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Healthy Pirtle making big strides this season

John-Michael Pirtle wins
Stonewall Jackson's John-Michael Pirtle wins the 110 meter hurdles at the Shenandoah County meet on May 14 in Strasburg. Dennis Grundman/Daily file (Buy photo)

By Jeremy Stafford - jstafford@nvdaily.com

QUICKSBURG -- Perhaps it was the one moment John-Michael Pirtle let his emotions get the best of him.

During a Dec. 28 basketball practice at Stonewall Jackson, Pirtle leapt for a shot, then quite unexpectedly, drifted to his left.

When Pirtle landed, his left ankle slammed the Stonewall Jackson hardwood, stretching each tendon in his ankle far beyond its intended elasticity.

It wasn't the first time Pirtle injured an ankle playing basketball -- he sprained his right ankle in a game at Riverheads during the 2008-09 season -- but it was the first time his ankle, or any appendage, felt like a flaring furnace.

"I could feel it happening: It hit the ground and I felt it, and then it folded over," Pirtle said. "The first time I did it, at Riverheads last year, it didn't have the burning sensation that this one did."

The flames seethed in his ankle, and everywhere. To release some of the heat, he slapped the floor with his hand.

"I was upset," he continued. "I just smacked the floor as hard as I could.

"I slammed my hand on the floor, and I was mad."

Normally a collected, even-tempered person, Pirtle was hard-pressed to hide his frustration that afternoon. He used two teammates as crutches, then hobbled to the Generals trainer.

"By the time I got to the hospital it looked like a softball," Pirtle said.

But in the moments following the explosion in his ankle, Pirtle's frustrated mind didn't wander to the basketball season, or to how his ankle, which couldn't support the weight of his body for two full weeks, might take him from class to class.

His mind wandered to the upcoming track season: The sophomore already owns the Stonewall Jackson record in the 300 intermediate hurdles (41.96), and a few others were well within his sight.

Pirtle's father, Willy Pirtle, owns school records in the long jump (23-1 1/4) and the 110 high hurdles (14.7), both of which were set in 1978.

But the ligaments in the younger Pirtle's left ankle, which more resembled a series of rubber bands worn of their elasticity than supportive ligatures, had an unfortunate way of putting off any hope of surpassing his father.

Or they were supposed to anyway.

Pirtle was unable to walk for a month and a half. Initially, his ankle was so immobilized by tendon damage that he couldn't properly fit his foot into a protective boot. He wrapped his ankle in a soft cast and hopped around school in crutches. When he had the time, Pirtle propped up his ankle and iced it down. When the ankle was finally healthy enough to support Pirtle's weight, it was still too stiff to bend, and he walked around school as though he were in a boot, though he wasn't wearing one.

Still, Pirtle trained for the track season. Even when he couldn't walk, he did upper body workouts in the gym. When his ankle was healed enough to actually go through rehab, Pirtle strengthened it with stretching and balancing exercises.

Two months after the injury, Pirtle jogged for a mile. The next day he ran a mile and a half, and he ran two miles the day after that. Six days after he began running, Pirtle was trotting four miles a day and was fit enough to join the Stonewall Jackson track team's practices.

Pirtle currently competes in seven events: He runs both hurdle events and the 400-meter relay, leaps in the triple jump and long jump, and throws the shot put and the discuss.

Despite his bum ankle, which he said no longer hurts, though it did earlier in the season, Pirtle has improved on his 110 hurdles time (15.44) -- nearly 0.40 second faster than the 16.21 he ran in the preliminary heat of last year's Group A state meet.

"He's a very hard-working kid," Pirtle's father said. "So he took it in stride and did all the right things: Didn't over do it, listened to the trainers, and I think that helped him in his recovery, and I think he has gotten back to where he was and more."

Indeed, Pirtle brandishes a determination few can match. His drive to win is perhaps matched only by his abhorrence of losing. And though his impassive face doesn't betray it, Pirtle hates to lose.

"I pushed myself to lift longer and to run farther so I could be better," Pirtle said. "I just wanted to be remembered as somebody that was a great athlete. I don't want to be that guy sitting at the bar talking about the glory days of high school -- I want to go on to college and I want to possibly make a professional career out of what I do."

Which is exactly what Pirtle's father did. After graduating from Stonewall Jackson, Willy Pirtle walked on to the track team at the University of Virginia, earned a full scholarship and became an NCAA Division I all-American in the decathlon.

He went to the United States Olympic trials in 1984.

So what are the chances the younger Pirtle can carry on his father's legacy?

"Actually, he's ahead of where I was at his age," Willy Pirtle said. "He's at least a full year ahead of where I was as a sophomore.

"But I expect he's got an opportunity to break all of my records, with possibly one exception [in the long jump], but I'd like to see him get them all."


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