Pearl River's Conor Burke Continues To Clear New Barriers


Conor Burke really wants to throw the discus.

He's never practiced the event. He doesn't necessarily know the right technique. But he is willing to learn.

It's the only state event in which he has not competed in his career.

And Burke has always felt like he could do anything. 

The Pearl River senior has been a "Renaissance Man" of sorts on the track, willing to try anything and everything, both for the purposes of helping the team and for achieving individual goals. 

Most would say he does not have the build to throw the discus. His 5-foot-6 frame does not scream athlete. But when it comes to Burke, you can throw expectations out the window.

"He is the most impressive athlete I have ever coached," Pearl River head coach Gilby Hawkins said.

And that's before you even realize what Burke's limitations are, or what he's managed to overcome, or what he's never made an excuse for. 

Conor Burke is legally blind. 

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After competing for Hawkins during the modified cross country season five years ago, Burke was brought up to the Pirates varsity as an eighth grader for the winter and spring track and field seasons. The following fall, he was the Pirates top freshman in cross country.

That spring, he broke five minutes over 1600 meters, a feat he would have accomplished in the winter had he not run directly into the back of an opponent and fallen with 50 meters to go at the Armory in mid-February.

A back injury dampened a promising sophomore fall campaign after his successful freshman year. But as usual Burke was resilient, rebounding to have a fine year on the track. It was then when he began to specialize in the pole vault.

After vaulting 9-6 as a freshman, he significantly bettered that mark, clearing 12-0 as a sophomore.

Burke had found his specialty, and decided to put his total focus into the two track seasons.

"I was thinking about the team a lot when I was considering stopping distance and focusing on the pole vault," Burke said. "We had a very strong distance group and I knew it would be fine without me so I talked to my coaches about taking the selfish route and focusing on the pole vault because I saw the potential for more success there."

Despite that focus on the vault, Burke, who is never satisfied, continued to look for ways to improve himself and help the team as well. He began to triple jump, long jump, and run some sprinting events to work on his speed for the pole vault. Then Burke began to hurdle.

And why not? After all, he had run both the 2K and 3K steeplechases as an eighth grader. Before running the steeple as a freshman, he asked his distance coach what the team freshman record was. His coach kind of laughed and told him not to worry too much about it. Focus on running as fast as he could, he said. At that point, he thought the goal was unrealistic.

Then Burke came within a couple of seconds of the record.

At that point, Burke caught the attention of North Rockland distance coach Barry Baloga, who has coached multiple All-Americans and National Champions in the event. The Red Raider steeplers had their own t-shirts made, a club of their own that they took great pride in, consistently dominating the steeple locally in Section One as a collective group. The Red Raider coach gave one of those shirts to Burke.

Why does a 7:12.00 steeple time catch someone's attention?

It is the barriers that Burke has had to climb over his whole life. The bars he has needed to consistently clear in life, not just on the track.

 

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Burke was born with retinal coloboma, a condition where the retina is not attached to the eye. Burke was completely blind in his right eye and had very little sight in his left, eventually going fully blind as an infant.

He had surgery as an infant to try and reattach both retinas. There was success with his left eye, but the right was not as fortunate. Burke is completely blind in that eye and has 20-360 vision in his left.

"It's not as much blurry as much as it is less detailed," Burke said.

He can see certain things up close, but even at relatively short distances he struggles to differentiate between things that would be obvious to a person with normal sight. A couple of years ago, one of his coaches was walking towards him at a Saturday morning practice holding his child's hand.

Burke, being the friendly, outgoing young man that he is yelled in an excited voice, "Hi Weston", the name of Hawkins' son. Wrong coach, wrong child, as Olivia walked toward him with her father. His coach has not let him hear the end of it.

Always looking at the glass as half full, Burke sees his limitations as a positive.

"I could never know the other side," Burke said when discussing the impact of his disability. "It makes me really rely on my neuropathways to enhance my muscle memory, where other people tend to close that part off."

Burke believes the reps that he does in events such as the pole vault and the triple jump may work more in his favor than an ordinary athlete.

"I run into things. I've missed the box when planting," he said. "I personally think there are more benefits to having the enhanced body awareness. It outweighs the costs."

And it is that positivity that has led to great things for Burke, an honors and AP level student who has far exceeded expectations in a number of areas. It stems from the home, where his parents have nurtured him, but also challenged him as well.

"In the seventh grade, I really wanted to play soccer because my brother had played," Burke said. "I think my parents knew I was going to get cut so they encouraged me to try cross country."

That led him to the track, and eventually, the pole vault.

"I really have no idea why I started," he said. "I guess it is the craziest thing out there, the most fun. So I figured, what the hell, I'll try it."

Despite the falls, the cuts, the bruises, the near calamities in the pole vault, Burke continues to get up and accomplish what he sets out to do, even if it provides heart failure for some related observers.

 

"They've never said anything discouraging when I told them I was going to start doing it, but I know there is an underlying fear there," Burke said about his primary event. "So whenever I am close to hurting myself during a jump, I know I need to go over there and let them know I am ok."

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Burke started to flourish in the vault as a junior, qualifying for the state championship indoors and setting a personal best of 12-9. More determined than ever, he started working out more often in the weight room, hoping to develop more strength to propel him to higher heights.

He looked great in early season practices this past November and was prepared for his best year yet when an accident in gym class ended his winter season before it even began. Burke sprained his ankle playing volleyball. The injury lingered all season, with Burke attempting to vault late in the season though he only cleared eight feet due to the pain that was still there.

But he chose to see this experience as a glass as half full situation, as usual, and he used the time to improve his upper body strength. While many would have sulked about losing half of their senior year of high school, Burke used it as an opportunity to improve in multiple areas.

"He could have easily disappeared all winter, being unable to compete," Hawkins said. "Most kids would have shut it down for the year, seeing the rehab and trying to come back as not worth it. Conor used it as motivation."

Burke spent the season mentoring younger athletes on the team, a role he has grown into over the past 18 months. The current boys and girls pole vaulters at Pearl River are mainly freshmen, and Burke has become an assistant coach in the event, even while competing this spring.

"While we missed out on his performances competing, we were lucky enough to still have him around for the indoor season," Hawkins said. "Despite being sidelined, he acted as another coach, instructing our up-and-coming pole vaulters, supporting his teammates, and meeting with us to help give guidance and instruction to everyone on the team."

"Throughout all of it, he continued to find ways to stay motivated for a triumphant return in the spring."

Those teammates recognize the support and in turn, look for his guidance whenever he is around. Burke is as knowledgeable as they come in the event.

"He's always super positive and encouraging," freshman Jack MacDonald said. "He makes us work extra hard, but he definitely knows what he is doing."

"He is the most inspiring kid I know."

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Burke has begun to relish the opportunity to help his younger teammates as he continues to grow himself.

"I love the people on the team doing it and that the pole vault group is growing," he said. "If you can teach something in school, then you know you know the information. So by helping them, it actually helps me to understand the event better for myself too."

"To see them doing better, you live a little vicariously through them and feel that victory as well. I can see why people coach."

And it's not just the younger male athletes that he helps, but also the large contingent of girls vaulters as well.

"He puts a lot of effort into everything he does," freshman Maeve Loughran said. "He is good at staying positive and knowing how to comfort people, as well as being able to coach people to an extent that they understand."

Burke has not just impacted his own teammates and coaches. He has drawn the admiration of others as well.

"That kid should be the voted the Rockland Athlete of the Season," Tappan Zee coach Mike Ryan said. "It isn't just what he has accomplished athletically, but everything else he does as well."

"Here's a kid who has every reason in the world to just focus on himself, but he is out there at meets cheering on every kid and willing to help them all. I'm one of his biggest fans."

It is that giving mentality that has everybody you talk to rooting for him. It is why many go to watch him compete, even if the pole vault is off in a remote area.

"All the coaches have always taken a genuine interest in how I am doing," Burke said. "All of our coaches here, regardless of what group they coach take an interest."

"Tyler DiLorenzo, who shot puts and wrestles in the winter always asks when I am jumping so he can come down to watch. I feel like the field event athletes really have an appreciation for each other."

Burke has more of an appreciation for being healthy this season that he has in the past. One of the major fears of his winter injury was how it would impact the college process.

"The injury definitely impacted the decision, but I don't necessarily know how," Burke said. "If I had a really good winter, I may have been at a different school, but I think it has all worked out the way it was supposed to. I feel like I made the best decision for me in the long run." 

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While Burke had an interest in a number of schools, his lost winter hurt his chances of assuring himself a spot on some of those teams. In April, he committed to Fordham University, and couldn't be happier about the decision.

"The atmosphere at Fordham seemed similar to the atmosphere at Pearl River, so that appealed to me the most," he said. "There seemed to be an actual relationship there where they care about the athletes and not just the performances."

Burke said his vision was never an issue when talking with college coaches, other than ensuring that the school had the necessary accommodations that he would need academically.

With the college decision now complete, Burke turns his attention to the next month, where he has high expectations and after the year he has had, taking nothing for granted.

"I practice everyday with a purpose now," he said. "Everyday I am working on getting better in some way."

Being away from the pole vault for months did not come without its challenges and Burke's season did not get off to the best start, unable to clear higher than twelve feet in the month of April. Worse yet, he saw another season flash before his eyes.

On a Thursday afternoon at practice, Burke was running in lane one when a modified athlete stepped on to the track without looking. Neither athlete saw the other. Burke ran directly into him, breaking his nose in the process.

But it was going to take far more than a broken nose to impact this season for Burke. Twenty-one hours later, the senior was competing in the pentathlon at Red Raider Relays.

Resiliency and perseverance, as usual, were his hallmarks.

"The thing that Hawkins says a lot is the number one rule of pole vault is persistence and patience," he said. "I consider myself a persistent person, and the pole vault is the first thing to really test my patience, but the payoff is totally worth it. In cross country, breaking 18 minutes for the first time at Bear Mountain is one of those things that makes everything worth it, all the falls the cuts, the bruises."

Burke has always had his supporters, despite what appear to be his limitations. Family aside, his biggest supporter has been there from the start of his career in the sport.

"Athletically, I never really saw myself as an athlete, especially when I was younger. I was short, skinny, not overly fast," Burke said. "Hawkins really made me feel like I was an athlete for the first time. He believed in me."

"He let me do the thing that I love to do and will continue to do. Other coaches may not have let me go down this path, for liability reasons especially."

His path has turned upright again this week. On Monday at the League Championship, Burke had his first breakthrough in over a year in the pole vault, clearing 13-6, exalting with satisfaction and relief as soon as he cleared the bar that he is once again heading in the right direction as the championship portion of the season begins.

"I have never been more proud of anyone - runner, sprinter, hurdler, vaulter - than I have been of Conor when he has performed his best," Hawkins said. "He has made the team a better program and me a better coach."

 



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