A chance meeting between two coaching friends has resulted in one of the most innovative track and field meetings currently being contested. Former Rice University track coach Victor Lopez and I bumped into each other at the World Juniors competition. During the course of our conversation the idea of a meet between athletes from our two countries would come together for a competition. Nothing ever came from our talk. Fortunately, two officers of the NATIONAL SCHOLASTIC SPORTS FOUNDATION, Jim Spier and Joy Kamani revived the idea. Through their work and with the cooperation the now-retired Lopez, the CARIBBEAN SCHOLASTIC INVITATIONAL was born.
In 2006 the NSSF sent a squad of 29 athletes to San Juan for the inaugural competition. I had the honor of serving as the coach of the Boys squad while Joy Kamani supervised the young women. Even though it was the first year, the meet showcased three young people who went on to become major players in our sport: JOHNNY DUTCH, BIANCA KNIGHT and the irespressible CHARLES CLARK. It would be an exaggeration to say their involvement in the 2006 CSI meet was a major factor in their success. At the same time it is quite fair to comment taking part in the CSI opened their eyes to just how good they could be. And they took it from there. Clark went on to win three (3) NCAA championships; Dutch was a member of the team representing this country in the 2009 World Championships and Knight entered the professional ranks shortly thereafter.
This past spring saw 483 athletes representing 10 of our neighbors to the South come together in San Juan for competition, camaraderie and challenge. A full schedule of events took place and some superlative performances were turned in. More on that later.
The aforementioned Kamani beamed and stated, "This is so much more than an athletics meeting. It's a chance for these kids to discover new cultures, visit places they might never have the opportunity to see, through the competition meet new friends, some of whom may last a lifetime and to learn how to travel." She laughed, a nice rather infectious laugh and went on, "Many of these kids have never flown before nor competed too much outside their own hometown."
And what's true for the US athletes is just as true for the youngsters from Saint Martin, Barbados, Colombia, Martinique and Anguilla just to mention a few of the competing nations. At the warm-up track there is a good deal of hesitant smiling, half-turned faces as a newcomer strides past. Conversations spring up, half in Spanish, the other in English. Somehow they understand. They're kids. They can do anything.
For 4-5 days they will hang out together, eat together, train together and finally turn to the matter at hand, the competition. And surely, the competition matters. A great many athletes turn in PB's (to the uninitiated that means a Personal Best), a few set new records for their country and all are exposed to the many college coaches who fly in to see if there's a kid they missed. Yes, college scholarships are won in San Juan. While much has been said about the camaraderie and fellowship developed, one must remember, the competition's the thing.
TEAM NSSF is selected by Spier and Kamani with input from many coaches. Spier explains, "We make a conscious effort to recruit the good but not great athlete. All those chosen are underclass youngsters. We do this to aid in their development as well as present a slate of athletes who will offer a good but not unbeatable challenge to the other competitors."
Spier's words are backed up by the efforts of those selected to compete. Consider, BRIDGETTE OWENS-MITCHELL, a hurdler from Southfield, Michigan came to San Juan as a good hurdler but had never run under 14.00 seconds, good, not anything special. At the CSI meet she began to realize the great potential she possessed. She posted her first ever sub-14 second race. And she got better and better and better!
The following week at the NSSF Outdoor Nationals, she lowered her best to 13.87. Hoping for a spot on the team representing the US at the World Youth Games, Bridgette came through turning in another PB, this time 13.69 good for the silver medal but, more importantly, earning a spot on the squad. Sure the hurdles were a little lower, 30" as opposed to the high school height, 33", so what? SHE MADE THE TEAM! She would represent the United States of America at the WORLD YOUTH CHAMPIONSHIPS in Bressanone, Italy. Now think about all the above.
This youngster came to the Nike Indoor Nationals and did well finishing 8th. But by competing at the Nike meet she became eligible to be selected for the trip to Puerto Rico. She survived the selection process. She capitalized on her trip to Boston by earning a spot in the CSI meet. Her trip to the Nike Indoor Nationals culminated with a third place finish at the WORLD YOUTH CHAMPIONSHIPS! Now think about it.
HAD SHE SKIPPED THE NIKE MEET IN BOSTON, NONE OF THE ABOVE WOULD HAVE HAPPENED! Talk about taking advantage of an opportunity! WOW! Was Bridgette the only athlete to build upon her trip to Boston? Not on your life.
BRIANA NELSON -- MICHELLE BROWN - McKENZIE SCHULTZ - A'LEXUS BRANNON - CARLTON LAVONG - ALEC FALDEMEYER all went from the Nike Indoor Nationals to the CSI meet to the World Youth Championships.
Two other youngsters, EMMY FRAENK ( St Martin) and AFIA CHARLES (Antigua) also made the jump.
To those of you still in high school reading this and wondering if YOU could qualify, why not? As the Nike ad says, "JUST DO IT!"
Take the first step…Come to Boston. I'll be looking for you. mb