Late Saturday afternoon, during the Sykes & Sabock Challenge Cup at the Ashenfelter Multisport Facility, a familiar face appeared down on the track, but not doing what is generally expected of her.
Marlene Ricketts, the best triple-jumper on the Penn State women’s team, ran the 400-meter leg of the women’s distance medley, the latest of her first attempt at distance runs and sprints.
“It worked out pretty well for me, I really wanted to contribute to the team with the 400 because I’ve never really done the 400 before, and I think I did well for the relay,” Ricketts said.
Ricketts, a junior, outjumped all of her competition for the third-straight meet that day, beating her nearest competitor by slightly less than two inches, with her jump of 41-9.25.
The Old Westbury, N.Y., native is very intrigued at the idea of adding the 400 to her repertoire.
“I’m interested in doing it and the coaches are also interested in me doing it. Coach [Beth Alford-] Sullivan is really pushing me to do it and I think I can do it and hopefully I’ll be a part of the relays in the future,” she said.
Fritz Spence, assistant coach of jumps and multi-events, thinks that adding the new events is going to be a big positive for Ricketts.
“Running the 400 is good for Marlene because, it helps with her strength and endurance, because with triple jumps you get three in the preliminaries and three in the finals, and the 400-meter is a good contributor to strength and endurance,” Spence said.
Ricketts’ story for how a jumper ended up in a distance event is an interesting one.
She said that initially she was only doing the run for endurance practice for her jumps. The coaching staff thought that she could do even better, and they were right.
Do the two events compare at all? Ricketts said that the mentalities for the two are entirely different.
“Triple Jump/Long Jump is more aggression, and the 400 you have to know the method to it. You have to know how to run it-when to pick up, when to maintain, and how to work with the other people who are running around you,” she said.
Ricketts knows that some questions may arise any time a top athlete adds a new event to her resume, but her loyalty remains with the long jump.
“I’m always going to be a jumper, that’s my thing. Triple jump is my favorite event, it always has been and that will never change,” she said. “It doesn’t matter to me. I’ll do whatever I have to do to help out the team.”
She also added that she has been running the 400 in the medley all season, and will be on the 4x400 relay team come the outdoor season.
Ricketts’ main focus, however, remains on the triple jump, with a meet this weekend and the Big Ten championship meet the following weekend.
“I want to put myself in a good position,” she said. “I just got bumped down to No. 2 in the conference and I really hope that I can beat [No. 1] out because I want and need to score points for the team during the conference championships.”
One regret that Ricketts has is her lack of appearances in the national meets. In the fall she finished 15th in her event that sent the top 12 to Nationals.
“There is a thin line between qualifying and not qualifying right now,” Ricketts said.
Spence said he thinks that Ricketts will reach her goal.
“My expectation for her is for her to continue to excel, continue to improve week after week,” the assistant coach said. “Right now based on her practices, she’s ready to jump 13 meters or over, and that is going to help her get to the national indoor championships.”
For Ricketts, reaching nationals would be an achievement three years in the making.
“It would mean a lot, because I came in with high expectations about myself as a freshman and didn’t quite get there,” she said. “I had a lot of struggles, but as a junior I think it’s time for me to get there. I’ve waited long enough and it would be very important for me to make it.”
Ricketts, who was honored earlier in the season with the Big Ten athlete of the week award and said she didn’t expect it, credits much of her success to a ritual that has arose in recent years among collegiate jumpers — the slow clap.
The slow clap, when the jumpers start clapping slowly, as their peers, the crowd, and even their competition all join in and ramp up the speed of their claps, is said to give the jumpers a bit of an extra boost, while making the jump even more exciting to watch.
“It’s a huge adrenaline rush for me. It’s like you get an extra couple inches off of that,” Ricketts said.
Spence was intrigued by the new ritual.
“When I came to Penn State the athletes never used to clap, even in practice, but they are trying to create that culture because the triple jump is a pure adrenaline event, and gets them the energy they need to get better,” he said.
Ricketts, only a junior, wants to use this year to improve even more.
“I think being a junior, I was more open to what my coaches have been saying and I’ve learned a lot more and I think I can take what I’ve learned this year to my senior year and just go be what I can be in everything that I do,” the nationals hopeful said. “Apart from that, I’d like to be a great role model and to be supportive for everybody else on the team.”