One of the greatest track and field performers in Hudson County history almost never had a chance to happen.
Claire Chapeau was first a tennis player at McNair Academic High School. She made the varsity tennis team as a freshman and played first doubles for the Cougars. For all intents and purposes, Chapeau was set to have a nice career playing tennis.
But then one of Chapeau’s friends recommended track and field. After all, it made sense, as Chapeau’s grandfather once participated in track at Princeton University.
“I wasn’t doing anything in the spring,” Chapeau recalled. “I wasn’t good at softball. My Grandpa kind of pushed me a little bit.”
So Chapeau ended up somehow at a McNair track practice.
“I didn’t even know what the events were,” Chapeau said. “I knew I wasn’t a sprinter. I thought that I’d run whatever he tells me to do.”
The “he” in question was veteran McNair Academic head track and field coach Matt Hogan, who has long established himself as one of the premier track coaches in New Jersey.
“The first thing I remember was that she showed a lot of promise,” Hogan said. “I thought she could handle the distances, but she had bad shin splints right away, so that kind of limited her. She didn’t look like much of an athlete, but she did impress me with her ability to run long.”
Chapeau said that she really wasn’t an immediate fan of running long distances.
“I didn’t embrace running the distances,” Chapeau said. “By my junior year, I knew I could run the distances, but I knew I wasn’t that good.”
However, by the time Chapeau became a senior, she was poised to create history.
“I guess I started to take my training more seriously,” Chapeau said. “I would go on long runs, like seven miles, and I did those more frequent.”
That seven-mile jaunt became known as something else in McNair Academic circles.
“We called it ‘The Claire,’” Hogan said. “All the boys didn’t want to do it, but Claire did. She wasn’t about to shy away from it.”
Everything about running became essential in Chapeau’s development.
“I embraced the distances more,” Chapeau said. “I did a lot of stretching. I was eating better. My runs increased in value. I was getting quality runs. My mentality also changed. I was more determined and really getting more confident in myself. I was a distance runner.”
“She’s really determined,” Hogan said. “She’s the sweetest kid, but she’s very competitive. She wants to win and wants to win bad. She also loves to run. She loves the process as much as she loves the reward. She appreciates the hard work part. She was good as a junior, but she made massive improvements as a senior.”
Chapeau didn’t just get better. She became dominant. She became legendary. She was ready to permanently carve her place in Hudson County track and field history as one of the best performers ever.
“She got better,” Hogan said. “But rarely do you see someone get that much better.”
During the cross country season last fall, Chapeau won the Bernie Magee Class championship in 19:26, won the Jersey City championship and set a new course record in the Hudson County Track Coaches Association championships, winning in an astounding and eye-popping 18:35.
“I think the first time I broke 19 minutes was at the Jersey City championships,” Chapeau said. “I crossed the finish line and there was no clock there. I just ran and I knew I was running better than ever, running faster. When someone told me I just broke 19 [minutes], I couldn’t believe that moment. I said, ‘Wow, I can really do this.’ That was my ‘ah ha’ moment. I knew it was what I was meant to be doing.”
Chapeau won the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I championship in 19:19, outrunning the competition by over a full minute. She was then second overall in Group I, 24th overall at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions and 51st overall at the Foot Locker Northeast Regional at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.
Chapeau was then poised to continue her great year during the indoor campaign.
“I think I was really focused during the winter,” Chapeau said. “I was now really dedicated to it. It felt good that I was at the top of my game. But there was also more and more pressure. People were expecting me to win. It made me more aware of myself and more wary. I love running in the cold, so that helped me train. I was also applying to colleges at the same time, so that was important.”
During the indoor season, Chapeau won the HCTCA championship in both the 1,600 (5:27.58) and the 3,200-meter runs (11:30.75). At the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I meet, Chapeau won the 1,600 (5:27.17), the 3,200 (11:46.76) and took second in the 800-meter run (2:33.24). She won the 1,600-meter run at the Ed Grant Invitational in the Jersey City Armory, won the NJSIAA Group I overall state championship in the 3,200-meter run (11:21.84) and placed 15th in the 3,200 at the Meet of Champions.
And during the outdoor season, it was more of the same domination. She won the Jersey City championship in the 3,200-meter run in 11:20.32, the St. Dominic Invitational in the same event, won both the 1,600 (5:12.36) and 3,200-meter runs (11:08.76, winning by more than a minute) at the Hudson County Track Coaches Association championships, won the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II gold medal in the 3,200 (11:18.40) and second in the 1,600, was fourth overall in Group II and eighth in the 3,200 at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions.
And for her efforts, Chapeau has been selected as the 2018-2019 Hudson Reporter Female Athlete of the Year. Chapeau became only the second McNair Academic athlete to ever earn the year-end award, joining all-time great Leslie Njoku, who was the Reporter Co-Female Athlete of the Year in 2006-2007 with Cory Roesing of Secaucus.
Chapeau still is having a tough time fathoming the idea that she improved so dramatically as a senior.
“I honestly cannot believe it,” Chapeau said. “I know I ran the times and I went to the meets, but I never would have imagined it would have led to this. It’s all so surreal. I can’t wrap my head around it. I’m so happy with my career. It’s like a dream. I am so honored to receive the award. I’m just not able to comprehend it. It’s such an honor to be considered as the top female athlete in Hudson County. It’s a testament that my hard work paid off.”
Chapeau has signed her national letter of intent to run at Northeastern University in the fall.
Hogan appreciated what Chapeau meant away from the track for her teammates.
“She’s been good in school, but she’s good with her teammates,” Hogan said. “She was like the ringleader. She’s a great leader. And she is not like any other runner, because she physically gets happy when she’s running. She loves the work. It’s unusual, but it’s great.”
And tennis’ loss was certainly track and field’s gain, as the best-ever distance runner from McNair Academic was born.
“She’s by far my best distance runner ever,” Hogan said. “She’s only the second girl in Hudson County to break 11 minutes [in the 3,200-meter run]. She broke Brittany Gibson’s school record in the 1,600. She really made it fun and made you want to go to the track. I’d coach her every day and twice on Sunday.”
And the former tennis player takes her place among the immortals like Leslie Njoku.
“To be compared with someone like Leslie is just incredible,” Chapeau said. “Her name is all over McNair. She’s held in such high esteem. To be in the same position is just amazing to me. It feels good. It really is amazing.”
HUDSON REPORTER FEMALE ATHLETES OF THE YEAR
1994-1995-Cheri Selby, St. Dominic Academy
2000-2001-Tiffany Aciz, Secaucus
2003-2004-Mercedes Nunez, Memorial
2004-2005-Christine Capetola, St. Dominic Academy
2005-2006-Nicole Degenhardt, Secaucus
2006-2007-Leslie Njoku, McNair Academic & Cory Roesing, Secaucus
2007-2008-Jenna Totaro, Secaucus
2008-2009-Jennifer Mateo, Union City
2009-2010-Ashley Barron, Hoboken
2010-2011-Shannon Waters, Secaucus
2011-2012-Sybil Lynch, Hoboken
2012-2013-Danielle Roesing, Secaucus
2013-2014- Carolina Herrera, North Bergen
2014-2015-Julia McClure, Secaucus
2015-2016-Camille Bertholon, St. Dominic Academy
2016-2017-Malia Gray, St. Dominic Academy
2017-2018-Nyasia Mixson, Hoboken
2018-2019-Claire Chapeau, McNair Academic