Return to the Calvin homepage Return to the Knightfile homepage  
All things


Hurdling runs along family lines
By Jeff Febus
Sam and Reuben Sportel (Grand Rapids, Mich.)

You might say that running the hurdles in track and field is a bit like learning how to ride a bike: sooner or later you’re bound to fall down. The trick is to get back up and keep going.

Calvin hurdlers Reuben and Sam Sportel know all about the bumps and bruises that come with running the hurdles. Each brother has had his share of wipeouts and spills. But each brother has also picked himself up off the track and come back for more.

“I had a bad fall this spring at a meet held at Georgia Tech on the way back from our spring break trip,” chuckled Sam, who just completed his freshman year at Calvin. “I couldn’t wear long-sleeve shirts or regular pants for awhile after that. I had some pretty severe scrapes that didn’t scab up right away.”

Reuben’s biggest injury actually occurred away from the track as he tore tendons in his ankle while playing pickup basketball with some of his track and field teammates a year ago. The injury forced him to miss the entire 2003 season but made him even more determined to make it back this spring.

A junior at Calvin, Reuben returned to the track with vigor in 2004 as he posted career-best times in the 110 high hurdles (15.13) and 400-meter hurdles (54.77). Both performances rank among the top 10 all-time at Calvin. At the MIAA championships, Reuben took a hard tumble in the 110 high hurdles, stumbling over one of the first few hurdles and then managing to get up for an eighth-place finish.

Despite suffering a muscle injury in the fall, Reuben was able to grit his teeth to not only complete the 400 meter hurdles less than an hour later, but also finish in fourth place.

A quick scan through the family tree helps explain the Sportels’ interest in hurdling. An uncle was a Calvin record holder in the hurdles for a time while older brother Ben was a standout hurdler and football player at South (Grand Rapids, Mich.) Christian High School before moving on to play both sports at Hope College. A younger sister is also hurdling for the South Christian High School girls team.

“I think it’s the long legs,” said Sam. “We’re all kind of lanky, and our body-build makes it a little easier to get over the hurdles.”

“I’ve never been the fastest person in the sprints or in the open 400,” said Reuben. “I found out in junior high that once you put a few hurdles out there, it gave me a chance to compete.”

Both admit that making the step up to collegiate competition was an adjustment. “In high school, we were usually the best hurdlers out there,” said Sam. “In college, just about everyone was the best hurdler on their team in high school. The competition is tough, and it’s something you have to get used to.”

The training demands of the collegiate level are also higher. “It’s a lot more intense, but it’s fun,” said Reuben. “We have a great coaching staff and a lot of encouraging teammates. When you devote as much time as we do to training, it’s important to have a good group of people around you, and we have that here with the Calvin track and field teams.”

In recognizing the coaching staff, Sam noted the expertise of head coach Jong-Il Kim. “Coach Kim knows so much about track and field, and there’s always something that he wants me to work on,” said Sam. “But he’s so nice in telling me how to correct my form, and he’s always encouraging me to do better.”

Despite some of his bumps and bruises along the way, Reuben has the lofty goal of qualifying for the NCAA III championships before his career is over. His season-best times this spring were just a half-second off of provisional qualifying marks in both the 110 high hurdles and 400 hurdles.

“It would be great to reach that goal,” said Reuben who is majoring in secondary education with an emphasis in biology, as is brother Sam. “I know I have a lot of work ahead of me if I want to get there, but the way that I’ve been able to improve has helped me believe that I can reach that goal.”

Sam has a simpler goal. “I want to beat Reuben,” he laughed. “That’s always been my goal, even back in high school. I actually beat him at the conference meet this year (in the 110 highs) when he fell, but in my book, that doesn’t really count. I want to beat him fair and square.”