Winning a gold medal is a sign of excellence and achievement, but it is Three Rivers High school senior Gabriella “Gabi” Hiraldo’s heart of gold that many will remember most.
Hiraldo finished first in the Class 2A high jump at the UIL State Track and Field Championships on May 7 in Austin, but coach Lee Ann Barker said watching Hiraldo motivate and encourage others — including her competition, is something she will always remember.
“To me as a coach, you want a competitive kid but also someone who wants to let others up with them,” Barker said. “It was very humbling as a coach for me to see that. Seeing her win the gold medal was amazing but seeing her heart and determination and the ways she’s gone about it to me is even bigger than the gold medal. She was encouraging others out there, including a girl who had been her competition all year. That says a lot about her and the type of person she is.”
Hiraldo won the state’s top prize in the high jump with a jump of 5 feet, 7 inches, making the best of her opportunity. It was the second time she competed at the state meet. Her sophomore year in 2019 she finished fifth. After not having a chance to compete in 2020 because of COVID-19 canceling the season, Hiraldo said she was determined to not hold anything back this year.
“Honestly it was very motivating since I didn’t have the opportunity last year,” she said. “I knew this was it and I had to come out and do my best. This was my last time to do this in high school, and I wanted to make the most of it.”
Although Hiraldo participated in track as a junior high student, she said she didn’t participate in the high jump until her freshman year.
“Coach (Ashley) Magil said I’d be good at it, and sure enough I was,” she said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without her suggesting that.”
Hiraldo, who is the daughter of Christina Salazar of Three Rivers and Abraham Hiraldo of San Antonio, will next head to Concordia University Irvine in California where she will compete in the high jump, long jump and triple jump. She said the high jump is definitely her favorite.
“To train, it’s doing a lot of reps and it’s all about technique and getting little things done right so it can all come together.”
In addition to track, Hiraldo is also a member of the Three Rivers softball team and is an outstanding student who is a member of the National Honor Society. She said juggling sports and academics was sometimes nerve wracking before she settled into a routine.
“My freshman year, first getting into high school track and softball and then also focusing on academics – it was a struggle,” Hiraldo said. “I wasn’t used to doing so much at one time. I was finally able to put it all together.
“I had a really good support system with Coach Barker and my family and I probably wouldn’t be here without them reassuring me and encouraging me to just keep working and getting better.”
Hiraldo said the stressful situations of the past have left her with an important learning experience.
“I’d like to tell people not to stress about anything,” she said. “Everything will fall in place and work out the way it’s supposed to.”
The experience of competing in the state meet was also easier the second time around, she said.
“My sophomore year going to state in the high jump I was going crazy,” Hiraldo said. “Things were a lot better this year – I went in relaxed and just wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to do the best I could.”
Hiraldo said her cousin Kourtney Salazar, a 2011 TR alumna, has been an inspiration to her.
“She is my idol, everything I want to be as a person,” Hiraldo said. “Seeing her achieve all her goals has motivated me to be my best self.
Hiraldo’s grandmother, Estella Salazar, has also been an inspiration.
“She passed away when I was going into seventh grade, but before that she would always be there,” Hiraldo said. “I miss her but I know she’s been right here with me watching over me.”
While track requires plenty of hard work to be successful, it’s something Hiraldo said she truly enjoys.
“I love the feeling – this is something I’ve done so long it’s not even really a sport to me, it’s something I do for fun. I love being able to be a part of it,” she said.
Hiraldo will leave for California in August. She said representatives of Concordia University Irvine contacted her and recruited her to attend school and participate in the track program.
“In February, I had my college visit and I absolutely fell in love with it – I knew it was the place I wanted to be,” she said.
She will major in biology with the goal of becoming an aquatic veterinarian.
“I’ve always loved animals ever since I was younger, so I started learning a lot about aquatic animals,” she said. “I love helping people and animals, and I was inspired to learn and do what I can to help.”
Baker said she sees great things ahead for Hiraldo: “She has an amazing future – there’s no telling what she can and will do.”
Barker said she knew Hiraldo was special when she first coached her in junior high.
“I could tell she loved track, and when you love something and work hard, you excel,” Barker said. “The high school coaches were asking if she was going to keep doing it in high school. They were in awe because she was out-jumping our high school kids when she was in junior high. When you have a gift and you work hard, it usually works out well in the end.
“Another thing about Hiraldo is that she’s extremely coachable. She accepts coaching in a positive light, she doesn’t take things negatively. That’s a credit to the way she was raised. Getting to coach her again after retiring from coaching and then coming back her senior year has been really special.”
Barker said she’s enjoyed seeing Hiraldo flourish and excel.
“There’s a sense of pride you have as a coach, seeing her work hard, getting to compete and just knowing the type of person she is,” she said. “I had a lot of excitement for her because I know what she put in to get there. She was determined on the good days and the bad days and she never quit, and it paid off.
“When she hit the 5-7 mark it was amazing - you could feel the excitement and joy from across the track and I just wanted to give her a hug. It’s pretty surreal knowing she accomplished what she set out to do. It was a neat experience to see her triumph.”
Barker said her grandfather was a man of few words, but he used an expression to let people know when he thought they had done very well, and she wanted to tell that to Hiraldo.
“You done proud, kid,” she told Hiraldo. “To me, that’s the ultimate.”