LAKEWOOD RANCH — Fourteen-year-old Tyler Stevenson steps up to the starting line at The Out-of-Door Academy track and stares ahead.
One hundred meters separates the Manatee Mustangs Track Club sprinter from achieving personal satisfaction.
He crouches into position, kicking one leg back and then the other, before offering himself a few silent words of encouragement.
Stevenson remains motionless until his coach gives the signal; and, in the blink of an eye, Stevenson is blazing down the track and across the finish line.
Stevenson pauses long enough to catch his breath, before jogging back to the starting line.
It’s a typical practice for Stevenson, who is training for the three most important races of his young track-and-field career.
On July 29 through Aug. 3, Stevenson will compete in the 100, 200 and 400 at the AAU Track and Field Junior Olympics, at Eastern Michigan University.
Stevenson qualified for the Junior Olympics at the Area 9-A National Qualifier June 20 through June 23, in Jacksonville.
“It means a lot because this is the first year that I made it,” Stevenson says. “I was pretty happy when I found out that I made it to nationals.”
Stevenson began running three years ago as a way to stay in shape for football, but he quickly realized track was more than just something to pass the time.
“I fell in love with it,” Stevenson says. “I like being on the track, learning and competing against other teams.”
Stevenson will compete in all three of the events he qualified for, but he admits the 100-meter dash is his favorite race.
“It’s more of a competitive race that’s based on skill you acquire,” Stevenson says.
Joining Stevenson on the track at the Junior Olympics will be 10-year-olds Saraiah Walkes and Alexis Graham.
Similar to her teammate, Graham will be running the 200 and also competing in the long jump.
“It feels good, because it’s the first time that I went to the Junior Olympics,” Graham says. “I was speechless and kind of confused at first, because at the track meet, I didn’t run the 200, but I qualified for it.”
Graham is hoping to break her personal bests in both the 200 (30.52) and long jump (12 feet, 2 1/2 inches).
Walkes, who is the most decorated of the three competitors, will be making her third-consecutive appearance at the Junior Olympics, after qualifying in the 100, 200, 400 and 800. However, Walkes only plans to run the 100, 200 and 400.
“I was happy for my time, and I was just excited,” Walkes says. “Once I got on the podium, I started jumping up and down. I was so excited.”
On July 14 at the AAU Track and Field Club Championships, in Orlando, Walkes ran a new personal best time of 1:01 in the 400 — a time she hopes to break at the Junior Olympics.
Additionally, Walkes hopes to earn All-American status in the 100 and 200.
But, to do so, Walkes will have to push aside the nervous energy that invades her body every time she steps onto the track and remember the lessons she’s learned from watching her mentors — Olympians Justin Gatlin, Allyson Felix, Carmelita Jeter, Sanya Richards-Ross and Usain Bolt.
“It’s just like any other race,” Walkes says. “I’ve (learned) I can’t worry about others. I always have to run my own race, and, (most importantly), you have to be proud of what you get and always practice.”
In addition to Stevenson, Graham and Walkes, Tysean Mann, 10, Mark Davis, 12, and Justin Townsend, 17, also qualified for the Junior Olympics. Mann qualified in the 100 and 200. Davis qualified in the 100 and long jump. Townsend qualified for the long jump.
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].