Young track and field athletes demonstrate focus

by Jordan Green

With the humidity and heat rising in NC A&T University’s Aggie Stadium on this Wednesday morning, the second day of the 2006 Youth Track & Field Championships, two or three young women line the runway to the sandpit while the others recline under the shade of a modest cloth canopy.

They’re quiet. Poised. Inwardly focused. You could say they’re under a microscope as a handful of coaches, parents and spectators regard them with intense interest.

It’s as if they’re alone with each other on the field just inside the track. And so they are during this fifth event in a seven-stage competition stretched over two days that is known as the heptathlon. No one can know quite what it’s like to maintain vigilance against distraction and laxity as they do.

‘“Downtime will work against you,’” says Jeff George, the girls track and field coach at Winston-Salem’s RJ Reynolds High School, who is here to support two girls from his program. ‘“In high school most of these girls will do every event back to back. Aside from the sun, it’s more mentally fatiguing than physically fatiguing. It’s really hard to stay focused.’”

The focus is there in each athlete’s internal rhythm.

Take Alana Nedd, a 17-year-old girl from Brooklyn with a partial track scholarship next year to Towson University in Maryland. Although she relocated from New York to Maryland during her sophomore year, she’s gone back to New York every summer to train with Eric Greene, an employee of the city’s parks and recreation department with responsibility for the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Red Hook and Cobble Hill, who coaches the Young Explorers Club.

Nedd steps forward for her turn at the long jump. She bounces lightly on her heels, jabs the air first with one fist and then the other, rears back and in one seamless motion launches into a run. Before she reaches the white painted strip known as ‘“the board,’” she sails into the air, landing on her feet.

‘“Four thirty-two,’” the announcer calls.

It’s the second of three jumps, leaving her one last chance to improve on it. Walking back to canopy, she turns slightly, scanning the stands for her coach as if in need of an explanation.

‘“You were behind the board,’” Greene says.

The next jump proves to be another disappointment, covering a span of 4.09 meters. This time she doesn’t even want to look at Greene.

‘“Yo yo yo,’” he calls after her. ‘“College coaches gonna have a lot of fun with you. You got that chip on your shoulder. Get over it already.’”

Following Nedd’s final jump, Victoria Dunlap of the Continental T-Belle Track Club out of Nashville, Tenn., sails through the air, marking a distance of 5.13 meters.

‘“Great jump,’” a coach from another club remarks. It’s not even her best; she’d already jumped 5.27.

Except for Nedd, the girls migrate as a group to the east end of the field to prepare for the next event: the javelin throw.

Nedd sits down under the canopy and shakes the sand from her shoes. Then she picks up her duffle bag and makes the journey across the field alone. She’s hit a slump and she knows she’ll have to do something before it turns into a freefall.

The day before she’d placed sixth in a field of 11 athletes in the 100-meter hurdles, the first event of the heptathlon. And yet it was a good finish, within a second of the fastest runner. With strong performances in the high jump and shot put, she had reached third place by the early afternoon. Then she faltered in the 200-meter dash, and slid down to fourth place. With seven athletes besting her in the long jump, the revised rankings have knocked her even further down by late morning on Wednesday ‘— to sixth place.

There is a lot happening at one time at the track and field championships, which began on June 27 and ended Sunday. While the young women and intermediate girls are competing in their second and final day of the heptathlon, the midget girls and midget boys ‘— whose ages fall in the 10-12 range ‘— are competing in the pentathlon, which includes a quick-paced menu of 80 meter hurdles, shot put, high jump, long jump, 800 meter run for girls and 1500 meter run for boys. Besides that, Wednesday morning also sees teams of four run the 800 meter relay in the midget girls, midget boys, youth girls and youth boys brackets.

The relays in particular and the track events in general tend to generate the most excitement since the action moves past the spectators, in contrast to the field events where a jump or a put or a javelin throw takes place in a discrete corner of the field.

The stadium is sparsely attended during the weekday mornings, with coaches and parents each keeping a watchful eye on a handful of athletes, and some vendors working the fairway behind the stands. The clubs tend to have more colorful names than school teams do, and they come from all across the country. The distance of the journey and regional identity seems to forge a particular bond between parents within the same club.

There’s Rising Stars Track Club from Long Island, NY; the Gazelle Track Team out of Atlanta, whose Monti Willis takes the top place in the midget girls pentathlon; the Nashville Illusions Track Club; the California Rising Stars Track Club; BLAZ-N HEAT out of Georgia; and the Durham Striders Track Club. Greensboro alone boasts three clubs: the Blazers, the Champions and the Pacesetters.

‘“Track is more than a sport; it’s a lifestyle,’” says Desiree James, a parent attached to the Long Beach Sprinters who has three children competing this year. ‘“You’ve got to be up at seven in the morning and out until seven at night. You can’t be going out to the club unless you’ve got a lot of energy.’”

She’s beaming as she stands in a huddle with a group of parents next to the pit for the midget boys shot put event. She accurately predicts that her son, Dustin James II, will take first place for the midget boys pentathlon. Her daughter, Desiree, is shooting for the national record in the triathlon. Both of her girls ‘— the other’s name is Dominique ‘— are competing in the bantam girls triathlon, a bracket for children born in 1996 or later.

Alana Nedd regains some ground in the javelin throw with a high throw of 24.33 meters ‘— the third best of her cohort. Later Eric Greene will exude that his athlete ‘“cranked’” on the javelin throw but now, just before the final event of the heptathlon, he’s in no mood for early congratulations.

‘“It’s not gonna be pretty,’” he says. ‘“She’s not in good shape, and she’s knows I’m gonna give her a hard time.’”

Then he reconsiders his position, taking a more philosophical stance.

‘“They’ve got a long way,’” Greene says. ‘“It’s ups and downs. Especially if you’re a parent you’ve got to look at them as a child before you look at them like an athlete. You don’t want them to sour on it before they even get to the college level.’”

In the first lap of the 800-meter run Nedd fights for third place. In the final stretch she seems to lose some of her resolve, turning her head. She finishes fifth with a respectable time of two minutes and 44 seconds. Finishing seventh is Kiara Crutchfield, a Ragsdale High School student competing for the Greensboro Champions, who makes a valiant effort to overtake Victoria Dunlap. Despite her fifth-place finish in the 800, Dunlap is the overall points leader.

Greene bears a look of satisfaction; in the last two events his athlete has battled her way back to third place for the heptathlon. Nedd will enter one more club competition this summer and then athlete and coach will go their separate ways after working together for nine years.

‘“I wasn’t too happy with my place,’” Nedd says. ‘“I thought I worked hard here. He’s been making me work hard. The first day I ran track he said, ‘You’re good. You have to work hard. This isn’t no game.””

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