Emily Troelstra made an important realization about a year ago. After two-and-a-half years of running for Staples High's girls indoor and outdoor track and field teams, the then-junior had established herself as a promising, if-not-yet elite competitor in the 4x100 meters, 200 meters and 300-meter hurdles events. But she reasoned that if she focused more on the latter event that she could soon distance herself from the pack.
"I definitely wanted to find one event that I would really like and that I could continue in college," Troelstra said. "I knew that would be the 300-meter hurdles -- that was definitely where I wanted to be."
After setting that objective, Troelstra logged long hours on the track, often on her own, to refine her hurdling form.
That diligence has paid off.
Now a senior, Troelstra, 17, has vaulted during the last year into the top echelon of high school runners in the state. That dramatic rise has not gone unnoticed. On Feb. 15, she signed a National Letter of Intent to run for the U.S. Naval Academy, whose Division-I women's track and field team competes in the Patriot League. Although she was recruited by more than two dozen colleges, a visit last fall to the Navy campus in Annapolis, Md. sealed her commitment.
"There's such a great camaraderie around all the students," she said. "All the students respect one another. They're always helping each other with homework and all trying to get the work done and trying to get in as much physical training as they can."
Troelstra's recruitment by the Naval Academy was largely predicated on her breakout junior outdoor season last year. During that campaign, Troelstra's improved technique allowed the 5-foot-8 hurdler to take advantage of her long strides to dominate opponents. At the FCIAC championship on May 22, she captured the 300-meter hurdles title with a 46.00 performance, a commanding time that was more than half a second faster than the runner-up's finish.
Her torrid form continued a week later. Smashing her previous personal best, Troelstra recorded a 45.27 finish in the 300 hurdles to claim a LL state title. By that point, she had shaved a massive eight seconds off the 53-second finishes she averaged as a sophomore in the 300 hurdles.
"In that outdoor season, she just really exploded on the scene," said Jesse McCray, head coach of Staples' girls indoor and outdoor track teams. "She was probably one of the top hurdlers in Connecticut. Things just really clicked for her."
During the 2013 indoor track season, Troelstra has solidified her position as one of the elite runners in the state. She was a member of relay teams that set school records in the 4x200 meters and 4x240 meters. Those performances propelled her to a place on the All-FCIAC first team.
As she prepares for her final outdoor track season at Staples, she aims to break into the 43-second range in the 300 hurdles. She also plans to run the 400 meters, 4x400 meters and possibly 100-meter hurdles.
In a few months, Troelstra will begin her career as a midshipman. She will enter an environment that differs drastically from civilian universities. She will not celebrate her arrival on campus by attending a series of parties before the start of classes; instead, she will negotiate a grueling seven-week summer training program known as "Plebe Summer."
"She's very focused, very hard-working, and a strong young lady, both physically and mentally," said Jim "Johnnieee" Carrier, a Naval Academy Blue and Gold information officer, who has advised Troelstra since her recruitment last year by the service academy. "I think she's absolutely going to thrive in that environment."
Troelstra will face other circumstances that starkly contrast many civilian schools. Male midshipmen greatly outnumber female midshipmen; for instance, women comprise only 24 percent of Navy's class of 2016. But Troelstra is not worried about that gender ratio.
"Although there are fewer women than men, you don't feel like the men are trying to overtake the women," she said. "Women still have power. A lot of them have to lead a group of men in physical training or in a class setting."
On the track, Troelstra will have to adjust to a higher level of competition. She will run in 400-meter-hurdles events, a 33 percent increase in distance compared to her races in the 300 hurdles.
Troelstra, nonetheless, aims to make a fast start out of the blocks as a Patriot League runner. In addition to the 400 hurdles, she hopes to compete in the 4x400 meters and possibly the 100-meter hurdles. She may also be helped by having far fewer distractions than many of her civilian-school track competitors. Underclassmen at the Naval Academy cannot often venture off-campus for recreational purposes.
"We always joke about it being like jail in the sense that you're not allowed to leave," said Sean Gallagher, a second-year midshipman and varsity soccer player at Navy, and a 2011 graduate of Staples. "I think what it really does is just make you work harder because you're stuck on the campus. There's not much else to do but to work out or to do your homework. It's a good atmosphere for producing people who are trying to better themselves."
Cognizant of the highly structured daily routine that awaits her, Troelstra said she will embrace that lifestyle. When she is not running, she looks forward to taking on a demanding course load. After studying Mandarin for four years at Staples, she intends to major in Chinese.
"Compared to when I talk to my friends about their normal colleges, definitely there's a strictness there at the Naval Academy," Troelstra added. "But I've always been very timely. I'm looking forward to it, because I like different. I think going there will be a good change for me."
email@example.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com/paulschott