In nearly 40 years of writing weekly Athlete of the Week features for several different newspapers, including the last 30 years this week for the Hudson Reporter Newspapers, there has never been a more remarkable story than the one you are about to read, the story of Faith Bethea.
The saga begins earlier this year, when Bethea, a junior in school, was a volleyball and basketball player for Snyder High School. Bethea is a student at nearby University Charter but was allowed to compete for Snyder because University Charter elected to not have sports during the COVID-19 pandemic.
After the volleyball season ended just a few weeks ago, Bethea received some advice that turned to be quite historic.
“All my friends convinced me to come out for track,” Bethea said. “They saw that I was jumping over the net in volleyball. I thought it would be a good idea to try it out. I tried it and I liked it.”
Snyder head girls’ track and field coach Robert Arena said that he was aware of Bethea.
“She was supposed to come out for indoor track this year, but she played basketball instead,” Arena said. “I also knew that she was a competitive cheerleader, so I knew she could jump.”
Bethea said that she had somewhat of a background in the sport, considering her mother, Tiffany Bethea, competed in track and field when she was a student at East Orange Campus.
“She also encouraged me to go out for track,” Bethea said. “She’s a good encouragement.”
So Bethea headed down to Lincoln Park in Jersey City for her first practice. With everything that was going on, a confused Bethea almost turned around and walked away.
“I said to myself, ‘What did I get myself into?’” Bethea said. “I had no idea what it took. I almost left, but I decided to push myself through it.”
Arena tried Bethea out in a few different events at that practice. He couldn’t believe what he saw.
“She was right off the rails,” Arena said. “I knew she could jump, but nothing like what she did. She was a natural.”
In her first practice at the long jump, Bethea was measured at over 16 feet. Arena had to rub his eyes to see if he was imagining what he just witnessed.
Arena knew that his team had to replace the irreplaceable Alicia Campbell, the do-everything superstar who was the Hudson County Female Athlete of the Year last year. Campbell is now on the track and field team at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. No one was ever going to take Campbell’s place, but her departure left a huge void on the Tigers.
“I saw Faith and thought that we maybe had something there,” Arena said.
Arena thought that Bethea could eventually compete in the triple jump and the sprints, along with the long jump abilities that she displayed in that first practice.
Arena entered Bethea in the long jump and in her first meet, she leaped 17 feet, 1 ¼ inches. In her second meet, Bethea cleared 17 feet, six inches.
And in just her third competitive meet of her life, at the Jersey City championships last week, Bethea unfurled a leap of 18 feet, eight inches, setting the Hudson County record by five inches, breaking the mark set by former Hudson Reporter Female Athlete of the Year Malia Gray of St. Dominic Academy. Gray earned the year-end award in 2016-2017.
“I videotaped it just to make sure,” Arena said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Bethea got the county record in the long jump in just her third meet ever. It’s beyond mindboggling.
The story gets better. Arena took his team to the Midseason Relay Showdown at Ridge High School, a highly competitive meet. Arena used the meet as a chance to introduce his prodigy Bethea to another event, namely the triple jump.
“I wondered what could she do in the triple jump,” Arena said.
Well, Bethea cleared 34 feet, 10 ¼ inches and won the gold medal at the meet.
“And it wasn’t even a full run,” Arena said. “When she did it, she looked at me and said, ‘Was that good?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s good.’”
“I had no idea,” Bethea said. “I was just making sure it was good. It was nice that I won.”
For her efforts, for her incredible, almost unbelievable story, Bethea has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Bethea knows that her best days are ahead of her.
“I’m still learning,” Bethea said. “I just have to push myself more. I knew I could do better. It was my first try.”
Bethea also realizes the natural comparisons between herself and Campbell.
“I heard her name a lot,” Bethea said. “I played volleyball with her. I just hope I can do the same.”
Arena said that Bethea has to go a long way yet to surpass Campbell’s achievements. In 2019, Campbell won four county championships and was on her way to a gold medal in the NJSIAA Group II state championships in the long jump before she broke her leg, ending her season.
“There’s a difference between Alicia and Faith,” Arena said. “Alicia worked so hard to get where she got. Faith is naturally gifted and doesn’t know how good she can be.”
Bethea could compete in the high jump, long jump and triple jump, but if she had to, she could be in the mix in the 100-and-200-meter dashes. Again, the NJSIAA only allows an athlete to compete in four events.
“She’s run 12.84 in the 100 [meter dash] and 26.7 in the 200,” Arena said. “She’s competitive for sure. With her jumps, you know the really good ones are coming. She’s getting good rotation on her jumps. The plan is that she’s going to do what’s best for the team. I believe with a lot of hard work, she can become a scholarship athlete. But she has to be motivated to do it.”
The track coaches from St. Peter’s University just happened to be watching the Jersey City meet, looking for some talented athletes. Bethea is only a junior.
It could be just a start.
“I believe so,” Arena said. “For Faith to come in and jump the way she has is insane. I’m very impressed. It’s really incredible.”
Bethea will be entered in four events at the upcoming Hudson County Track Coaches Association championships. The events are unknown at present time, but you can be rest assured that one of them will be the long jump, the event that Bethea now stands heads and tails – and feet – ahead of everyone else.
“I know I can do a lot more,” Bethea said. “I’m looking forward to it [the HCTCA championships]. I hope I can do the same or even better.”
Arena knows for certain that Bethea could be better.
“She just has to get it into her mind that she could dominate,” Arena said.
“I can do more,” Bethea said. “A lot more.”
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com