PAWTUCKET — Josh Gilkenson is not what you consider a pessimist, but three years ago he kind of knew his fate the first time he ever placed his racing flats in a set of starting blocks.
After already showing promise as a freshman for the football team at the Moses Brown School, the Pawtucket native competed in the 45-meter dash in his inaugural track meet for the Quakers just a few short weeks later against rival Barrington High at the CCRI-Lincoln Fieldhouse.
The most intimidating figure on the line was the Eagles’ Mike Read, an all-state running back and one of the state’s finest sprinters.
“We had played him in football. He was a real good football player,” Gilkenson recalled.
“He was just way bigger than me, way older than me. He had like a beard. I just looked at him and said all right he’s off the list. I can beat any of these other kids and just kind of ran and did my thing and got third place and was happy with that. It was a good start to my track life.”
Read did win the race handily, but Gilkenson clocked a more-than respectable time of 5.8 seconds for his third-place finish.
Indeed, it was a good start to his so-called track life.
With his junior year nearly complete at Moses Brown, the 17-year-old runner has been tearing up the track oval ever since he first began the sport a mere two years ago. Less than four months after finishing second to Shea senior Freddy Gobewole in the 55 dash at the indoor state championship this past winter, Gilkenson achieved one of several highlights of his short career on May 23 with a multiple-winning performance at the New England Prep Championships. He captured the 100 with a time of 10.97 and the 200 with a 22.49 clocking. He also ran on the school’s victorious 4x100 relay squad that combined for a time of 44.34.
It’s not the first time that Gilkenson has prospered at the New England Preps. During the outdoor season of his freshman year, he also garnered gold in the 100.
But while track may be his forte, Gilkenson has also excelled in football, a sport he has played since sixth grade at Moses Brown. This past year, the Quaker made it to the Division III Super Bowl where it was eventually ousted by Middletown. Gilkenson finished the season with more than 800 yards rushing and eight touchdowns. He made all-division as a running back and was a second-team all-stater as a kickoff returner.
Gilkenson gained his interest to track partly due to the fact that he realized that he had some speed from what he was doing on the gridiron. One instance of that occurred in an eventual playoff loss to Tiverton as a freshman when he returned a kick for an 80-yard touchdown.
“What happened is one of our kickoff returners got hurt in the game so I was pestering our coach to let me return a kick,” Gilkenson remembers. “He kept saying no because I think two years ago he had a freshman return a kick and he fumbled it and we had lost the game so he wasn’t comfortable putting a freshman in at special teams. Finally, when it was 21-0, it was almost as if he had given up hope and he let me go in. They kicked it to me. I caught it and ran back 80 yards for a touchdown.”
His father, John Gilkenson, noticed his son’s uncanny ability on the track surface when he was in junior high football player.
“He was like gone. He was totally ahead of any kid I’ve ever seen as far as middle-school level,” he said. “He could just run. I knew he had great potential in running.”
Despite slipping out of the blocks, Gilkenson ran a strong race in finishing as a runner-up to Gobewole this past winter at the states. Gobewole won with a personal-best time of 6.43, while Gilkenson was timed in 6.65. Of the top six finishers in the race, Gilkenson was the lone non-senior.
“I think I was in last place out of the blocks and then I came back,” he said. “I really thought I was going to get like fourth, but I came back and passed everyone. But [Gobewole] was just like a good four- or five meters ahead of me coming towards the finish. I was not really gaining on him that much. From probably the 20-meter mark, I could just see him gone and everyone else was within reach.”
Since that meet, Gobewole and Gilkenson have become good friends. The two competed in the New England Indoor Championships, won by the Raider sprinter, and also participated in the New Balance Indoor Nationals in New York City.
A month ago, their rivalry was renewed at the Hendricken Invitational with Gobewole blazing to a winning time of 10.5 and Gilkenson taking second with a personal-best, hand-held time of 10.6.
Unfortunately for Gilkenson, the Hendricken meet is the only time that he can compete with the likes of Gobewole during the outdoor season. Even though Moses Brown participates in the R.I. Interscholastic League in football and indoor track, the outdoor track team only takes part in the Prep League.
“Outdoor track is one of the few sports that [Moses Brown] doesn’t compete in the interscholastic league,” Gilkenson said. “I don’t know, maybe it’s because our team as a whole would probably lose every meet.”
With less competition than he would race in R.I. this outdoor season, Gilkenson went undefeated in the 100 and 200 and as a member of the 4x100 relay. In the 100, he won by an average of .30 or more.
The Moses Brown junior would have preferred competing against R.I. competition this spring, including eventual state champion Gobewole.
“This year it really didn’t bother me much that I couldn’t compete in outdoor because of Fred,” Gilkenson said. “He beats me every time I race him. I knew I wasn’t going to win it. Next year, I have been talking with my athletic director and there’s nothing he can do as far as the interscholastic league. There’s no real way for me to run. Next year, I know there’s a chance I could win the 55 [at the indoor state meet] and could be on pace to win the 100, but I won’t have a chance to run it in Rhode Island. It’s disappointing.”
Gilkenson also shines in the classroom where he currently holds a 3.31 GPA with mostly honors classes in demanding curriculum of Moses Brown. He recently scored a 720 in Math out of 800 on his SATs.
Gilkenson’s hoping to take his talents to an Ivy League school when he graduates next June with an eye on the University of Pennsylvania. He’s looking at potentially doing football and track at the collegiate level.
“From what I gathered, it’s possible but very hard at the Division I level, especially Ivy League level, to do two seasons of track and one of football,” he said. “That basically is a really hard commitment. But it is possible and a few kids do it. If I decided that I really do want to do both, it’s something that I can commit to. Right now I’m just seeing which one I really want to do more.”
“Personally I feel I have more potential in track and I am just starting to find my groove,” he continued. “In football, I know what I can do. Football is fun and track is kind of boring, but I have learned to appreciate it.”
And, without a doubt, excel at it too.