In a matter of days, or even hours, the American Amateur Union’s Junior Olympic Games will descend upon the Humble area, bringing with them untold fringe benefits like media coverage and extra revenue. It should be the major boon everyone has hoped for.
But, at their core, the Junior Olympics are all about kids, scores of kids, the games they play and the people coming to see them. They are about the stories behind each kid – the sport stacker, the runner, the aspiring gymnast. They are about the races, the throws, the acrobatics and the sheer excitement of competition, of hard work paying off in a tangible reward.
Many of these athletes are right here, training with a track and field club that has been building towards this moment for a long time. And now, with the games set to begin, this club thinks it had a good chance of cashing in on its reward.
SENDING THE MASSES
Track Houston is one of several clubs sending representatives to the Junior Olympics, which begin July 26. The games will be held at several venues around the Greater Houston area, including the George R. Brown Convention Center and the Pearland Natatorium, but Turner Stadium will host track and field, the centerpiece attraction of any Olympic competition.
With their practice site a mere 15 minutes away from Turner, head coach Terrance Bean said Track Houston’s athletes will get a chance to display their talents to a national audience right in their own backyard.
“I’m very excited to have this event in our home community and that so many of our kids have earned the right to compete,” Bean said. “I challenged them early on to expect to be there, and now I know they’re excited to put on a show for everyone in the Humble and Atascocita communities.”
Track Houston will send anywhere from 30 to 40 athletes to the AAU Games – the start lists were, as of Monday, still being finalized for several events – and a few of them will be in line to post some impressive marks once the competition begins.
One such runner is Dynasty McClennon, a nine-year-old girl who attends River Pines Elementary in Humble. Last year, at the USA Track and Field Region 12 meet, McClennon set a record in the sub-bantam girls’ 200 meters with a time of 30.45 seconds. She also won the 100, just edging out teammate Daja Maxey.
McClennon bested her 200 time back in June at the USATF Gulf Association Meet, running 27.51 in the bantam girls’ race. She runs 13.73 in the 100 and had a time of 1:06.59 in the 400. Returning to the USATF regional meet the first week of July, she won the title yet again with a time of 28.32.
McClennon, Maxey, Adaora Nwokeji and Peyton VanCourt won the 4x100 relay at this year’s USATF title meet, finishing a few seconds ahead of another Track Houston team: Jazelle Williams, Jordyn Sasser, Kiarra Wafer-Randle and Rachel Whipple.
Though one might expect a nine-year-old to feel nervous on the eve of such an important event, McClennon isn’t the least bit fazed. Her coach described her as an intense competitor, and her disposition does nothing to belie that statement.
Asked if she felt anxious heading into the meet, McClennon gave a simple reply: “Not really.” She said her experience, even at such a young age, will help her out.
“I run a lot and I know how to do it,” she said.
A LONG JOURNEY
The Junior Olympics will mark a major milestone in the development of a program that, just a few years ago, had little going for it. Track Houston is one of the oldest clubs in the Greater Houston area, its origins dating back to the mid-1980s. It has divisions in places like Katy, Cypress, Missouri City, Crosby and Alief.
When Bean, a three-time All-American in the high jump at Northwestern State and a finalist at the 1996 Olympic Trials, began coaching the Humble division seven years ago, his club had only 19 members. Now it’s grown to 80. Bean said that while the early successes of some of his runners helped get the word out about the club, he and his assistants had to do extra legwork to attract more athletes.
“It was just meeting people in the community,” he said. “As our kids got older and went to different schools, we connected more, and now I have more help in getting assistant coaches out.”
The coaching staff has been crucial to Track Houston’s development during that time. In addition to overseeing the program as a whole, Bean works with the jumpers. Robert Wright, an Humble High School graduate who threw shot put at Northwestern State, works on the throwing events.
Bean’s wife, Sharon, works with the race walkers. Another coach, Victor Shirley, also helps oversee the program, and another does the hurdles. On and on the list goes. Each coach is a volunteer with a separate full-time job, but Bean said they are motivated to help for the same reasons as him – the love of competition and the desire to train young athletes.
“It’s just the love for kids, wanting to give back, being too old to compete but still having the fire and the passion of competing in you,” he said.
WORKING WITH KIDS
The age range of Track Houston’s athletes is pretty wide: between 6 and 18 years old. Bean admitted the difficulty of coaching kids in vastly different stages of physical development. However, he said the younger kids tend to respond to a more strenuous type of training than one would expect.
“We coach as though we’re coaching Olympic athletes, but it’s at their level,” Bean said. “The terminology is a little bit different, but the amount they run and the way they approach it is pretty standard. You’d be surprised at how a 6- or a 7-year-old will approach their workouts the same way as a 15-year-old.”
Athletes generally try out a number of different things when they first join the club, as the coaches make sure not to pigeonhole someone too early into a specific. Everyone runs and everyone tries a few field events. Though some athletes might take a while to settle into a natural position, within the first month or so, most of them have an idea of what races they’re best suited for.
“We always ask our athletes to keep an open mind and not think of themselves as anything,” Bean said. “We want them to have range in what they do. Knowing how colleges think and what they’re looking for, they want athletes who are versatile and open-minded. That’s the way you want them to approach life. We want them to be willing to try anything.”
Dominque Lang, an incoming freshman at Summer Creek High School, recently went through that process when he joined Track Houston a year ago. A fan of Usain Bolt’s, Lang envisioned himself as a sprinter coming in, but he still tried his hand at the long- and middle-distance races.
“It’s harder than the sprints,” he said of the longer distances. “It’s way different. You have to know that you can’t just run the first lap as fast as you can, otherwise you’re going to die in the second lap. That’s the hardest. I’m not used to that.”
Lang runs the 100, 200 and the 400 individually along with 4x100 and 4x400 relays.
BUILDING FOR THE FUTURE
As a parent himself, Bean said he strives for an open dialogue between coaches and parents from the moment their kids join Track Houston. He asks athletes to bring report cards and progress reports to practice from time to time, and if an athlete is misbehaving or not performing well in class, he works with parents if need be to find a way to get them on track.
In return, Bean said he has developed a sense of trust with both parents and athletes that has helped create a true family atmosphere within the club.
“I think parents can sense when someone is genuine and when someone has the right motive when working with kids,” Bean said, “and they get a sense of comfort out of that. So, my whole goal is present a proper character in front of our athletes and set an example of things that go beyond sports. That helps develop that trust.”
That trust figures to grow even stronger as Track Houston continues to grow in the Humble community. With a major showcase event just on the horizon, the club finds itself in a strong position. Bean said he hopes the number of athletes will increase in the coming years, but his primary focus is on improving his own coaching methods day by day and continuing to build the best support system imaginable.
“I’m all about quality and doing the right things first,” Bean said. “For me, it’s not as much about quantity as it is about finding the right fit for our community. We have to have good parent volunteers so that our kids can have a good place to train and be safe.”