The wake-up call for Tanner Riddle came after his sophomore year. The North Forsyth track and field athlete had caught the eye of a Junior Olympic coach who convinced him to compete over the summer. At local meets, Riddle thrived, enough that he qualified for Nationals.
Riddle figured he’d reached his ceiling. He recalls now looking around at the other athletes and seeing hurdlers and jumpers with more impressive physiques and more intimating demeanors.
"They just looked dominant," Riddle said.
And yet, beyond all of Riddle’s expectations, he placed sixth in the hurdles.
"It blew my mind," he said.
It was the turning point that turned Riddle into arguably the best all-around track and field athlete in Forsyth County and a valuable commodity to college programs interested in those with versatility like Riddle’s.
Consider last week’s Region 6-AAAAAA championships. Riddle competed in the 110-meter hurdles, high jump and pole vault. He won the hurdles and the high jump, qualifying for the Class AAAAAA East Sectionals at McEachern High School tomorrow for a chance to reach the state meet May 8-10 in Jefferson, Ga.
Or how about the Forsyth County Track and Field Championships two weeks ago where he won the 110 and 300 hurdles, finished second in the high jump and anchored the Raiders’ first-place 400 relay team.
"Tanner is the type of kid where we could put him in anything and he would excel," North head coach Neal Matheson said. "…He’s just a naturally talented kid."
Riddle made no sense to Matheson when they first met. The youngest of four boys, this was the one that was supposed to have been coddled to the point of apathy, or so the stereotypes taught Matheson.
Instead, he found Riddle determined and subdued, unfazed by marquee track meets or impressive competitors.
"He’s like that surfer dude," Matheson said. "He could be stressed, or there could be anxiety in his life, but you’d never know it. He’s just laid back."
Riddle also was remarkably adaptable. He came into North’s program specializing in the hurdles and high jump. Those remain his strongest events. But along the way Riddle tried the discus and throws. Matheson said he’s certain Riddle would’ve made a strong long and triple jumper. Just this season, Riddle took up the pole vault.
"I typically don’t need to do a lot of coaching with him," Matheson said. "You just introduce something to him and it’s a competitive spark."
Riddle always had his eye on being a decathlete, those who compete in four running, three jumping and three throwing events. In the Olympics, the winner of the decathlon is often given the title of "World’s Greatest Athlete."
But it wasn’t until Riddle cleared 6 feet 9 inches in the high jump at the Panther Invitational at Parkview on Feb. 22 that the possibility emerged. Suddenly, he started hearing from coaches at East Tennessee State and Kennesaw State. Matheson said the University of Tennessee came to another meet at Parkview later in the season just to watch Riddle.
"It’s coming all at once," Riddle said. "I actually don’t know what to think about it. It’s cool, but you almost don’t want to let it get to you."
He did for a meet or two, Riddle said. He pressed, thinking any mistake could jeopardize his chance to compete in college.
"That’s now how you should go into it," Riddle said. "You’ve got to have fun."
The fun has returned for Riddle. He said he loves the feeling of flying in the pole vault, even relishes the spills. He loves the rush and technique required in the 110 hurdles. He loves where all this is going, even if you can’t tell it on his face.
"I don’t think he psyches himself out," Matheson said. "He knows what he’s capable of. He seems to just stay relaxed and competes without a lot of pressure."