What can you say about a 16-year-old girl who is a track star?
That she loves running, competing, winning. And, in the case of Linda Portasik of Alexandria's Fort Hunt High School, much more.
"She's a fantastic young lady with a beautiful personality," says Andy Tisinger who coaches Portasik and about 50 other girls on Fort Hunt's girls track team. "She's very coachable. She doesn't argue about what I want her to do; there's never any moaning or groaning. She works hard, and in the long run that will be the measure of her success."
To date, the formula of coaching and self-discipline has worked remarkably well. In Portasik's two high school seasons she has run the 80-yard hurdles, the 100-yard dash, and the 220 and 440-yard runs. In weekly or bi-weekly high school dual meets, she has never been beaten.
As a freshman, Portasik set the Virginia state record in the 440. Last season, as a sophomore, she broke her record.
Last spring, running in the Dogwood Invitational in Charlottesville, Portasik tied a national record for high school students by running the 80-yard hurdles in 10.2 seconds. In regional competition against runners from all other Fairfax County schools, Portasik set records in the 220 and 440.
Two weeks ago in the East Coast Invitationals at Fort Meade, Md., Portasik set a meet record in the 880 with a time of 2:12.8. It was the first time she had ever run the 880 in competition and only the second occasion she had been timed in the event, running it in 2:17 during practice prior to the meet.
In the same meet, she finished 1.1 seconds behind the national champion in the 440 with a time of 55 seconds flat.
Clearly, Portasik is a natural. A running machine. A young woman with her eye on track scholarships and the Olympics.
"I have to get a lot better," Portasik says. There is no sign of a grin when she says it. No false modesty. Linda Portasik is just being honest with herself and others; she wouldn't have it any other way.
"The Olympics are way in the back of my mind," she says. "I mean, you need something like 52 (seconds) in the 440 just to qualify. I just like to take things day by day."
As far as college is concerned, Portasik, a straight-A student, is equally down-to-earth.
"I don't want to go to a college too far away from the area," she says. And what if one of those big-time track schools out West makes an offer? Portasik regards the question quizzically. "I haven't really thought about going to a track school."
Tisinger is reticent to discuss Portasik's potential as a runner. "There are too many unknowns in track," he says. "When people start to look ahead with some kind of passion, they fail to concentrate on today. She really does have a lot of learning to do.
"She has to learn to not rotate her arms - to run with them pumping straight down the track. When she rotates, it causes her legs to cross in back of her which can cost her seconds."
Another key to Portasik's future, Tisinger says, is her strength. She is five feet, eight inches tall and thin, and Tisinger has her on a weight training program to develop her strength. "She was invited to run against a German team in Delaware," Tisinger says. "But they wanted to have an answer in two weeks and it would have interfered with her weight training, so we turned it down."
Tisinger believes Portasik should take things slowly and not be immersed in competition. "The important thing for kids at her age is that they enjoy what they're doing."
Portasik admits she has always enjoyed running but says she didn't get serious about it until she went out for the track team as a freshman.
"I had heard from other girls that the team was supposed to be pretty fun," she says. "My phys. ed. teachers told me to go out for the team, but I had no idea things would turn out as well as they have." She admits, after some prodding. "Well, yeah, I generally won most of the events in P.E. class."
Portasik's low-key approach to success her high-pitched voice and her blond pig tails belie her competitiveness.
"When we have meets after school," Portasik says, "it's hard to concentrate on classes. I think about the races a lot. And my parents never say much to me before a meet, because I get real nervous and quiet. I used to worry a lot at meets that the girls I was running against looked too good, but I don't worry about that any more. I figure I can only do my best against them."
Portasik attributes her major disappointment to date to a breakdown in confidence which she vows will not happen again. "I false started twice in the Junior Olympic regionals in Lynchberg," she recalls. "It was in the 440, and if I had won I would have qualified for the national Junior Olympics (to be held Aug. 14). The false starts disqualified me. I was really disappointed in myself, and I told myself I'd never lose my confidence again."
In keeping with her character, there are no showy displays of Portasik's success around her house. Instead, she keeps her awards in the privacy of her bedroom, and it is only out of politeness that she shows them to a visitor. One complete wall of Portasik's room glistens with trophies, ribbons, pins and medals.
Portasik is even reluctant to admit she is somewhat of a celebrity in her neighborhood, saying that her neighbors are "real nice but I'd hate for them to think I'm getting cocky." But when asked if she carries any good luck charms, she mentions a gold four-leaf clover necklace she carries in her sweatsuit before a race. What makes it special?
"Well," she says, "my neighbors gave it to me."
At times, Linda Portasik seems almost apologetic about her success. But for her, winning means never having to say she's sorry.