Cordell Tinch — You Can’t Make Up A Story Like This

I think I’m supposed to say hurdles,” says Tinch when asked what’s his best event. And it is hard to argue with his recent 12.97w. (DEREK LIVINGSTON/PSU ATHLETICS)

THIS ISN’T BASEBALL, and Cordell Tinch is no Sidd Finch. But yet, there’s something about the Pitt State sophomore’s story that reminds those with long memories of Finch, writer George Plimpton’s April Fools’ Day creation who graced the pages of Sports Illustrated nearly 40 years ago.

Finch, a French horn player, from Old Orchard, Maine, supposedly dazzled the baseball scouts with his 168mph fastball, setting the sports world talking.

Tinch, a year ago a cellphone salesman in Green Bay, Wisconsin, has dazzled the track world with his shocking hurdle speed. And everyone wants to talk with him.

That’s because, unlike Finch, Tinch is decidedly very real.

The phone has been ringing non-stop. His head, he says, “has been spinning.”

What ignited this firestorm of attention? On the first weekend in May at the MIAA Championships in Jefferson City, Missouri, Tinch put on quite a show. Already the Div. II Indoor champion in the 60H and high jump, he first won the long jump, reaching 27-½w (8.24) pushed along by a 3.2 breeze. Then came the hurdle heats, where with a windy but not ridiculous 2.8 reading, he clocked 13.07. Not bad at all for a guy with a 13.32 legal PR.

The next day, he won the high jump with an outdoor best 7-1¾ (2.18). Then came the hurdle finals. With the wind gauge showing 3.0, he exploded to a 12.97w, becoming the No. 2 collegian of all-time in all conditions.

All this from a 22-year-old guy who less than a year ago was working at that phone store with no thoughts of ever pursuing athletics again. A guy who walked away from D1 track three years earlier and who hadn’t trained in that time.

Wait, you’re thinking, so he was doing something else to stay fit, right? “No, I was not,” he explains. “I was working at U.S. Cellular and that’s about all I was doing. I didn’t really do much more than that: selling cellphones, cellphone plans, watches.” He laughs, fully cognizant of just how crazy it all sounds.

To make sense of this young man’s pathway, let’s start at the beginning. He grew up in Chicago and then Green Bay with a household that was not particularly a sports family, though one of his younger sisters runs prep track and plays volleyball, and he has a cousin down south who plays some good basketball.

Years ago his mother sent him toward sports, mostly to keep him out of trouble. In eighth grade he tried track, specializing in the high jump and the sprints. “Moving up towards high school,” he recounts, “I started doing more and more, trying to find what was good for me. The event that I had thought was my best event in high school, it’s actually an event that I don’t do at all in college.”

That would be the triple jump. As a junior he won the State title in a state record 49-2¼ (14.99) for Green Bay’s Bay Port High. He added a long jump victory (24-2¼/7.37) and was runner-up in the high jump (6-9/2.03) and 110H (14.59). He also played football (70 catches, 964y and 9 touchdowns as a senior) and basketball (13.3 ppg with plenty of dunks).

“Out of high school I believed that I was going to be a football player. I was going to do it all the way to the NFL. That was truly my belief,” he says. “I went to Minnesota on a football scholarship with the thought of running track too. I was doing the football workouts and the track workouts throughout the summer.

“I didn’t make it to the season with the football team, but I was in the locker room around those guys, and something about it didn’t seem like it was the environment for me. Nothing wrong with the sport at all; I just felt I had a bigger calling that was coming out of the track world.”

One of the calls he heard was to the hurdles. In high school, he says, “Hurdles was something that came late and there was a lot of potential. My high school coaches told me that there was something we just had to tap in to find out.

“When I got to Minnesota, the coach that I had been recruited by [Paul Thornton] essentially said the same thing. Locking into track & field was something that I needed to do, and he always believed that I was something that the track world needed to see.”

When Thornton was hired by Kansas, Tinch followed him at semester break. He ended up competing for the Jayhawks in the ’19 season. Indoors he made All-Big 12 in the hurdles, high jump and long jump. Outdoors, he was the loop’s champ at 13.72, while making 3rd in the high jump and 7th in the long jump. At the West Regional meet he advanced in the hurdles with his PR 13.63. Then, with Nationals looming, Tinch’s Div. I hopes started to crumble.

“There was an issue with my transfer that we found out about late, and it rendered me ineligible for that. It was a very confusing thing. Essentially, Regionals is also classified as the first round of Nationals. If I was able to compete at that, why couldn’t I go to Nationals? It was a back-and-forth and I lost that battle. It was also why I ended up in the mental block that I was in.”

Tinch also has long jumped 27-½w (8.24) — an elite bit of alright — and captured the NCAA II indoor HJ title with 7-3¼ (2.22). (DEREK LIVINGSTON/PSU ATHLETICS)

Later that year, he watched the World Championships in Doha on TV. “That was the last meet I remember watching,” he says. “Part of me while watching it had that feeling of like, ‘Ah, if I hadn’t have given up, there’s a chance I could have been there.’ But at the same time, I was like, ‘You know, this is God’s plan for me. I’m just following it, and we’ll see what comes.’”

He gave Jayhawk track another go the next winter, reaching 7.84 in the hurdles and a PR 25-2 (7.67) in the long jump. But as the pandemic hit, Tinch was already dealing with what he calls “a little bit of a mental health issue.” He adds, “It was just a weird time in the world and it was a very weird time for me as well. So I stepped back, stepped away from both school and track & field. I just needed to decompress. I tried to get my foot back into the door by going to Coffeyville [JC] for a semester [Fall ‘20]. And I just still wasn’t in the right place that I wanted to be in. I ended up going home.”

For the better part of the next two years, Tinch was essentially a non-athlete, living in Green Bay, working and getting by. Then last August, his roommate from his Kansas days, Treyvon Ferguson, reached out, along with some of the guys that he had known at Coffeyville. Maybe, they suggested, Tinch wanted to give track another go, maybe he wanted to come to Pitt State?

“For whatever reason, it seemed like the stars were aligning for it to make sense for me to go back. I felt like I was in a good mental place. I felt that my body was healthy enough, even though I wasn’t sure what I’d be able to do. I felt I was in a good place to come back to the track & field world and I am grateful for all those that helped me make this decision.”

Most importantly among those, he emphasizes, is his mother. “It was really her telling me, ‘No, you need to go do this and see if that door is really closed for you.’ That was what I really needed. I’m grateful for all of that with her. I would not be here without her.”

He started training at Pitt State in January, working with Gorilla head coach Kyle Rutledge on the hurdles and assistant Jesse Miller on the jumps. “We basically had a month from me landing here in Pitt to my first competition. It was just a matter of getting technique down. We were like, ‘We’ll get in shape as the season goes on.’ We hit the ground very fast and we haven’t looked back.”

In his first meet, the 6-2/170 (1.88/77) soph set two PRs in the hurdles, 7.73 and 7.66. And he flew to a PR 26-¾ (7.94) in the long jump. A week later came a collegiate-leading 7.50. At Div. II Indoors, he won the hurdles in 7.51 (faster than the Div. I winner) and the high jump at 7-3¼ (2.22), but was only 10th in the long jump at 23-4 (7.11).

Outdoors, he opened at the Texas Relays. He ran a 13.33w heat, but the breakthrough came in the finals when he ran 14.38. No, that’s not a typo. He explains how that race changed everything. “I got out very well. I smashed hurdle 8 or 9 pretty hard and it stunted my entire race. I went from 1st to last real quick… After the race, I was smiling ear to ear. My teammates couldn’t understand. They’re like, ‘Aren’t you upset you didn’t win?’ And I was like, ‘No, I’m excited because this just showed me what is to come.’

“It opened our eyes. We saw the potential that the race had and the coaches knew about my work ethic, they’ve seen that I’m willing to adapt and learn things to move forward and be a better athlete. So when we saw what could have been there, we knew what we could do with the rest of the season. The goals that we had just got elevated even though we didn’t have the time yet — got elevated to bigger and better things.”

The hurdles started falling into place. A 13.32 PR at Cal State LA. Two days later a 13.22w victory at Mt. SAC. Then his breakthrough weekend in Jefferson City.

Now if you look at the all-conditions collegiate list in the 110H, you’ll see Tinch’s name at No. 2, between Renaldo Nehemiah (12.91w) and Grant Holloway (13.00). “It’s kind of insane to see people that I’ve always looked at and been like, ‘OK, these are real greats.’ And then to see myself sandwiched in the middle of those names, it’s kind of wild.”

Is he bothered that so far he hasn’t gotten a wind-legal time to reflect his place among the event’s greats? “It’s something that’s on my mind, but at the same time, I’m not Mother Nature. I do not get to turn the wind on and off. All I can do is show up and compete regardless of where I’m at. Rain, snow, sleet, hail [laughs], hot, cold. I don’t have a choice. The only thing I can control is showing up and competing to the best of my ability.”

While the noise has been mostly about the windy 12.97, topping 27ft (8.23) in the long jump, windy or no, is quite notable also. What event does Tinch think is his best? “That’s… that’s a loaded question,” he says. “I think I’m supposed to say hurdles, but I think with the way that certain things in the long jump have been going, there’s a chance that we could really end up focusing on both of those.

“It’s a roller coaster that we’re just finding out how to navigate. For sure, hurdles is something that obviously I want to focus on once we head towards USAs and hopefully Worlds. But the other events, if I am God-willing able to qualify in those as well, I don’t see myself ever backing down from doing all that I can.”

On a final note, he adds, “None of this that I have right now, none of this is possible without my mother. She’s truly the one thing on this planet that keeps me grounded and keeps everything in perspective. She’s my biggest fan, my biggest critic, and I will always love that woman for that. I truly wouldn’t be back in school if it weren’t for me and her talking about it.”

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