Fort Campbell’s Jordan Gibbs-Francis follows closely behind Khalil Maynard while warming up during practice Monday at Austin Peay State University’s Governors Stadium. The two Falcons track and field athletes are training to compete with Clarksville’s new Amateur Athletic Union team, known as the Tennessee Athletic Project, at the AAU Junior Olympic Games in Houston, Texas, later this summer
Four Falcons athletes are preparing to spread their wings in the national spotlight.
As members of a newly-formed local Amateur Athletic Union team, David Sahms, Khalil Maynard, Nia Gibbs-Francis and her brother, Jordan, are training to compete in the AAU Junior Olympic Games.
While these Jr. Olympics feature events ranging from baton twirling to wrestling to gymnastics, these Fort Campbell teens are competing exclusively in track and field events.
To compete at this elite national level, the teens first had to qualify at the district and regional level. The four individuals are part of the 16 athletes from the team to place high enough to advance to the Jr. Olympics, which will be held in Houston, Texas, from July 25-Aug. 4.
This local team originated after local high school coaches expressed the need for more opportunities for their track and field talent. Douglas Molnar, head track coach at Austin Peay State University, listened and created the Tennessee Athletic Project program to assist in creating more competition outside the regular season.
“There was a market for it,” he said. “There were kids that wanted the coaching and wanted to be good.”
Since launching TAP, which encompasses not only the AAU team but other camps as well, Molnar has received support from the rest of his APSU coaching staff as well as some of the top Clarksville-area high school instructors. About 25 children participated in the AAU club team this year.
“We were hoping … maybe get 10 kids to nationals the first year – that would be really something good,” Molnar explained. “We’ve got 16, and we’ve got one more that will have a chance to qualify this weekend.”
The rising senior placed second in pole vault at the AAU Area 6 national qualifier held June 28-July 1 in Knoxville, Tenn.
Sahms, who like the other Fort Campbell participants is a successful multi-sport athlete, looks forward to traveling to the Jr. Olympics. He agrees that this level of competition is much more intense than even the Kentucky High School Athletic Association State Track Meet.
“At the state level, there were probably three people jumping over 12 foot,” he said. “In this competition, there was eight people jumping over 13 foot and competing for the top spot.”
Sahms finished the national qualifier with a height of 13-06, compared to his second place 12-06 state finish.
“How I jumped at state was terrible, my hands kept on sliding,” Sahms said. “But I have that problem fixed now. That’s why I’m jumping so much higher.”
Sahms said his goal for nationals would be to jump 14-06, which would be a personal record.
Starting his senior year in the fall, Maynard is a relatively new face that took the Kentucky track field by storm. Since his Family transferred to Fort Campbell from Hawaii, he quickly began finding his niche by competing in track and joining Falcons football and basketball teams.
As a member of this first-year team, he will compete in both the 110-meter and 400-meter hurdles in Texas. In the 110-meter hurdles, Maynard finished second with a time of 15.65 at the qualifier. For the 400, he finished in 56.55 for another second place.
“I was disappointed in prelims because I had a bad start, but I came back in the finals,” Maynard said of his performance in the national qualifier. “I gave my heart into it [and finished second].”
Maynard placed first at the KHSAA state track meet in the 300-meter hurdles in 39.15. He credits his faster times this summer to increased motivation and the “harder workouts” he has received this summer. He hopes this training and exposure will help lead to more scholarship opportunities, as he said he wants “to run as long as I can.”
“It just feels different,” he said of the AAU team. “It feels like I’m already on the college level … Two or three years ago, I never thought I’d make it this far.”
With the expectation that he may face 100-200 other athletes in each of his events, Maynard is looking forward to the challenge.
“With hard work and dedication anything is possible,” he said. “That’s always been my motto.”
Maynard’s mother, Kecia, attended a recent practice for the team at APSU Governors Stadium.
“He’s been running since he was about 5 or 6 years old,” she said. “He used to run around the neighborhood a lot.”
As a sophomore, Maynard went on to compete on Hawaii’s All-State Team. Kecia is proud of both his athletic skills and his academic abilities as he takes this new step.
“It’s really exciting for him to branch out and express himself,” she said.
Nia is the youngest Fort Campbell High School AAU participants this year, as the upcoming sophomore is set to compete in high jump for the Jr. Olympics. She tied for fourth place at the qualifier with a 4-10, compared to her 5-00 third place finish in the Kentucky State Track finals.
“Hopefully for the Junior Olympics, I can reach my [personal record] of 5-2,” she said. “I’m looking forward to the experience of it all, because I’ve never been to a Junior Olympics.”
Nia said it’s been nice to experience the pace of a smaller team. The successful Falcons typically attract more than 50 participants to the team each year.
“It’s more challenging,” she explained. “I’ve put in a lot of work. It’s kind of nice, because the coaches specialize in different things.”
With practices four days a week, Gibbs-Francis dedicated her break to improving at a sport she’s been passionate about since 7th grade. She hopes to take what she’s learned in this environment and apply it during her high school track season.
“I gave up a lot of time in the summer, because I do soccer in the mornings,” she said. “Then I take a nap and come here. So, I gave up my summer to do this and it paid off because I’m going to the Jr. Olympics.”
As another successful rising senior, Jordan is preparing to compete in the 400-meter dash at the Jr. Olympics. Placing fifth in 50.54 at the national qualifier, Jordan is in a slightly different position than at the state finals where he was admittedly “the favorite coming into it.”
“This time I’m not,” he said of the Jr. Olympics. “So I just want to see if people run faster.”
He took the KHSAA state competition in May with a first-place time of 50.
Jordan attributes some of the difference between his state and AAU times to the extreme heat recently. The more than 100-degree temperatures over the past few weeks have affected all of the Fort Campbell competitors similarly. By practicing in the heat, Jordan thinks the athletes are now more conditioned to perform in Texas.
“I ran faster at state, because it wasn’t as hot,” Jordan said.
A few weeks ago, Jordan achieved a personal record of 49:42.
“I should be able to perform well, because it’s a higher-level competition,” he said. “I want to beat that PR at nationals.”
In addition to these successes, Jordan also picked up a new event – long jump – since starting practices with his TAP team. He hopes to take this new skill with him into the Falcons’ next season as well.
“I didn’t qualify, but I thought I did well,” he said of how he placed in long jump.
Valerie Brown, one of the TAP coaches who also serves as an assistant coach at APSU, expects each of the Fort Campbell teens to perform to the best of their ability at the Jr. Olympics.
“I think they have a good chance to perform well if they continue on the path that they’ve been on up to this point,” she explained.
Participation in the Jr. Olympics allows these athletes to “see their peak in the sport,” she added, by providing a higher level of competition.
The team welcomes donations in order to help make the trip possible.
Payments are accepted at tennathleticproject.com, and donations are tax-deductible. For more information about TAP, call Molnar at (931) 624-3338 .
“We’re taking any kind of donations – water or granola bars or anything that the kids might need during the trip,” Molnar said. “Then, we’re also taking cash donations as well.”