The 30th Olympiad just concluded in London, but the long road to Olympic glory continues in earnest around the country as athletes put in the years of work needed to make their own Olympic dreams come true.
In Chicago’s Jackson Park, the Off Track track and field club has been putting in work all summer developing and honing local track athlete’s skills as they continue their high school track careers and move on to college.
This summer Off Track head coach Ashley Homere and his team of girls from high schools around the city practiced regularly and competed in the Junior Olympics in Baltimore, Md.
The Junior Olympics gave the team a taste of the big time and exposed them to national competition. Something that is very important for high school athletes in Chicago Public Schools said Walter Payton College Prep senior Cameron Pettigrew.
“I really like Junior Olympics because it gives you the competition level you need that you don’t necessarily get at state or in CPS. A lot of CPS meets aren’t very competitive so having a meet with that type of competition I’m grateful for it,” said Pettigrew, who placed 2nd in the 400 meters at the IHSA State meet and 3rd at the Junior Olympics.
Competing against athletes on the national level also staves off complacency for athletes that get used to winning rather easily at city track meets.
“There’s always somebody to beat, you’re never on top – there’s always somebody faster,” said Mercedes Young who has been awarded a full scholarship to Washington State University due to her track prowess.
“Junior Olympics was a good experience,” added Rich South senior Cierra Garrett. “To see the competition and see how fast people are – and they were really fast.”
The team performed well at the Junior Olympics winning one Gold medal, a silver and two Bronze medals even though they were small in number with just seven athletes compared to some other teams which field over 20.
Homere said he prefers to coach a smaller squad.
“We went to the Junior Olympics a little banged up, but for the amount of girls we had I believe they did real well. I make the teams small on purpose so I can pay attention to everybody,” the coach said.
Soon after the Junior Olympics ended the games of the 2012 Olympics began and the young ladies of Off Track paid close attention to the athletes in London.
“I feel overwhelmed by the Olympics,” Pettigrew said. “My goal is to get where they are – it’s inspiring to watch them because they’re the best of the best.”
Many athletes that medaled in London are still in their teens and this was even more inspiring for the athletes of Off Track.
“When I watch the Olympics it makes me want to pursue my dream because there are 15 and 16 year olds winning Olympic medals and that could have been me. Sometimes I want to quit but I’m trying to stick with it, it’s inspiring,” said Lauren Copeland, a sophomore at St. Ignatius College Prep.
And to move forward in track and field it’s crucial that athletes hit the track in the summer months said Dasia Garrett, a Rich South senior and Cierra Garrett’s twin sister.
“I’m working on becoming a smarter runner. I’m working on more technical things and not running just to be fast. I’m learning how to run smoother and not use so much energy,” said Dasia.
“Summer track helps you prepare for high school track,” she added. “If you don’t run summer track you lose everything you worked for in the high school track season.”
And running against stiff competition in practice and at events like the Junior Olympics can be an even tougher challenge than the regular high school track season.
“Summer track is the most challenging of all the seasons we run, and the Junior Olympics are like the baby Olympics,” said sprinter Lena Townsell of CPS city track and field champions Whitney Young. “It helps you get faster and develop yourself for college or if you plan to possibly go to the Olympics.”
Shamier Little, the record-setting hurdler and 400 meter runner from Lindblom took a Gold medal in the 400 meter hurdles at the Junior Olympics and is ready to finish off her senior year and move on with her track career.
“If I pick the right college hopefully they can take me to the next level and then I’ll be ready to go to the Olympic trials,” Little said.
The athletes in Off Track seem to realize that to become a high-level track athlete hard work is at the core, but the coach cautions that it still has to be an enjoyable experience, especially for younger athletes.
“Make it fun and make it attractive,” said Homere. “Don’t make it like a job because then they won’t come back.