The pole vault is not for the faint of heart.

A level of fearlessness is certainly required to sprint down a runway, pole in hand, jab said pole into the ground and fling yourself over a bar that is sometimes 13 feet in the air.

Delsea senior Ashley Preston, a former gymnastics star, hadn't a clue when her track coach, Linda Marchese, suggested she compete in the event during Preston's freshman year.

"I had no idea what it was," she said, smiling. "I was like, 'Oh, you get a pole, stick it somewhere in the ground and you go over a bar!'"

Even though she nearly failed to clear the first height Thursday in her Penn Relays debut, Preston, who will compete at Villanova next year, finished second (12 feet, 7.5 inches), just months after a practice mishap split her face open.

"I've tried to kill myself so many times in this event," Preston said, jokingly.

The size and strength of this one's heart, however, is not in question.

Preston is just 5 feet tall. Her early years were spent in gymnastics, where she competed in the all-around. In the USA Junior Olympics national program, level 10 is the highest, said Preston, who said she reached level 8 status.

But in a freak accident during a practice session, Preston broke both of her ankles when she was 12 years old. She eventually returned, but soon she realized she didn't want gymnastics to consume her life.

Instead, the pole vault became her passion.

"Once I started jumping I was like, 'This is fun,' and I got addicted to it," she said.

Less fun were Thursday's nerves, which, combined with an inability to get loose after her warm-up, conspired to thwart her first two jumps on the opening height.

But it takes a lot to stop Preston. During a practice session about two months ago, she fell on the bar, which ricocheted off her body and into her face, splitting her nose open and requiring stitches right between her eyes.

"This feels great because I started off really rocky," she said. "I thought I was going to no-height, and I just composed myself and got it together, so to get second is a big deal for me."

She added: "I wasn't really expecting to get second at all. I was just trying to get top 5 and that's it."

Alana Carroll of Averill Park, N.Y., won the event at 12-11 1/2.

Davies double take

When Thelma Davies burst onto the track scene as a freshman at Girard College, her name rang out across the city.

Davies set PIAA records in the 100 and 200 meters in ninth grade and again won championships in both last year.

Thursday, after Davies competed for the first time at the Relays, a fellow competitor from Bartram, mouth agape, appeared starstruck as Davies walked past inside Franklin Field's concourse.

The event's public address announcer even twice made onlookers aware of Davies' presence.

In its first time completing a 4×100 race, the Cavaliers team of Davies (anchor), Amaya Williams, Ebony Williams-Parris and Margaret Conteh won its heat with a time of 50.40 seconds, narrowly missing entry into Friday's Tri-State race.

Tenacious teammate

With a teammate like Emily Wallace, the Collingswood girls' 4×800 relay team has nothing to fear.

Wallace, a sophomore, got her group the lead in the South Jersey small schools relay and then wearily wobbled to the side where racers are herded and quickly encouraged to leave the area.

Instead of leaving, Wallace, gasping for breath, still cheered on her teammates and eventually let loose a guttural "Get out of the way!" when a photographer poorly timed his attempt to cross the track.

The Panthers team of Wallace, Taylor Perkowski, Dash Cruz, Samantha Hamrick finished with a personal-best time of 4 minutes, 1.66 seconds.

Wallace started slowly, for good reason, before a furious first-place finish.

"I actually didn't hear the ref dude say 'On your mark,'" she said, smiling. "I heard the gun, so I was like, 'Oh, my God!'"

Cruz and Hamrick are first-timers at the Relays, while Perkowski, who will play soccer at Penn State-Abington, finished her third installment in style.

"I've never won before, so this is 10 times better than any other Penn Relays," she said.

Saints march on

Neumann-Goretti sophomore Kami Joi Hickson did her best to will teammate Dasia Wilson to the finish line in the 4×800 relay.

"These are my girls and I like to do everything that I can to support them, because I know they have my back so I have theirs," Hickson said.

The Saints won their heat at 9:09.54 and qualified for Friday's championship despite not having senior standout and Pittsburgh commit Sydni Townsend, who finished seventh in the 400 hurdles championship that occurred a few minutes before her team's relay. Townsend will, however, compete in Friday's finale.