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She's overcoming 1 hurdle at a time

Abington's Nugent looks toward states.

Abington's Leah Nugent was standing atop the podium at this year's Penn Relays as the only American ever to win the 400-meter hurdles, when that old, familiar feeling snuck up on her.

"I just felt surprised that I won. I was speechless," Nugent said.

"And when I found out that I was the only American to ever win it, I was even more surprised. I just thanked God even more."

Lately, it has been increasingly difficult to find someone the least bit surprised to see Nugent standing on top of any podium.

The junior enters Friday and Saturday's PIAA track and field state championships as the clear favorite in the Class AAA 300 and 100 hurdles, and her Abington team is favored in the 4x400 relay, on which she serves as anchor.

But Nugent will approach this weekend with the same attitude as when she walked onto a track for the first time just five years ago.

"Track is fun," Nugent said. "And that's how I look at it. Because I know if you don't have fun, you're not going to do to well.

"So you have to take it one race at a time and just focus on trying to enjoy it."

While many of her peers have been running almost as long as they've been walking, Nugent didn't start running track until eighth grade.

"I wouldn't even count eighth grade," Nugent said. "I was only on the junior-high track team. It didn't really get into intense training until I got into ninth grade."

By 10th grade, Nugent was winning state championships.

As a sophomore, she took home the state title in the 300 hurdles and anchored Abington to victory in the 4x400.

Nugent played a vital role in leading Abington to a first-place finish in the team standings - a title that she said meant more to her than anything.

All of it adds up to a completely different experience than what Nugent expected when she started running track.

"I just wanted to make new friends and thought track would be a good way to do it," she said.

"So I tried it and I loved it. I didn't even know that there was this whole other track world. I didn't know that it was this big. I just thought it was fun and school-oriented."

Ask Nugent's coaches, and they will tell you that the humble, friendly, hard-working attitude evident in Nugent from Day 1 is still just as evident now that she is one of the most successful high school hurdlers in the country.

"There's no ego in this girl at all," Abington coach Brian Deck said. "Some kids, they walk around on the track and you can tell they think they're hot stuff. Leah just wants to race and hang out with the girls.

"That's all she really wants to do. She never wants to talk about her times or how good she is, and that's what makes her so special."

That doesn't mean Nugent lacks the desire to be the best. After all, what could be more fun than winning?

"The only problem we have with her is telling her to back off," Deck said. "She'll go full blast in every race at any meet she runs."

That desire has Nugent's sights firmly set on the 100-meter hurdles this weekend.

Last year, Nugent entered the state meet as the heavy favorite in the event and was out to a big lead before losing her balance and falling over the ninth hurdle.

"That was really devastating," Nugent said.

"I was hoping to win the 100 hurdles, and I knew I was on my way. I just didn't keep my composure long enough. But I've learned a lot from that, and I'm going in there with more experience this year and, hopefully, I can win it."

And maybe, this time, Nugent won't be too surprised if she does.