Jesse Labreck is the best female athlete in the state of Maine. Her coach at the University of Maine says it’s so. Mark Lech points to her place in the university record book.
The man who recruited her believes it’s true and goes one step further. Dave Cusano thinks Labreck may be the best female athlete in any sport at Maine. If not the best, one of the best. Ever.
One problem. She isn’t buying what they’re selling.
“I’m not sure you should write that,” said Labreck, a senior pentathlete at Maine. “What will people think? That I have a big head? I don’t. How can you compare me?”
The woman with the modest ego that’s paired with immense talent is about to begin her final collegiate indoor season.
Maine opens with a meet at the University of New Hampshire this Friday and Saturday. This is her winter to put herself in the big picture, among the elite of America’s multi-event athletes.
Physically, she feels great. Mentally, she’s trying not to panic. Mononucleosis sidelined her for all but one meet her freshman year. She should have gotten a medical waiver but somehow the paperwork wasn’t done by Maine at the time.
“What should have been a no-brainer has to go through an appeal (to the NCAA),” said Lech. He is optimistic but as of Tuesday there still has been no resolution.
“It’s a little scary,” said Labreck. “This was my indoor season to get my name out there for sponsors (after she graduates).
“I’ll still compete in open meets as an unattached athlete, but I want to compete for Maine.”
She has spent the past 12 months training for the pentathlon, which consists of the 60-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, long jump and 800-meter run. Times, heights and distance earn points based on a universal table.
Labreck has scored 3,959 points, breaking a 15-year Maine record by more than 400 points, a phenomenal jump. She missed qualifying for the NCAA championships by five points.
She holds the high jump and hurdles records at Maine, and is second in the long jump and triple jump to Viktoriya Rybalko, a two-time Olympian for her native Ukraine. Rybalko has returned to Maine and is an assistant coach, working with Labreck.
Lech says her “evolution” as an elite pentathlete is on track.
But if she doesn’t see herself among the best, how can she put herself in that group? That is the paradox that is Labreck.
“It’s all about finding your super-hero,” said Cusano, a former Maine defensive back in football and later an assistant track coach. He’s now the head track coach at Wheaton College near Boston.
“She’s so sweet and kind-hearted. She’s Clark Kent. She needs to believe she can go into the phone booth and come out as Superman.” Or Superwoman.
Labreck grew up in Oakland, near Waterville. As a sophomore at Messalonskee High, her talent became evident to her coach, Scott Wilson.
“She hurt herself in practice,” Wilson told the Portland Press Herald in 2008. “She scraped up the entire side of her body. We’re picking pieces of the track out of her and I just thought, oh my God, I just killed Jesse Labreck.”
Two years later she was named the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram Female Athlete of the Year.
“Stats speak for themselves,” said Cusano. “They’re the first thing that get you noticed. It’s your character that gets you sold. She was talented, humble, and competed at an extremely high level.”
Cusano, a native of Connecticut, convinced her to commit to Maine.
In 2010, she was entered in individual events to maximize her ability to score points for the team. At the America East outdoor championships she won five events. No other competitor could match that. She led Maine to a runner-up finish.
At the national level, Labreck has competed twice in the hurdles against Olympian Lolo Jones.
They were in different heats once and Jones asked if she could use Labreck’s starting blocks. Labreck was awestruck. Sure, she said. Anything else I can do for you?
The two did run head-to-head at another national meet at Louisiana State. “She’s my hero,” said Labreck, laughing. “I didn’t finish last. I think another girl fell.”
She hasn’t tapped the super-hero in her. Yet. She could or should add swagger to her competitive inner self but hasn’t. Yet.
“Being a multievent athlete has its highs and lows,” said Labreck. She never ran the 800 meters before. Shot put? That was new to her, too.
After so many first places in the jumps and hurdles she felt the sting of finishing last in the other events. The modest athlete didn’t really need more lessons in humility. Which is why she’ll persevere.
Best athlete in Maine?
“Just as in the Olympics, the decathlon gold medal winner is called the greatest athlete in the world,” said Lech. Jesse Labreck just needs to find her phone booth.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: