MISSOULA — Emily Malone's laugh precedes her everywhere she goes.
Her giggle is loud, hearty and contagious. Her smile and cheery attitude are infectious too.
"I love to smile," Malone said. "I will do almost anything to make anyone smile. I just try to make people laugh and remind people that life's amazing."
The motivation behind Malone's persistent positivity stems from her childhood idol. Malone doesn't have any biological older siblings, but she likens her biggest inspiration to the older sister she never had.
As a kid, Malone loved watching Tiffany Seeberger play sports.
Seeberger was a standout basketball, softball, volleyball and track athlete at Sentinel in the mid-2000s who Malone got to know through her dad, the Sentinel school resource officer at the time.
"I still remember the feeling of having someone so much older than me look down and just take me under their wing," Malone, herself now a senior at Sentinel, said. "I felt special."
Their sisterly bond blossomed at the toughest times, including when the then 8-year-old Malone was injured in a traumatic bike accident.
Malone remembers swerving down the road on her bike before tipping over, and flipping over the handlebars.
"The end of the handlebar went into the side of my stomach," Malone said.
Malone ruptured her colon in the accident and needed surgery. She ended up staying in the hospital for a week, but the rehabilitation to get back on her feet took even longer.
"I spent a couple months just trying to get back," Malone said. "I couldn't even stand up for a while. I was like the Hunchback of Notre Dame for a long time."
While Malone was on the mend, she received gifts from friends and family members.
But the gift that stood out the most was the one from Seeberger, a hand-drawn picture of a Christmas tree and some candy canes.
"I had my accident in October," Malone said with a smile. "It was really cheesy, but it warmed my little 8-year-old heart. I was so happy. It made my young little heart feel incredible."
Seeberger committed suicide four months later at the age of 17.
Even though the 10-year anniversary of Seeberger's passing was in February, the loss still feels raw for Malone.
"She was this older sister to me. Losing her, it was horrific," Malone said, holding back tears. "I didn't find out why until I was older and after finding out why, it was even worse."
FROM ONE LOVE TO THE NEXT
Malone's first foray into track and field came in middle school at Meadow Hill.
She always wanted to try shot put, but javelin was another story.
"'There's no way I'd like that,'" Malone remembers thinking of javelin. "I just dismissed all the other events. I did some running events here and there, just to do something else, but shot put was my main."
Malone made it through seventh grade without having to throw the javelin, but things changed the next year.
One of Malone's coaches, Don Griffith, somehow convinced her to give javelin — albeit the less dangerous, child-friendly turbo javelin — a shot.
When Malone let go of the turbo javelin for the first time, it spun in the air and didn't fly straight.
"I was not happy," Malone said. "But I figured out how to throw it and ended up winning our city meet two weeks after learning how to throw.
"I fell in love. It's my life now. I don't know what I'd do without it."
The act of throwing wasn't new to her though.
Malone's first love was softball, just like Seeberger’s was.
“She's one of the reasons I wanted to get into sports,” Malone said.
When Malone entered high school, she was set on playing softball, but after Sentinel track and field coach Craig Mettler saw her lifting in weights class, he internally recruited her to throw for the Spartans too.
So Malone split her freshman spring between softball and track and field.
On the softball field, Malone served as a utility player and according to Maxpreps.com, had a .211 batting average her freshman year with the varsity squad.
Out at the track facility, Malone worked her way up to a third-place finish in the javelin at the state meet with a throw of 128 feet, 7 inches. No other freshman had qualified for that event in Class AA that year.
Malone's performance at the state meet opened the eyes of collegiate coaches across the country, including the coaches at North Carolina.
The Tar Heels invited her to a track and field camp that was held over winter break of her sophomore year.
"We kind of pushed the idea around and were like, 'I don't know. It's a long trip. It's going to be expensive,'" Malone said. "And then I got another little pamphlet and dug deeper."
The javelin coach at that camp was going to be none other than Jeff Gorski.
His name is famous around the javelin circles. Gorski earned All-ACC honors in college at North Carolina. And from 1999-2003, he served as USA Track and Field's national javelin chairman — the highest-ranking position for javelin coaching at the national level. He's coached athletes at all levels, from high school to Olympians.
"'You actually are going to get four days one-on-one with basically an Olympic level coach. This is so unreal,'" Emily's father Patrick Malone remembers telling his daughter. "She took advantage of it."
Once Malone stepped foot onto the campus at the University of North Carolina, she immediately felt at home.
While walking around campus on the first day of camp, she found a little alcove between some chapels. In that moment, Malone said she knew North Carolina was the place for her.
"Standing there, I immediately knew that was the place. I hadn't met the coaches. I hadn't met anyone," Malone said with a beaming smile on her face. "I'd walked through the airport and that was about it. But I knew that was the place."
Malone knew North Carolina had rigorous admissions standards — the school only admits 26 percent of applicants — so she got to work in the classroom and on the field. She currently boasts a 3.69 GPA and is a member of the National Honor Society.
But Malone still had a decision to make about where her passion lay.
During the first summer tournament of ASA softball before her sophomore year, Malone partially tore her MCL. After talking it over with friends and family, Malone decided to stop playing softball.
"It was a really hard decision," Malone said. "But I hung up my helmet and I hung up my glove and said, 'All right. I'm buying into the track world. Let's see what happens if I focus on throwing these implements.'"
Malone went to a second North Carolina camp during her junior year and her love for the Carolina blue solidified even more.
Six months later, Malone committed over the phone to UNC’s head coach Harlis Meaders to be a Tar Heel.
“I committed June 1 and I was in tears. I cried for like half an hour on the phone,” Malone said.
Malone's dad added: "She started crying, I started crying, (Meaders) started crying. I was like, 'We made the right decision. There's no doubt. This coach is tearing up over this little girl from Montana committing to his school. We made the right choice.'"
Growing up, Malone didn't know anything about North Carolina.
"I knew nothing of the school. That's a totally different side of the country," Malone said, laughing. "Like, where is North Carolina? I had no idea."
But as a kid, Malone played for the Tar Heels... sort of.
Malone's fifth-grade AAU basketball team had Carolina blue jerseys. At the time her coach bought them, the team didn't have a name.
"We were all brainstorming team names and my dad was like, 'Well, you know, they're like University of North Carolina blue,'" Malone remembers her dad saying. "'We should call them the Tar Heels.'"
Little did Malone know that less than 10 years later, she'd be readying herself to be an actual Tar Heel.
"Looking back on it now, it's so ironic and comical to me that my own father would mention that the Tar Heels basketball team and now I'm going to be part of the Tar Heels track team," Malone said. "The irony is so weird looking back on it.”
The University of North Carolina is 2,349 miles from Sentinel High School and Malone is slightly nervous about moving that far away from home, but the familial bond she's already created with the Tar Heels alleviates some of those worries.
"There's a family there. It eases the pain of being 2,500 miles from my family," Malone said. "I'm on the other side of the country, so being a fourth generation Missoula person to grow up here, it's scary. But I'm opening up my wings and I'm trying something new and going into that sort of atmosphere makes it so much easier."
Her dad sees that too.
"I'm not sending my kid all the way across the country to go to college. I'm sending her to her other family who's going to help her through college," the elder Malone said. "They're going to help her get a phenomenal degree from a fantastic institution and it's going to allow her to enjoy her athletic experience while she's there. I couldn't ask for anything better."
Off the runway and out of the ring, Malone wants to pursue a career in radiology.
Malone's initial dream career was in civil or mechanical engineering, but once her heart was set on competing in track and field at North Carolina, she knew that wasn't going to be an option since North Carolina only offers biomedical engineering.
"I was so closed minded to the fact that (the medical field is), 'Oh surgeries,' and I hate scalpels. I absolutely hate scalpels. Ugh. Ew. It's like nails on a chalkboard. I can't do scalpels," Malone said.
After her dad suggested radiology, Malone decided to do a job shadow with Bone and Joint's tech department. She loved every minute of it, especially how helping people and making them feel better is in the job description.
"They're amazing people and the things people in that profession do, it blows my mind. They're so selfless," Malone said. "They're doing so much work to try to help every type of person."
Malone is signed and sealed to North Carolina — and reps the Tar Heels with her socks and Carolina blue fingernails — but that doesn't mean she's coasting through her final high school season.
She was a major part of last season's team title, scoring 22 points for the Spartans at last year's state meet.
"She's the epitome of Sentinel track and field," Mettler said of Malone. "We want kids to be multi-sport athletes, be good teammates, be good citizens and be great students in the classroom. She's all that combined.
" ... Emily is a fantastic young woman who has a bright future in whatever she does, whether it's athletically or academically, career-based. She's a grinder by all means."
Malone placed second at the Class AA finale in both the javelin and the discus last year, and finished in third in the shot put.
She wants more.
"I'm still on cloud nine when I think about it at times," Malone said of Sentinel winning state last year. "It's an incredible feeling to know my name's on the plaque. ... I made history and I hope to do it more now. I want to do it more. It encourages me to go for it again and score more points this year.
"I want to do anything I possibly can to try to become a personal champ, as well as a team champ again. It's an amazing feeling and there's no drug or alcohol that can beat that feeling. It's just not possible. It'll put you off this world."
Through two meets this season, Malone has the second-best javelin toss, third-best discus throw and the fourth best shot put outing in the state.
At the quad meet with Big Sky, Butte and Hellgate on Tuesday, Malone hit two high school personal bests in shot put and discus.
"This is my happy place. Life starts when track season starts," Malone said. "And then it pauses until track season starts again for me. I live for these couple months and try to continue it and make the best of it."
Regardless of how this season shapes up, Malone's made her mark on the greater track community in Missoula and around Montana.
Her name is on the plaque from last year's state title. Her voice shouts out cheers for her teammates and rival competitors with every throw. And the infectious positivity Malone channels, she does so through her bond with Seeberger.
"She's one of my major reasons to live and to make every day the best I can," Malone said. "You get out of bed and even when you don't want to, try to get out of bed. Try to find something happy. She's what I latch on to."