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Hughesville’s Mark Heckel has dedicated years to track and field

PHOTO PROVIDED Mark Heckel (right), a Hughesville resident and Lock Haven High School graduate, has dedicated years to the sport of track and field both as a competitor and an official.

Mark Heckel was in Charlotte, N.C., competing at the USATF Masters Outdoor Championships, but he wasn’t doing as well as he wanted to. He shared his frustrations with a 102-year-old hammer thrower.

The gentleman looked Heckel square in the eye.

“‘What are you going to do about it? You gonna whine or you gonna do something?’ It was like, I just got called out by a guy who’s 102,” Heckel said. “So, I guess I better do something about it.”

Heckel, 62, has done a lot.

A current Hughesville resident and Lock Haven High School graduate, Heckel has spent a lifetime of service — albeit not 100 years of service — to track and field competition as both a competitor and official.

Having spent 25 years as a PIAA District 4 championships meet director, as well as 20 years as a registered official for the PIAA, the culmination of Heckel’s efforts have reached a new height.

Ahead of the 2022 USATF Outdoor Championships, as well as the World Athletics Championships, both in Eugene, Ore. this summer, Heckel was selected to be the chief electronic measurement judge for the annual and biennial events.

It won’t be Heckel’s first time in Eugene, either. He previously worked at last year’s Olympic Team Trials as the chief of electronic measurement. Heckel also held the same duties in 2008 at the same venue and in 2004 in Sacramento, Calif.

Heckel also worked the horizontal jumps in the 1992 New Orleans trials along with electronic measurement in Eugene in 2016.

“The facility is, you can’t even describe it. It’s just beyond — it’s the finest athletic facility in the world, period,” Heckel said on the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field, noting such aspects as the 5,080 square-foot video board, barbershop and sauna.

A group of selected officials, administrators and those appointed by USATF president Vin Lananna make up the selection committee for appointing officials, along with representatives of the local organizing committee from Eugene. The selection committee meets in December to review applications and go over recommendations and evaluations of those officials.

They then decide who will work which events based on the preferences that the individual officials list. The committee sits down at a table for two days — or in the case of the past two years, virtually — to review the qualifications of each candidate.

As a clerk for the selection committee, Heckel prepares those lists and collects data, prepares everything for the community and reports who’s selected and for what.

So, what are some of Heckel’s other qualifications that garnered the prestigious officiating honor?

Three US Olympic Festivals, two NCAA Division III Indoor Championships as a referee and an NCAA Division I Outdoor Championship as chief of electronic measurement. Not to mention 12 USATF Outdoor Championships, five Indoor, five U20 Championships and 30 University of Pennsylvania Relay Carnivals.

A 1977 Lock Haven High School grad and three-year letterwinner in both track and field and wrestling, Heckel went on to be coached by the late Penn State coach Harry Groves.

Groves, who helmed the Nittany Lions from 1968-2006, earned the National Coach of the Year award five times, Regional Coach of the Year 26 times and was inducted into the USTFCCCA Hall of Fame in 2001.

“Harry knew the sport as well as anyone I’ve ever encountered,” Heckel said.

Gary Schwartz was Heckel’s throws coach at Penn State. Between he and Groves, the two poured the love of the sport into Heckel. From college walk-on to four-year letterwinner, Heckel credited his two mentors for instilling a fiery passion that he’s since carried decades later.

“They were both very instrumental in getting me involved and keeping me involved in the sport,” Heckel said.

A 2021 recipient of the USATF Horace Crow Award for outstanding lifetime service to field events, a three-time finalist for the Andy Bakjian Award for overall service to track and field and an NOC Chairman’s Award to Heckel’s name would back that up.

Heckel has worked for the Big Ten, Big East, the Patriot League, University Athletic Association, Horizon League, Ivy League and Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference. He’s also broadcasted the PIAA championship meets for 14 years for the Pennsylvania Cable Network.

Like the 102-year-old hammer thrower, Heckel’s spirit and passion for the sport hasn’t aged, whether it be as a competitor or an official.

“That’s the beauty of it,” Heckel said. “You can be any age and if the fire is there to still compete, if the fire is there to stay involved, then do it.”

And that fire is burning as brightly as ever.

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