By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Truth be told, Cristina Nardini always thought she would become a soccer standout.
“I went into high school being a soccer player,” Nardini said.
Nardini was actually a soccer player throughout her four years at North Arlington High School and she played varsity basketball at the school for three years.
But she found her real niche in life as a participant in track and field.
“I ran in eighth grade, in a CYO meet, but I did it for fun,” Nardini said. “I think it was sophomore year, when it just kind of clicked for me. I didn’t even realize it.”
Cristina and her dedicated father, Tony, went to a track and field camp one weekend at Ramapo College.
“That’s when I started to get into it,” Nardini said. “I saw a lot of elite girls there and they inspired me. I wanted to be like them. That’s what I wanted to do.”
So Nardini started to take track and field very seriously. She went to a personal trainer named David Leto in Oakland three times a week.
“He was so knowledgeable about everything,” Nardini said of Leto. “He knew the proper technique to make me faster and work on my jumps. The extra work was definitely beneficial.”
Nardini realized that her future was in track and field, so she had to make a tough decision this year.
“I gave up basketball to concentrate on track during the winter,” Nardini said. “I missed basketball, but it was a good decision for me to stick with track.”
North Arlington instituted an indoor track team for the first time this year, so it made perfect sense for Nardini to walk away from basketball.
But still, as a hurdler and a jumper, it was hard for Nardini to get the proper work in.
“We don’t have the best facilities,” Nardini said. “I really wanted to get better. When I went to the camp at Ramapo, I saw how the college coaches handled working with us and how they ran practices. I just felt I needed a little one-on- one attention. That personal attention really made me excel and I was able to get a lot more work in.”
Nardini didn’t know how she was going to react with all the extra work, once the outdoor track season began in April.
“I didn’t have much confidence in myself,” Nardini said. “I was very hesitant. I was nervous because I didn’t do what I wanted to do for the first couple of meets.”
But North Arlington girls’ track and field coach Bernadette Afonso knew that Nardini was ready to have a breakout season.
“She’s been doing exactly what I thought she could so,” Afonso said. “She’s made a lot of progress in the past year. Running in the winter helped her, because she came to spring track in track shape. I expected her to be at the top of our league.”
Afonso likes the determination that Nardini displays.
“She’s very self motivated,” Afonso said. “She puts a lot of time in during the offseason. As a high school coach, our first goal is to make sure the kids love the sport. Cristina always expressed interest in getting better and that’s the first step. I never have to worry about her working hard, because she’s putting in the extra time on her own. She’s really come a long way.”
Because the school has such a small enrollment, track participants have to learn to compete in more than one event.
“I almost had to force her to learn the triple jump,” Afonso said. “I tried her in the hurdles and the jumps and she did well. But she just wants to succeed in everything. After a while, I could just put her anywhere and I knew she would be fine.”
Nardini was more than fine at the recent Bergen County Group Championships at Northern Valley-Old Tappan. She won three gold medals (the 100-meter hurdles in 16.27, the long jump in 16-3 1/2 and the triple jump in 34-10 1/2) and finished second in the 400-meter hurdles to neighboring rival Natalie Negroni of Queen of Peace. Four events: three gold medals and a silver. Not a bad day at all.
For her efforts, Nardini has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.
“It just kept happening for me,” Nardini said. “I’m ecstatic about it. I never would have suspected that this is where I would be today. I knew I had a chance in the 100 hurdles. My favorite events are the 100 hurdles and the triple jump. I looked at the other girls’ times. I did some research and thought I had a chance. When it comes to the other events, I’m not confident.
“So doing what I did, I’m actually honored and blessed. I finally made a name for myself and I think that’s great.”
She’s also etched her name in the school record book, scoring the most points in school history, as well as setting new marks in both hurdles events.
Nardini broke the school mark for career points that was set by former Observer Female Athlete of the Year Tara Fisher, who had 626 points during her brilliant track career. Nardini has 686 and can surpass the 700-point mark with a solid effort at the upcoming NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I championships. That’s a mark that may never be broken.
“My name will be left behind when I graduate,” said Nardini, who has already committed to The College of New Jersey to compete there in the fall. “I think that’s the coolest part.” “
She just has a lot of natural athletic ability, a lot like Tara Fisher,” Afonso said. “She’s just one of those naturally athletic young girls. I think the extra time she put in helped her.”
Nardini also trains periodically at FASST on Park Ave. in Lyndhurst, a facility that has helped countless local athletes with their speed and agility training.
After earning two medals at the Bergen County Meet of Champions, finishing fifth in the triple jump and sixth in the 100-meter hurdles, Nardini said that she was a little anxious about the upcoming state sectionals.
“It actually makes me a little nervous, going up and competing against the elite in the state,” Nardini said. “It makes me on the edge. But I’m going to go hard in every event. I’m not going to go in overconfident, but it’s kind of strange now that I’ll be the one that others will watch. It’s great how everything has turned.”
It would be even better with a few more medals at the state sectionals.