Young runners learn on, off the track
By TODD WRIGHT
© St. Petersburg Times,
"If it is close going into the last 200 to 400 meters of the race, I put my money on Anthony every time," said Anthony Sullivan, middle distance coach for Fast Forward, a track club for young runners that tries to teach lessons in life as well as sports.
Ogunleye is one of 32 young athletes from Fast Forward who qualified to compete at the AAU Junior Olympics in Virginia at the end of the month. For many of the athletes, the Junior Olympics has become an annual summer event. This will be Ogunleye's first in three tries as a member of Fast Forward.
"I ran so hard that day, the only thing on my mind after the race was water," said Ogunleye, who will also compete on the 800-meter relay team. "I am just happy I finally got a chance to make it."
Andre Oliver, team leader of Fast Forward, sees Ogunleye as a perfect example of what the track club tries to accomplish. Fast Forward, now in its third year, tries to provide young kids with an interest in track an opportunity to learn the fundamentals. At the same time, Oliver said, coaches teach the kids the value of self-esteem, confidence and hard work.
"The kids realize that when you put in hard work and get results it helps you to feel good about yourself," Oliver said.
Six coaches for Fast Forward serve youths ages 6 to 17 in a range of events. A high concentration of the track club's 65 members are under 13, which allows coaches to find the event that best suits each athlete.
Ogunleye started out as a sprinter, running the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes in his first two years. At the beginning of training in March, Sullivan and Oliver noticed Ogunleye could sustain his speed over a longer distance.
"When I saw him run during conditioning, I just thought he would be a natural middle distance runner, and we could still use his sprinter's mentality," Sullivan said.
Results came quickly as Ogunleye finished first or second in the majority of his races this summer.
"I like this better because I am winning," said Ogunleye, a student at John Hopkins Middle School. "I was tired of finishing sixth place (in the sprints)."
D'Angelo Parker is another athlete who has made the successful change to a new event after starting out in the sprint events. Parker, 14, has been a member of Fast Forward since its beginning and has gone through a personality transformation, according to coaches.
"D'Angelo would get real down on himself when he lost or if he messed up," said Wayne Carter, who coaches Parker in the hurdles and high jump.
Parker shies away from talking about his successes as a hurdler. The scars on his knees and elbows remind him of the not-so-good times he has had in the event.
At one of his first meets after making the move from the 200 and 400-meter dash to the 100-meter hurdles, Parker crashed into a hurdle midway through the race and tumbled on the track.
"I thought that was it for sure. I didn't think he was going to come back out after that experience," Carter said.
Parker did return and told coaches he wanted to concentrate on the hurdles. On top of practicing with Fast Forward from 5:30 to 7:15 p.m. Monday through Thursday, Parker also wakes up at 6 a.m. and runs 3 miles a day at Lake Vista Park with his mom. He finished third at the state tournament to qualify for his first Junior Olympics.
"I feel I have a chance to finish in the top five because I have worked so hard at it," said Parker. "If I listen to my coaches and don't slack up, I won't have a problem."
Results from a good work ethic are just the first phase of the Fast Forward program, according to club president Lorenzo Hogans. Hogans said the rising enrollment and growth of the track club will allow for a greater emphasis on conduct, academics and cultural education. Hogans believes taking the athletes to museums, cultural fairs and other field trips will help open their minds to the world around them.
"This is not a closed community we live in. I want the kids to feel comfortable regardless of their surroundings," Hogans said.
Most of the track club attended the "Discover Native America" program held at Eckerd College in March. Fast Forward members have also volunteered at the Special Olympics, and the group has participated in numerous walks for causes in the area. Hogan said annual community events like the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parade and the African American Heritage Celebration are equally important as "public service important to the growth of kids."
"Now that we've showed them how discipline is needed on the track and in practice, we are going to try and transfer that over to the classroom and the community," Hogans said.
Parents and volunteers play an important part in the advancement of the track club. Hogans estimated parents provided about 80 percent of the driving force behind Fast Forward. Parents pay a $45 registration fee to be a part of the track club, which includes cost of uniforms, insurance and AAU membership. Trips to meets out of the city are funded solely by volunteer dollars and the Junior Olympics trip is expected to cost close to $16,000.
Many of the coaches have their kids participating at Fast Forward as well. Sullivan's two daughters, Ashley, 9, and Natasha, 11, will compete in the 1,500-meter race walk in their age groups at the national meet. Oliver's son, Justin, will be making his third trip to the Junior Olympics and won gold in 1999 as a long jumper.
Considered one of the young leaders of the club, the 13-year-old Oliver holds the state AAU record in the triple jump for ages 13 and 14. His jump of 44 feet and 5 inches is 6 inches off the national record. Oliver said he is using the record as motivation.
"This is my last shot to break (the record), and I already plan on winning the event," said Oliver, who will advance to another age group next year.
Oliver might be the busiest athlete from Fast Forward when the Junior Olympics start on July 28. He qualified to compete in the long jump, triple jump, and the 200- and 400-meter dashes.
Oliver said his son has been influential in his approach to coaching. It has also reminded him of the main goal for Fast Forward.
"It's easy for us as adults to get caught up and take all this too seriously. When your kid is out there on the track, you realize they are out there to have fun."
To find out more about the Fast Forward Track Club call 864-6649 or 866-0055.
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