Before every race, senior hurdler Simone Brownlee and senior sprinter Kenya Gaston do the same handshake they have been doing since high school. That handshake not only gets them motivated for their race, but also reminds them where they came from.
After meeting in a sewing class in elementary school, Brownlee and Gaston lost contact when they went to separate middle schools, but they reconnected in their freshman year at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey as soccer teammates.
They grew even closer during their sophomore years when they both joined their high school’s track & field team. Eight years later, they are getting ready to graduate college together.
“It’s nice to have someone who feels like they’re your sister and your family still here with you, literally until the end,” Brownlee said.
The duo’s track & field journey began at the end of their freshman year of high school when Brownlee had the idea to join the team.
“I had always been interested in track, but I had never really had the confidence to try it because I didn’t want to be the slow outsider,” Brownlee said. “But then one of my friends told me that Coach [Lisa] Morgan doesn’t make cuts, so if you show up, you’re on the team. So I said, ‘OK, fine. I’ll give it a try.’”
Brownlee convinced Gaston to join the team during the spring of their sophomore years.
“She just told me to come out and run and it would be a good idea,” Gaston said. “She had to explain to me what every event was.”
During her senior year of high school, Brownlee placed seventh in the 55-meter dash and fourth in the 55-meter hurdles at the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Indoor Section Championships.
Gaston also competed in the NJSIAA Championships, finishing second in the 55-meter dash, fifth in the 400-meter run, and fifth in the 55-meter hurdles.
Three years after joining the team, they both received offers from Temple, and without planning it, they both ended up as Owls. Though Gaston and Brownlee compete in different events, when one of them is running, the other is always nearby, yelling and screaming.
“They are like peas in a pod, that’s for sure,” coach Elvis Forde said. “I saw that bond from the first time I arrived here, if they could be inseparable, they probably would be that.”
“Before our races we will tell each other what to say,” Brownlee said. “When I’m about to do the hurdles I’ll tell her to yell at me to drive out before I get in the blocks. It’s really just about supporting each other as best as we can.”
That support has helped contribute to their successful track & field careers at Temple.
Brownlee finished 21st out of 28 competitors in the 100 meter hurdles at the 2015 American Athletic Conference Outdoor Championships, but set personal records in the 60 hurdles, 100 hurdles and 400 hurdles in 2016.
Gaston helped the distance medley relay team place second and the 4×400 relay team place fourth at the 2016 American Athletic Conference Indoor Championships.
She also competed at the Penn State University Invitational on Jan. 28. Gaston got an invitation to compete in the 400, where she finished sixth with a time of 57.73 seconds.
“When I’m having difficulties or I’m having a bad performance, she’s the one who is there to say, ‘Well look where you’ve came from. You’ve been through this before you know you can do better,’” Brownlee said. “And I do the same thing for her.”
Tessa Sayers can be reached at email@example.com.