Over the summer of 2000, Ty Jensen transformed himself from a contender into a champion. In the process, the Marlboro High School senior had one of the greatest seasons in Freehold Regional District history, putting his name alongside the likes of Manalapan’s Tom Fischer and Marlboro’s Guy Emmons.
For his championship season that culminated in the Meet of Champions 1,600 -meter title, Jensen is the News Transcript’s 2001 Senior Male Athlete of the Year.
"This was my greatest season in high school in cross country and track," he said. "I did everything I wanted to do."
Jensen, who will continue his running at Brigham Young University, used disappointment as his motivation. It all began last June in his junior season when he failed to qualify for the Meet of Champions. The MOC had looked like a cinch based on the way he was running throughout the season in the 1,600 leading up to the Group IV championships. But an 11th place there sidelined him, and he didn’t take it lightly.
"The spring track season made me so mad," Jensen explained. "I took two weeks off and then started training for the cross country season. I didn’t run more miles than in the past (40-45 a week), but I was more dedicated, I never missed a day, and I worked harder."
Jensen also enjoyed the benefits of training at high altitude for the first time. He spent most of the summer with his sister Kariesa (a champion runner herself for Marlboro), who lives in Pinedale, Wyo., where the altitude is 7,000 feet. The thin air bothered him at first, but he ran through it and would discover the benefits back in Marlboro.
"When I returned to my home and started running, I couldn’t believe how much easier it was," he pointed out.
However, it was more than the high altitude that had changed Jensen.
"I had a different mind-set," Jensen pointed out. "I had been going into races thinking about finishing in the top-this or top-that place. I decided I shouldn’t be thinking about placing. I was good enough to think about winning."
At the first race of the cross country season, the Battle of Monmouth at Battlefield State Park in Manalapan, Jensen fired his first salvo. A senior division course record 16:21.5 opened up more than a few eyes.
Everyone had to take him seriously after his spectacular 15:56.4 at Holmdel Park the first weekend of October when he won the Shore Coaches A Division race and ran the fastest time of the day. It’s a time that put him among the 20 fastest ever on the hilly course that has become cross country’s crucible. The winning time tied him for fifth all-time in the Shore, and he became only the second runner from the Freehold District to get under 16:00 (trailing Fischer’s 15:41).
Jensen would go on to win the Freehold District, Monmouth County, Shore Conference and Central Jersey Group IV titles, all for the first time. He was now the runner to beat in the state.
The season, however, would end unfulfilled with an eighth place in Group IV and a 12th at the Meet of Champions. Still he was a First Team All-State selection, and despite the last two weeks, he had beaten the state’s best and proved to himself that he shouldn’t be running for place, but for first place.
Jensen had also come to another decision during the summer of 2000.
"The 1,600 was the best race for me, the one I felt better running," he remarked. "The mile was the only race I was going to be serious about.
"I ran a 9:59 for the 3,200 as a freshman, but by the end of my sophomore year, I thought the 1,600 was best."
The cross country campaign was just a prelude for the spring track season that was unbelievable. He wouldn’t lose a race at the 1,600, and he lowered his school record to 4:12.18, which held up as the fastest in the state. Jensen, though, wanted to be more than the fastest. He wanted to be the best and would again have to prove the naysayers because he didn’t run indoor track; he was putting up three pointers for the basketball team instead.
"You do lose a lot, but I don’t think that it’s a big deal," Jensen pointed out. "I’ve always been able to come back.
"I like the mental break," he added. "There’s no pressure at all in basketball; it’s a team game. In running you’re constantly under pressure at the big meets. I just like playing basketball, I always have."
Purists said that he would lose too much by not running indoors. They would be proven wrong.
"The first speed workout of the spring season I ran eight 400s with a 200-meter break," Jensen explained. "I hit the first six between 61 and 62 seconds and ran that last two in 64 and 60. I knew then that I could run a 4:08 or 4:10 mile and that was the goal."
Some very quick times running relay legs confirmed that Jensen was ready. At the Freehold District Championships he was the Most Outstanding Track Performer leading Marlboro to the title. He broke Fischer’s 19-year-old meet record 4:23.4 with a 4:18.6 1,600 and came back to take the 3,200 as well.
After winning the 1,600 at the Monmouth County championships, Jensen raced his most dangerous foe, Christian Brothers Academy’s Nat Glackin (the MOC indoor and outdoor 800-meter winner) at the Shore Conference Championships, producing one of his finest moments. Jensen was able to pull away from the speedy Glackin over the final 400 meters, running his PB 4:12.18. That race, more than anything, convinced him that the state championship was within his grasp.
"All along I thought I could win it, but after beating Glackin, I thought that I should win it," he recalled. "But I had to prove it."
And he would.
He would use the cross country disappointment to fuel his drive and answer his doubters.
Despite his success, there were still some doubters who pointed to the finish of his cross country season and thought he had peaked too soon again running that 4:12.18 early in the season. Oh, how wrong they were.
Jensen erased the memory of the Group IV cross country race, cruising to a 4:16.62 win.
"This is a new season but it felt so good to get that championship back," he said. "It means a lot to be a state champion."
One redemption down and one to go, the Meet of Champions, June 6 at South Brunswick High School.
Among those in attendance at South Brunswick was Guy Emmons, the first and last Marlboro distance runner to win an MOC title. Emmons, who won the one-mile in the still standing record time of 4:11.5 at the 1978 MOC, was making his first trip to the meet since he won it. He had met Jensen the week before and quickly became a fan.
Like he had all year, Jensen ran the MOC race from the front. He received unexpected challenges from underclassmen Jeremy Zagorski of Parsippany Hills (a freshman) and John Richardson of Ocean City (a sophomore). But when it came time to get serious, with his season-long quest on the line, Jensen stepped on the accelerator and put the race away with another blistering closing 400 meters that brought him to the line first in 4:13.4.
"I can leave high school knowing that I did the best I could," he said afterward. "This is the biggest race, and I’d be missing something if I hadn’t won it. I’ve now won everything that you can possibly win."
There would be one race remaining, the Adidas Nationals at Raleigh, N.C.
"Every race I went out to win, and I took that confidence to the nationals," he pointed out.
Jensen would run the full mile in personal best 4:12.54 and finish in fourth place earning All-American honors.
"Before the season, I didn’t think I had a chance to finish in the top six at the nationals," he noted.
Through his ups-and-downs, Jensen credited two people for keeping his confidence up, his father, Wayne Jensen, a former college runner, and his Marlboro cross country and track coach, John Kuras.
"A big part of my success came from my dad," he said. "We’d talk about running and racing and that always helped. He always had faith in me.
"Coach Kuras is a great high school coach," he added. "He always had confidence in me, always was supportive and told me that I could do it."
Jensen rewarded their confidence in him by becoming a state champion and All-American.