ODA eighth-grader piles up national track and field awards.
In a race determined by mere hundredths of a second, every little step counts, including the first one.
Just ask The Out-of-Door Academy eighth-grader Saraiah Walkes.
At the 2012 AAU Junior Olympics, Walkes, who was 9 years old at the time, had the fastest time coming out of her heat in the 100-meter dash.
Walkes was one the favorites in the final, only she never had a chance to run. A false start sent her off the track to the giggles of her competitors, and as she broke down in tears, she made a promise to herself to do better.
While disappointing at the time, in hindsight, the misstep actually has served as Walkes’ biggest motivator.
“She hates losing,” said Sheldon Cantrell, the long jump coach for Lakewood Ranch’s Academy of Maximum Performance. “She’s the type of athlete you love to work with because she cares about what she’s doing.”
The 13-year-old Academy of Maximum Performance runner has come a long way since that false start cost her a possible medal.
Since that day, she has medaled in every Junior Olympic event she’s entered, including winning the long jump during last year’s AAU Junior Olympics with a personal best mark of 16 feet, 11.5 inches.
“I still get very nervous for her because anything can happen,” said Al Walkes, Saraiah’s father.
Walkes will look to defend her long jump title during the 2016 AAU Junior Olympics July 30 through Aug. 6, in Houston, Texas.
“It’s the track meet for the best of the best,” Walkes said. “It means I’m still on the top. I can make it and compete with the rest.”
In addition, Walkes also qualified for the 100, 200 and 400 and was expected to qualify for the 800 during the AAU Track and Field Club Championships July 10-16, at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, in Orlando. Walkes finished third in both the 100 and 400 during last year’s Junior Olympics.
“I always try to do my best and don’t give up,” Walkes said. “I don’t want to be scared that I’m not going to do my best. Sometimes I doubt myself, so I’m trying to have more confidence. Even if I don’t come in first, I know my team is there for me.”
Joining Walkes on the track will be fellow Academy of Maximum Performance runners Keymani Dillingham, a third-grader at Imagine School of Lakewood Ranch, Priscilla Miller, a junior at Southeast, and Aliyah Cunningham, a junior at Riverview.
Similar to Walkes, the 8-year-old Dillingham will compete in the long jump and the 100 as well as the shot put.
“It’s an opportunity to be a champion,” Dillingham said of Junior Olympics. “It would be amazing to win (like Saraiah). It’s like I can do anything.
“Saraiah is my mentor and I dream of being like her and fast like her,” Dillingham said.
Cunningham, 16, will represent the team in the 100, 200 and long jump while Miller, 15, who is in her first AAU season, will compete in the 100, 200, long jump and triple jump.
“It’s kind of nerve wracking, so you just have to try to calm your nerves and stay focused because there’s a lot of really good competition,” Cunningham said.
Walkes, the most seasoned of her teammates, has been competing since she was 7 years old. After beating many of the football players her age in head-to-head races, Walkes realized she had natural ability.
It was up to her to take that natural ability and develop it further.
“It’s her drive,” Cantrell said. “She’s highly self-motivated and she knows what it takes. We’re just trying to mold and fix the little things to help her along the way, but mostly it’s all her.”
While Walkes has quickly asserted herself as one of the top runners, not only in her age group but at the high school level as well, the long jump is where Walkes feels the most comfortable.
The event combines Walkes’ natural speed with the ability to soar through the air into a thick pile of fluffy white sand.
“I feel like a graceful animal, and then I land in the sand and get all dirty,” Walkes said.
Although defending Junior Olympic champion or not, Walkes trains for every meet the same way.
“I still have to prepare myself and help my body grow,” Walkes said. “As long as I train and do my best, then I’m happy.”