Aspen Times Weekly: Fast Friends
When this Aspen High School sprinter steps into the starting blocks, he completes his simple prelaunch checklist.
— Clear the mind.
— Focus on form.
Then … BANG!
And they’re off.
Seconds later, Sunday Abarca races across the finish line. As he recovers, his eyes search the crowd. He’s looking for one face, one man.
Aspen High School junior Abarca — two-time state track champion — is looking for coach James Aldridge.
“We’ve just grown closer and closer,” Abarca said. “Not only in track, but person to person. He’s like family to me now.”
Aldridge, the former Notre Dame running back and current Aspen all-star rugby player, started working with Abarca two years ago.
Last year, he served as one of Abarca’s sprint coaches, eventually taking over as the Aspen High School head track coach this season.
Abarca, then a sophomore, won the 400-meter state championship in Class 3A last year. And he placed third in the 200 meters at the state meet a year ago.
This year, Abarca added to his podium finishes at the state meet in a big way.
He won the 400-meter dash Saturday at Jeffco Stadium in Lakewood, setting a Class 3A state record in the process.
Abarca, with a dramatic come-from-behind effort, won the 400 at state with a lean at the tape, edging Jared Keul of Manitou Springs.
He won in 48.54 seconds, breaking the record of 48.79 set in 2002 by Brian Black of Yuma.
He also finished third in the 100-meter finals in Class 3A, matching his third-place finish in the 200-meter finals.
In two years, Abarca has won back-to-back state titles in the 400, set a state record, and he’s been on the podium at state five times.
He prepped for the state championships by winning the 100, 200 and 400 at the Western Slope League Championships in Grand Junction, where he was named the conference track athlete of the year.
“James was there for every step,” said Abarca, the son of Armando and Anita Abarca. “He knows how to push me mentally and physically, which is great.”
He also credits Aspen coach Kiffor Berg for help in the sprints.
Abarca, who grew up in Aspen, said his race preparation is much more advanced after working extensively with Berg and Aldridge, himself a former outstanding high school track athlete.
He said he knows how to warm up, how to be on time for races and how to prepare his mind, thanks to Aldridge.
Same for proper sleep and nutrition.
The Aspen High School senior-to-be said he’s seen Aldridge on the rugby field, playing for the Gentlemen of Aspen where he showcases his mind-bending speed — the kind of speed that made Aldridge one of the most highly recruited prep running backs coming out of high school.
In fact, Aldridge was a nationally-ranked long jumper as a sophomore in high school in his native St. Louis. He had a 25-foot jump to his credit — a leap that would have won the Class 5A state title in Colorado this year by two-and-a-half feet.
Aldridge, who finished high school in Indiana, also was a top 200-meter runner before a knee injury in high school football limited his track options.
Abarca, however, is even more awed by Aldridge’s academic career at Notre Dame, where he earned his undergraduate degree with honors in three-and-a-half years.
“That balance … gives me something to push forward to,” Abarca said. “To see how it all pushed him.”
Now Abarca, like Aldridge a decade ago, is encountering college options — more with each passing race.
“It is very exciting with a lot of colleges reaching out to me,” Abarca said. “I went to visit UCLA over spring break, and I fell in love with the college … the track. It’s a beautiful campus; the people are amazing.”
The Aspen High School sprinter pauses and shakes his head, almost not believing his journey from uninterested athlete and student to college prospect — in the classroom and on the track.
“He’s handing it well. He’s taken ownership of the situation,” Aldridge said, adding that Abarca’s commitment to early-morning weight training increased his strength.
Abarca’s offseason commitment to track also advanced his progress. Under Aldridge’s guidance last summer, Abarca raced in the USATF Regionals in Texas and qualified and raced in the USATF national championships in Florida.
“Just being exposed to different environments … like at regionals (in Texas) and being exposed to the country (in Florida) has been big,” Aldridge said.
“That was cool,” Abarca said. “Racing against those older guys helped me. I was 16, most of them were 17. The competition is really intense. It’s awesome. I hope to go back this year.”
He finished third in Texas and 20th in the national 400-meter finals in Florida.
But how did the lives of James Aldridge and Sunday Abarca — two black men — intersect in snow white Aspen?
“Rugby,” Aldridge said. “I came here to play rugby.”
Aldridge was leaving his last NFL training camp following his Notre Dame career when he got a life-altering telephone call.
“Andy Katoa invited me up to Aspen for rugby,” Aldridge said of Katoa, a former standout player and coach with the Gentlemen of Aspen who also had played football in college. Katoa played and coached with the USA 7s rugby team and is currently the national 7s coach in Tonga.
“I fell in love with the place,” Aldridge said, adding he was staggered by the visual aesthetics in Aspen. And the active lifestyles. And the athletes.
He’s been here ever since, working as a trainer/therapist in the area, often seen at Aspen Valley Hospital when not at the AHS track.
Aldridge, now one of the top rugby players in the region, brought something else with him when he moved to Aspen.
He brought something he said he learned at Notre Dame.
“Service first; help the next man,” Aldridge said, simply. “That’s my approach in general.”
And as someone who treasured his days in high school track and field, Aldridge saw his chance for service right in front of him at Aspen High School.
Word around Aspen, Aldridge said, was that there was a really quick, really fast young soccer player.
“I remember working with him in the eighth grade. You had thoughts then of his potential,” Aldridge said. “Now, it’s going to be up to him to put himself at the elite (NCAA) level.”
Abarca, happy to be on track after some bumpy adolescent times, said he can’t imagine what would have happened if he hadn’t met James Aldridge.
“From where I was to where I’ve come … there are all these doors that have been opening up for me,” Abarca said. “All the people I’ve met along the way. It’s a great experience.”
On the track and off, Abarca gives the nod to Aldridge.
“I feel like I can really relate to him in every sense, all around,” Abarca said.
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This weekend we go local. After the bacchanalia that was the Food & Wine Classic last week, we turn to Snowmass for a kinder, gentler wine gathering as the 19th Snowmass Wine Festival gets underway.