens agreed that despite what had happened, it hasn’t done anything to hinder his freshman’s performance on the track.
“It hasn’t affected him in terms of when he came back, he was still working as hard,” he said. “He seemed to be about the same.”
With track and field championships on the horizon, Owens and Kerns both know what is at stake to allow the Crusaders to overtake Moravian for the crown.
“We finally have a 4×400 that can start pushing for the national bid, getting into the top 12 or 15 teams in the nation. He’s going to have a shot in scoring in all his events this weekend.”
For Kerns, he will be focused on finishing in those times, but also on where he came from that started this passion in the first place.
“For my high school, the athletes that ran at states have a pin or a patch they will put on their shirts in remembrance,” he said. “I’ll be wearing my wristband.”