Fort Meade Highsteppers compete on national level
August 2, 2012
FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (Aug. 2, 2012) -- While the sporting world turned to London for the Summer Olympics, a handful of Fort Meade athletes competed at the Junior Olympics for medals of their own.
The Fort Meade Highsteppers Track and Field Club, part of the Child, Youth and School Services' Youth Sports program, sent 13 athletes to compete at the USA Track and Field National Junior Olympics Track and Field Championships last week at Hughes Stadium at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
With Sam Graves, 17, and his brother Paul Johnson, 14, both medaling in the weeklong meet, the team continued its yearly tend of bringing home hardware from the elite competition.
"We love it," said coach Bruce Hunter. "It's always interesting."
Each year, the team sends a handful of competitors to the national championships and regularly brings back medals.
With the transient population of Fort Meade, Hunter said it "speaks volumes" about the coaches and how hard the athletes work to reach this high level of competition on a regular basis.
Several team members at this year's meet were returning to the national stage, including Sam, who has been to the Junior Olympics 11 times, and Paul, who has competed for national championships seven times.
Even though medaling is somewhat regular for some of the athletes, the emotions remain the same.
"The kids are always ecstatic," Hunter said.
But this year's event was a bit tougher than previous Junior Olympics.
In the past, the team has competed in the Amateur Athletic Union. However, to compete at the Baltimore-based championships this year, the Highsteppers switched to the USATF. In addition to new competition against teams in the USATF, coaches said a majority of area AAU teams also joined the organization for the year -- creating a highly competitive pool of athletes.
Both Sam and Paul said competition was stiffer at the USATF Junior Olympics than in previous AAU championships.
"It's a lot of competition," Paul said.
Athletes competed in mid-June at the Potomac Valley region championships at Prince George's County Sports and Learning Complex in Landover to earn the right to compete on the sport's center stage. Since then, athletes prepared to take on the nation's best competitors at the Junior Olympics.
During their preparations, Hunter said athletes focused on quality of workouts -- not quantity. Rest and sound nutrition are the basis of training for the national championships, he said.
"The only work that needs to be done is tweaking," he said. "All the necessary conditioning has already been done. If they're not in condition, it's too late."
Once it was time for the Junior Olympics, Hunter said veteran runners centered their focus on their events. But athletes who have never been to the meet weren't sure what they were in for.
It's not until they're at the Junior Olympics that competitors truly know the extent of the competition, Hunter said.
"It's hard," Sam said.
Members of the Highsteppers were scheduled to compete in 17 events at the Junior Olympics, including four jumping events -- a team high, Hunter said. The top eight finishers in each event medaled.
Paul's 42.35-meter throw in the Youth Boys Javelin earned him fifth-place on Friday for one of the team's two medals. His distance was four meters further than his fourth-place finish last year and a significant improvement to his qualifying distance of 36.5 meters.
After improving again this year, Paul said he plans to "keep focus and practice hard" to push himself further next season.
On July 24, Sam became the only team member to earn a gold medal. Sam beat out runners from Mississippi and Texas in the Young Men's 3,000-Meter Race Walk. His time of 15:03.52 was nearly 50 seconds faster than his qualifying time of 15:54.46, and more than a minute faster than his silver medal finish last year.
Sam also placed 13th in the 3,000-meter run, with a time of 9:33.82.
Sam's finish was his fourth gold medal in the 3,000-meter race walk since 2008. He said he was proud of his gold medal -- and of adding to his collection of gold in the event.
"It's a lot of fun, a lot of recognition," Sam said.