By Steve Williams

Sweat was still pouring off Gashaw Duhamel several minutes after he had competed in the 3200-meter run in the East Tennessee Class A-AA State Sectional Thursday afternoon at Christian Academy of Knoxville.

Of course beads of perspiration weren’t uncommon among the hundreds of talented high school track and field athletes from Happy Valley to Signal Mountain who were competing for sectional honors and a berth in this week’s state meet in the TSSAA Spring Fling at Murfreesboro.

What made Duhamel stick out in the crowd was the fact he recently became the first student-athlete from Tennessee School for the Deaf to ever sign a NCAA Division 1 scholarship. Gashaw will be running for the Tennessee Vols and cross country/long distance runner coach Rodney Stoker this coming fall.

Before then, however, he has a big race coming up Friday at the state meet. Duhamel qualified with his second place showing in the 3200. Catholic’s Johnathan Chavez held him off down the stretch. The rematch could be very interesting.

I ran into TSD athletic director Luke Benson at CAK about 30 minutes or so before Gashaw’s race Thursday. Benson introduced me to first-year TSD boys track coach Jordan Cooper and Duhamel’s dad. I told them I had hoped to see Gashaw compete in the KIL meet, but they informed me he had been sidelined with a sprained ligament in his foot, apparently the result of his track shoes not having proper arch support.

“He was in the pool and on a bike for three weeks,” said Cooper. “He ran in his first meet since April 15 at the Sub-Sectional on May 12. “He’s still going to therapy now two times a week.”

Duhamel has some new track shoes, and has had better arch supports put in his old ones, which he considered wearing Thursday but decided on the new shoes, which he’s still trying to break in to his liking.

What are the challenges of being deaf for a track athlete?

“If someone is catching up, you can’t hear them,” answered Coach Cooper. “It affects communication more in the relays and at the start of sprint events. Communication in the distance events is the least intrusive of all the running events. And there are no challenges at all in the field events.”

Benson noted TSD has had seven state champions in its history and all of them are in track and field.

Chavez took the lead at the start of the 3200 race and led KIL champion Timothy Thacker of Grace Christian Academy by eight meters after the first lap. Duhamel was in third.

Gashaw had moved into second place ahead of Thacker by the end of lap No. 2. It was still the same 1-2-3 runners after three laps, but Chavez had increased his lead to 15 meters.

Thacker moved up alongside Duhamel by the halfway point of the race, with Sullivan East standout Luke Meade looking strong as he moved up to fourth.

Meade, surprisingly, dropped out of the race in the fifth lap. A teammate of his reportedly said he had had the flu and his back had been hurting. Earlier in the meet, he had won the 1600 and was a close second in the 800.

Chavis continued to lead and Duhamel moved to second with Thacker dropping back in third during the sixth and seventh laps.

On the final lap, Gashaw started sprinting and was closing the gap considerably down the stretch. As spectators reacted to the exciting finish, Chavis twice looked back over his shoulder to check the competition.

Chavis finished the race in 9 minutes, 40.19 seconds. Duhamel came in at 9:41.01, less than a second back.

“Today was not to win, just to qualify for state,” said Duhamel, with Coach Cooper serving as interpreter for my post-race interview with Gashaw. “That was my goal today. I’m happy to qualify for state and hope to do better (this) week.”

What are your feelings about signing with Tennessee?

“I’m proud that I accomplished that,” said Duhamel, who has a 3.87 GPA. “I hope coaches in college will help me improve even more.”