After escaping death, a hurricane refugee strikes gold for NJ high school track team

Photo: Peter Ackerman/Asbury Park Press

After escaping death, a hurricane refugee strikes gold for NJ high school track team

Boys Track and Field

After escaping death, a hurricane refugee strikes gold for NJ high school track team

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HOWELL — First, the windows blew out. All of them. Then the front door flew off. Then Hurricane Maria’s 150-mile-and-hour gusts started sucking everything out of the house, and Felix Lawrence knew he was in trouble.

“In order to survive I had to jump into another room,” he said. “I thought I was going to die, to be honest. I don’t know why I’m still here.”

Lawrence, who was 16 at the time, scrambled to the relative safety of a bedroom as his family’s living room practically imploded. That was in September of 2017 on his home island of Dominica, in the Caribbean.

Less than two years later, overcoming ordinary hurdles seems easy. And that’s what Lawrence does with great skill as a senior on Freehold Township High School (N.J.)’s boys track team. This weekend Lawrence dominated the competition at the NJSIAA sectionals, sweeping the 400-meter hurdles and 110-meter hurdles to lead the Patriots to third place overall in Central Group IV. He also anchored the 4×400 to second place amid a loaded field at Howell High School.

“His story is pretty incredible,” Freehold Township track coach Brian Golub said. “His entire life was in shambles. He has every reason to be mad at the world, and he is one of the nicest kids I’ve ever been around.”

As his country lay devastated from the storm, Lawrence, who is a U.S. citizen because he was born in Puerto Rico, had an opportunity to evacuate to America. He took it, moving to New Jersey to live with an aunt. Because Dominica’s phone service got knocked out, he said, his mother trekked 15 minutes to a mountaintop to inform the aunt he was coming. It’s the only place she could get a cellular signal.

“All the telephone poles were destroyed,” he said.

Lawrence enrolled at Freehold Township High in the middle of last school year and tried out for the basketball team. He made JV. Golub, who coaches varsity hoops, noticed his athleticism.

“I said, ‘Try track with me,’” Golub recalled. “He’s one of the hardest working kids I’ve ever coached. After practice he sticks around and works on his technique. He hates to lose.”

Freehold Township’s Felix Lawrence (right) hands off to Tyler Kelly for the anchor leg of the Central Group IV 4×400. The Patriots placed second. (Photo: Peter Ackerman/Asbury Park Press)

After a strong debut last spring — 55 seconds in the 400 hurdles and 15.5 in the highs — Lawrence dropped basketball to run track full time.

“I was never interested in track,” he said. “I thought I was a basketball guy. Now I’m focusing on it and my coach is giving me lots of good tips.”

Turns out, he’s a natural. Lawrence won Friday’s 400 hurdles in 54.06, a bit slower than his personal record of 53.63. Then he struck gold in Saturday morning’s 110 hurdles in 14.33, comfortably ahead of runner-up Malcolm Yarber of South Brunswick (14.51).

In Saturday afternoon’s 4×400, Lawrence turned in a swift third-leg split of 48.4 as the Patriots clocked 3:20.69.

“It feels pretty good, that the hard work is paying off,” he said.

Lawrence’s triple highlighted a strong team effort by Freehold Township, which finished just eight points behind sectional champion Franklin. Andrew Colbert and Zach Glasser placed first and third in the high jump (6-5 and 6-4, respectively). Tyler Kelly took fourth in the 800 (1:56.56) and anchored the 4×400 in 48.5. Nick Lundberg placed third in the 3200 (9:28) and fourth in the 1600 (4:23). The 4×800 placed second (8:00).

“I’m very proud of the whole program his weekend,” Golub said.

Next up is the NJSIAA Group IV championship at Franklin High School Friday and Saturday.

“I’m going for No. 1 in both (hurdles),” Lawrence said.

No matter what happens, his track career will continue at Liberty University in the fall — the next chapter in an amazing story.

“I love track,” he said. “I love the competition and the people I’ve met. I’ve met a lot of good people who have contributed to my success.”

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After escaping death, a hurricane refugee strikes gold for NJ high school track team
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