Selfless act by Whitehall sprinter Saquon Barkley had some in tears

Selfless act by Whitehall sprinter Saquon Barkley had some in tears

Rachel Panek burst into tears and sought out a friend from another team to console her.

Panek, a sophomore hurdler for Saucon Valley High School, thought she’d look back on the Colonial League Track and Field Championships as one of the worst days of her athletic career after finishing last in a race she thought she had already won.

As it turns out, she’ll remember last Wednesday as one of her best sports experiences ever — thanks to the gesture of a thoughtful new friend she encountered by chance in Whitehall’s Saquon Barkley, the Lehigh Valley football star with a scholarship to play at Penn State.

“It’s not the fact that I didn’t get a medal or first place in the league that I’ll remember,” Panek said, “it’s that somebody noticed and that someone cared enough to make my day by giving me something that meant a lot to them.

“That’s what I’ll remember forever.”

What happened to Panek before she came across Barkley could certainly be characterized as unfair, and it would be hard to find anybody at the two-day meet — that was a combined championship with Eastern Pennsylvania Conference and Colonial League athletes competing for medals at Whitehall’s Zephyr Sports Complex — who felt particularly good about it.

The day’s first race, the girls 100-meter hurdles, was stopped by officials when the timing system malfunctioned.

Each of the eight competitors appeared to finish the event at full speed, but the fully automatic clock never started when the starting gun sounded. A trackside official, acting on the timing issue, fired three shots into the air as the lead runners — Panek and Northwestern’s Alexis Gawelko — crossed the seventh hurdle. Panek beat Gawelko to the line.

Because the timing system never started, there were no official times. (There was no backup timing system either, according to meet officials.)

Colonial League track and field chairman Bryan Geist called the coaches of all eight finalists into the infield for a brief meeting. The decision was made to re-run the race after approximately a 30-minute rest period.

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Panek, though, was unable to rest. She was competing in the high jump and took two turns before she ran the second 100 hurdles race.

“Honestly, I didn’t hear the gun go off,” Panek said. “You’re so in the moment. I don’t think anyone slowed down. There was a lot of confusion after the race and once I found out we were re-running it, I kept telling myself that I wasn’t upset. I cleared 4-4 and 4-6 in the high jump, my legs were a little tired.”

“It’s really unfortunate,” Geist said at the time, “but we felt like [re-running the race] was the only thing we could do.”

The second, and official, race was a disaster for Panek, whose momentum was stunted significantly when she clipped a hurdle. She placed eighth.

Gawelko, a senior, won in 15.75 seconds and collected the gold medal that she’d absolutely earned.

“After I walked back to the high jump and kind of realized what happened,” Panek said, “I found my friend from Salisbury [Sydney Utesch] and gave her a big hug. I was sobbing.”

Ed Kolosky tried to console his promising young hurdler, but even Saucon Valley’s longtime running coach, known as a strong motivator, couldn’t find any fitting words.

“I saw Rachel’s dad in the stands,” Kolosky said, “and he yelled that it was a good time for him to pick up some souvenir clothes. We were trying to pick up her spirits. Because it was unfair, no one really knew what to say.”

No one knew what to say, but Barkley knew what to do.

Panek and Barkley had never met before Wednesday’s meet, and they only met there because Panek held the starting blocks for Barkley in the EPC boys 100-meter finals. (The re-running of the second Colonial League girls 100 hurdles race came immediately after the EPC boys 100.)

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At the time, Barkley said, Panek was in a positive mental state.

“She wasn’t upset. She was jumping around and said she’d be the best block-holder. She was confident she’d win the hurdles race again,” he said.

Barkley won his gold medal, clocking 11.15 seconds to edge out his closest competitor. Since it’s his first year in track and field — “I love the sport,” he said, “but I’m doing it to keep in shape for football” — the gold medal was his first.

But what had happened to Panek didn’t seem fair to Barkley.

“It’s really hard to explain,” the all-state running back said, “but something inside of me told me it’d be the right thing to do to give her my medal. Honestly, I love winning races and receiving medals, but I felt she deserved it, too. Everyone saw that girl win her race.”

Barkley discussed his decision with Whitehall coach Jim Sebesta, who gave the go-ahead. The next issue for Barkley was finding Panek amid the sea of athletes all over the Zephyr Sports Complex.

“I didn’t know how to go up to her,” Barkley said.

“It was about two hours after my race,” Panek said, “and one of my friends came over and pulled me into the group of friends [Barkley] was with. He said to me, ‘You held my blocks. I saw your race and you should’ve won. You deserve this.’ He literally handed me his gold medal. I was kind of in shock. I hugged him, we took a couple pictures. I have the medal.”

“It felt really good,” Barkley said, “to do a good deed and put a smile on her face. I think I learned it from my mom [Tonya Johnson] and my family. It was the right thing to do.”

Panek genuinely appreciated the gesture.

“It was honestly one of the kindest things anyone’s ever done,” she said.

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It’s something that left everyone — particularly the adults who see these athletes on a daily basis — in awe.

Whitehall athletic director Bob Hartman, the EPC track and field chairman, said Barkley is an emotional and passionate teenager who is learning to how to effectively harness his feelings.

“For me, that was the best part of the track meet, regardless of the performances,” Hartman said. “It says a lot about Saquon, his parents and his coaches. He wasn’t prompted … he came up with that himself. We’re proud of him for making that decision.”

When Panek relayed to her coach what had happened, Kolosky’s eyes welled up with tears. Panek, too, became emotional.

“That,” Kolosky said, “was a powerful thing that young man did.”

Michael Blouse is a freelance writer.


Where: Zephyr Sports Complex, Whitehall High School

When: 3 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday

Please see for complete schedule


Class 2A girls

So. Maddie Frew, Pine Grove (100 hurdles); Jr. Mary Ramsden, Palisades (100, 200); Jr. Lindsay Bauer, Salisbury (400, long jump, triple jump); So. Monika Shimko, Tamaqua (800); Sr. Carly Gregas, North Schuylkill (high jump); Sr. Kaitlyn Toman, Salisbury (pole vault)

Class 3A girls

So. Jaylyn Aminu, Liberty (100); Sr. Aspen Gaita, Stroudsburg (long jump, triple jump); Jr. Greer Gumbrecht, Easton (pole vault)

Class 2A boys

Sr. Cam Richardson, Northwestern (100, 200); Sr. Kyle Gonoude, Salisbury (1,600, 3,200); Sr. Ben Hinkel, Minersville (800)

Class 3A boys

Sr. Freddie Simmons, Bethlehem Catholic (110, 300 hurdles); Sr. Colin Abert, Easton (1,600, 3,200); Jr. Nate Fogle, Pocono Mountain East (400); Sr. Khai Samuels, Pleasant Valley (800); Sr. Paul Leaser, Central Catholic (2A long jump); Sr. Scott Schlegel, Emmaus (high jump).