Garrett LaCroce won the Bergen County Pole Vault Championship that will be remembered by what he accomplished as well as the sportsmenship of another athlete.
Steven Felice could have never said a word and walked away with the gold medal.
A career-best victory in the pole vault at the North 1, Group 1 meet was his; all the Midland Park sophomore had to do was stay quiet and the celebration was on.
“I just couldn’t do that,” Felice said, “because it would not have been the right thing to do.”
And by doing the right thing, Felice garnered more than any first-place medal would have brought him. In a tremendous display of competitive spirit, the 17-year-old ultimately forfeited his greatest triumph by informing meet officials of a clerical mistake in his favor, one that would have cheated one of his opponents the chance at gold.
You see, if two participants are tied having cleared the same height in the pole vault, as Felice and Park Ridge’s Garrett LaCroce were, the winner is based on misses.
According to the judges’ cards, LaCroce had three total misses and Felice two, meaning the underdog from Midland Park would be the champion.
Felice knew otherwise, though, that in fact he had three failed attempts as well, but was officially credited with only two. Therefore the competition was over and the equipment was being packed away when Felice realized what was about to happen.
That’s when he spoke up, not only on LaCroce’s behalf, but to his own detriment, notifying the officials of the error.
“He was put to the test, and I’m not sure what most kids would do in that situation,” said Paul Felice, Steven’s father. “Honestly, I’m not sure what I would do, but in the moment, I don’t even think Steven gave it much thought.”
From all accounts, Felice reacted solely on instinct, which is what makes his act of sportsmanship even more special.
LaCroce and Felice waged quite a showdown that day, a battle that would have ended in regulation at 13 feet if not for Felice’s honesty. What resulted was a jump-off between the two, and after seven rounds, LaCroce prevailed as the North 1, Group 1 pole vault champion. He earned the crown, while Felice earned something as valuable: the respect of seemingly everyone who hears of his story.
“Not many kids would have been so forthright, especially given the circumstances,” Park Ridge assistant coach Andy Washnik wrote in an e-mail. “In my opinion Steve deserves to be recognized for this.”
The pressure to keep pace in varsity competition has increased incredibly. Teenagers are pushed to their limit harder than ever to maximize their potential.
Sportsmanship isn’t a forgotten quality to the games, yet bad sports usually garner much more attention than good ones. Eastern Christian has quite a streak going for nearly two decades and you can bet nobody outside of the North Haledon school even knows it.
Eastern Christian is the only co-ed school in the NJSIAA and just one of five schools statewide – the four others are all-girls schools — to be disqualification-free since 1991.
“It’s really something special when you can embrace sportsmanship and shine a spotlight on those who represent it so well,” Eastern Christian athletic director Steve King said. “Everybody talks about it, but not as many people go out of their way to promote it.”
Felice never expected to receive the kind of attention he has from his actions. He was content with his performance — his vault of 13 feet is a school record, breaking a standard that stood since 1977 — and how things played out with LaCroce prevailing in the jump-off. When you also consider Felice finished in last place at the same meet as a freshman, his one-year turnaround was remarkable.
“I could’ve said nothing and won, but that would have been just as bad as lying or cheating to win,” said Felice, who received a sportsmanship award from the Midland Park Boosters Club. “Coming in first or second didn’t matter at that point. What mattered is that [LaCroce] deserved another chance; [the event] wasn’t over.
“Even though I didn’t come in first, I did what I thought was right and it just felt right.”
It still does, and for that, Felice deserves to be celebrated, gold medal or not.