BRISTOL, Tenn. – Hayleigh Marion won’t be in school next week.
She has a good excuse. She will be shooting pool in Austria.
The 14-year-old Virginia High freshman will be traveling to Klagenfurt, Austria as part of Team USA to compete in the World Junior 9-Ball Championships on Oct. 6-10. Not bad for a once-shy little girl who didn’t pick up a pool cue until six years ago.
“It has been my goal since last year. The most recent I could have done it was last year and I didn’t make it,” she said. “It was heartbreaking, I was so close, but this year it was like ‘Wow, I made it.’ I thought it would take me a lot longer, but here I am.”
The daughter of Jamie and Robin Marion, Hayleigh earned her spot by winning the 14-under age group at the Junior National Championships in July at the South Point Casino in Las Vegas. She didn’t stop there, picking up five medals along the way, including placing third in the 16U and fifth in 18U divisions.
She returned to a hero’s welcome at Borderline Billiards on Main Street in Bristol, where she was met with hugs, cheers, flowers and even a cake lettered with “Congratulations, National Champ.” That support has only continued to grow.
“The community has been amazing,” Hayleigh said. “Everyone is sharing my posts on Facebook, donating money and giving me as much help as they can. Even just saying thank you is helping me knowing that all these people know my name now. It is crazy.”
Hayleigh was introduced to pool at age 8 when Jamie took her to Borderline Billiards – called by local resident Alex Andersen as the “nicest pool room in the south” - but she was supposed to just watch.
She wasn’t happy. The tears flowed. Janet Atwell, the owner of the facility, approached her and offered to be her partner in a match with a couple men at an adjourning table. They won.
“I showed her how to hold her stick and set it up on the 8-ball and we ended up winning the first game against those guys,” said Atwell, who is ranked eighth in the Women’s Professional Billiard Association. “I put the cue ball right where she needs it so she would have an easy shot on the 8 and she made it.”
Jamie, who had planned to let Hayleigh play after they were finished, was left scratching his head. All she has done is become one of the top junior players in the nation.
“I was like ‘really,’” he said, with a smile. “After that she has grown leaps and bounds. She just gets more passion for it every day, watching her is just unbelievable. It is beyond words, it really is. What she has completed in what time she has been doing it, I never really seen it happening, but she is playing good.”
Hayleigh was hooked, and Atwell noticed, continuing to serve as her mentor, even helping to attain sponsorships to pay for her expenses before she was skilled enough to earn them.
“I think pool has brought more than just me having fun and my love of the sport. It has brought me to not be shy no more,” Hayleigh said. “It has brought a lot of friends into my life and it has changed my whole life basically.”
Those around her noticed, including Robin, who certainly appreciates the attention Atwell has given to her daughter.
“She is just family. She took Hayleigh upon herself,” Robin said. “Hayleigh is like her little prodigy. She has been working with Hayleigh since she was 8 so it has definitely been amazing.”
Hayleigh, who will leave for Austria on Sunday with her father, is one of 17 juniors from across the country representing Team USA.
“She is just thankful that she got the opportunity and she is just so excited. She is just one remarkable young lady that has goals set for herself,” Robin said. “She wants to play in the WPBA with Janet as she gets older so that is definitely one of her goals.
“Her other goal was to play in the Worlds and never thought she would meet that goal at 14. Definitely, that is a huge, huge accomplishment right there for Hayleigh.”
While Hayleigh doesn’t know what the format will be like in Austria, she will be ready to compete, no matter whether she is competing against juniors her own age or older kids. She already plays in adult tournaments.
“The older people have had more experience than you. Their nerves are like less, they are like ‘you guys are little kids’ and they are 18 and 17,” she said. “They are just out there to play and you are out there young and trying to prove something at that point and they have already done that. It is definitely harder being the younger one because their nerves are way down here and you are as nervous as you can be.”
Being able to maintain her composure is a definite advantage to her game.
“I think that is one thing I have been really good at is I never show my emotions,” she said. “Since I was first started, everyone would come up to me and be like ‘did she lose or did she win.’ I think that has been helpful to me that other people have had learn to do since playing pool.”
Atwell has realistic expectations for Hayleigh, who has become a mainstay at Borderline Billiards and even runs a Thursday night tournament there.
“I want her to go over there and do good and I would be tickled if she could win a couple of matches,” Atwell said. “Winning the tournament is probably not feasible and I don’t think she has those kind of expectations, but as long as she plays good and gets self-satisfaction, that is all that matters to me and that is all that matters to her…
“She may be going into a situation where she certainly is the underdog, but it is going to be an amazing opportunity for her to learn,” she added. “It is going to be a motivational scenario which drives her to excel when she returns.”
Expect that desire to continue. Andersen, a local retiree and frequent visitor to Borderline Billiards, has become Hayleigh’s “sparring partner”, providing her a companion to help refine her skills on a pool table, while reporting any fundamental issues to Atwell.
“I am no pro, I am a pretty decent amateur and I understand the game real well so I am kind of a perfect match for Hayleigh,” Andersen said. “She gets real good competition. When she is really available during the summer when school is out, we will go two or three days a week down to the pool room before it opens for maybe three hours.”
Hayleigh has had a growth spurt in recent years, which has enhanced her confidence, not only in overcoming her shyness, but also in improving her skills around the table.
“When she was 8 she is just a little thing, she could barely reach the table,” Robin said. “She is 5’9 now. She is very tall and very long fingers and Hayleigh loves math. She is an exceptional student, she has a 4.0. She got recognized for that as well.
“I am very proud of her. We have followed this journey since she was little and she has really, really gotten active in all the tournaments, probably within the last three years when she started playing more adult tournaments.”
What lies ahead next week remains to be seen, but Atwell just wants Hayleigh to enjoy the experience.
“No matter what, even if you go over there and lose your first two matches, you have done something that most kids your age will never, ever say they had the opportunity to do,” Atwell said. “Just being selected and having the opportunity is a big deal. Whether you do good or not, that is the beside the point. Just enjoy it, remember to live every moment of it and come back and cherish it.
Hayleigh has been helped by numerous sponsorships that Atwell helped to attain for her, including Pechauer, which Andersen said is equivalent to Titleist or Callaway in golf. She was named the Junior International Championship Player of the Month in April and is part of the Junior Championship Tour.
“I sort of said to those guys, I am going to make sure that this kid excels. I am going to be working with her. She is always there, we are always together, I will make sure she gets better at pool,” Atwell said. “I said to them she is going to be a great representative for your company in the future, whether she plays good or not. She is beautiful, she is a great kid, she is the kind of kid you want to represent your company.
“There are juniors out there that play a lot better than her, but her mechanics and her fundamentals and her baseline is just as good as anyone. Maybe I am biased, but she is a great kid and I think of her as my daughter. I just don’t think you would find a better kid. At her age you are never going to find a better kid, I just don’t think there is one out there.”
Andersen certainly agrees.
“I would say without really putting a pen to paper about her, she is very carefully building her own brand,” she said. “Her social media presence is strong, man.”
Both Hayleigh and Anderson acknowledge that she fell into a good situation to achieve by having someone of Atwell’s skills and connections on the local scene.
“Honestly she has had a dream situation to come up. She has had me to be there to kind of guide her and lead her. She has a pool room,” Atwell said. “She has had the best of everything. She has had the sponsors, she has had it made, she has never had to pay for anything.
“She has just been in a prime situation to be the best that she can be without truly having to work for it. That is just being in the right place at the right time.”
While Hayleigh is known for her mature, almost adult-like personality, there are times when reality strikes.
“I can remember for her 11th or 12th year birthday party. I asked her mom what she wanted and she said an American doll or something like that,” Atwell said. “It just hit me all of a sudden, I have still got a kid here, I totally forgot she is a kid.”
She doesn’t just work on her pool skills. She is also a member of the Beta Club with a perfect 4.0 grade point average at Virginia High.
“I will study and I will work hard in school because that is what I have been told,” she said. “If you want to play you need to keep your grades up. That is what pushes me it just to be told if you don’t have your grades up you can’t play. You have to have good grades.”
Robin said Hayleigh has the full support of Virginia High even when she does have to miss some school.
“The school supports her,” Robin said. “They are very supportive. They call and they want updates and they have helped raise money for her for her expenses for traveling. Definitely the community here has been very supportive of Hayleigh.”
There is one long-term goal that Hayleigh hopes to attain. It might be the toughest of all, but Atwell has her blessings if she can make it happen.
“My goal now, now that I have made this goal is to make it to where Janet is, to be a pro and to one day be better than her,” she said. “I am going to take her down, that is my goal now is just to beat her.
“I have gotten close. In tournaments we always have to play and every tournament we go to together I always end up having to play her. Here recently I have gotten closer and closer so I am going to get there. Just watch me.”
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