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York Suburban grad overcomes doubts, leaves behind impressive track-and-field legacy at West Chester

Madison James competes in the high jump during a heptathlon competition for West Chester University.
Madison James

“If at first you don't succeed, then dust yourself off and try again.”

Isn’t that how the famous Aaliyah song goes?

Well, it was the type of message that West Chester University heptathlon and pentathlon competitor Madison James took to heart during her stay at the university.

The York Suburban High School graduate won three Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference gold medals during her recently completed collegiate career. She had two outdoor heptathlon titles and one indoor pentathlon crown. She swept both PSAC crowns this past season.

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James, however, wasn’t an immediate success. At first, she came in dead last and failed to make it to the PSAC finals. She doubted whether she could ever become a top-level athlete in the multi-discipline events. Thanks to a strong work ethic and help from her coaches, James became one of the best athletes in program history.

“I really questioned myself,” she said. “I worked through that season.... I had experienced that failure. I knew I worked for everything I had gotten. I wasn’t afraid of failure. Failure is kind of inevitable. Success doesn’t come easy. It was bizarre being ranked first [the next year]. But I embraced that. I knew that I was ready for whatever was required. I worked harder and did my best.”

Learning process: The heptathlon and pentathlon are not high school events, so James had to learn them in college.

James recently graduated with her master’s degree in biology and will start a pre-med program in the fall. Her efforts in the classroom recently earned her Academic All-District Two honors from the College Sports Information Directors of America.

It’s the memories of her competitive days, however, that she will never forget. James said she is more than happy with the success she had while in college.

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“I accomplished everything I wanted and more,” she said. “I had more success than I could have imagined. So many memories. So many great people and relationships I built.”

She was especially grateful to her coaches and her family.

“They always believed,” she said.

The events: The women’s collegiate outdoor heptathlon consists of the 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, long jump, javelin throw and 800-meter run, spaced over two days.

The indoor pentathlon consists of the high jump, 60-meter hurdles, shot put, long jump and 800-meter run. In this past indoor season, after winning the PSAC pentathlon crown, James qualified for the NCAA Division II Championships, finishing 12th and earning second-team All-America status.

James knew when she was in high school she wanted to be a heptathlon athlete after seeing the event in the 2016 Olympics. She went to her high school track coach and asked to be in more events.

Once only a high jumper, she added the sprints, long jump, javelin and hurdles her senior year at Suburban.

She wasn’t sure where she would go to college but felt comfortable at West Chester after the coach told her she had the “right build and work ethic.” West Chester’s biology/medical program would be the final factor. James found a home where she could play college sports.

Mental challenge: It didn’t take long for James to realize the sport was more than just being physically ready.

“It’s every bit as mental,” she said. “You have to be ready for the next challenge. You have to be ready for the next event. You only have 30 minutes in between events. If one doesn’t go well, you have to put it in a box and move along.”

She got better year after year and worked hard at her craft.

“My favorite event was the high jump,” she said. “I had been doing it for the longest. The hurdles were a close second. Wasn’t one of my stronger events. I struggled with it. Wasn’t naturally good at it. Had to work at my success. I put in the hours at practice.”

Record-breaker: She posted a heptathlon score of 4,919 points this season at the PSAC meet, which was a personal best and facility record at Millersville. It was also the second-best mark in program history and allowed her to finish her career in a strong manner.

“It was so cool knowing it afterwards,” she said about the record. “I wasn’t aiming for it. I had posted the second-best score. The freshman that thought she would never make PSACs. It was great remembering what I had to work through.”

James said one thing she won’t miss is waking up the day after a heptathlon feeling like a bus hit her.

Experiences she'll never forget: The experiences, however, will stick with her forever.

“I will miss the relationships I had with people,” she said. “… The adrenaline and competition. I will miss my coach. Being able to compete with other girls. I’m going to miss that. With the multi, you spend days together. I’m going to miss the girls. I made some incredible friends from other teams.”

James made a name for herself at West Chester that will not soon be forgotten and lived experiences that she had dreamed of for years.

One experience, in particular, stands out.

“My first PSAC title I won, last spring,” she said. “I remember so vividly. Having the coach put the medal around my neck was surreal. Never thought I would get a gold medal. Never thought I would reach that level. My coach and family who had believed in me were there and it was an incredible moment. They said my name and score and I was thinking this is a dream. Seconds felt like minutes. Probably the happiest I had ever been.”

Reach Dante Green at or on Twitter at @TaySean14.