by Mike Byrnes

Much has been written in this space about the many athletes that have competed in the meets now sponsored by Nike and administered by the National Scholastic Sports Foundation, the Nike Indoor/Outdoor Nationals. Both meets are considered the unofficial national championships for high school track and field. (Ed. Note: There are no official national championships in any sport due to the reluctance of the National High School Federation to create such events. It is their position that to do so would result in a drastic over-emphasis on one segment of the high school extra-curriculum program.)

Thus, no event may call itself a "National High School…," since that phrase has been copyrighted by the National Federation. In 1984, the meet now known as the Nike Indoor Nationals was created under the name, The Pathmark Classic.

It was an idea whose time had come. Within a few years, participation had grown National in scope, peaking in the mid-90's when athletes representing all 50 states took part. Today the usual number of states participating averages in the mid-40's.

But, the NSSF has a far wider range of programs that benefit the Nation's youngsters.

For many years, the NSSF provided funding for young elite athletes to compete in major athletic competitions. One of the earliest was a sensational indoor hurdle competition at the Simplot Games. The foundation, in conjunction with USATF cooperated to fund four of the Nation's finest female hurdlers to come together and race over the 55m hurdles at the famed Simplot Games. This marked the first time, other than the Pathmark meet, that a group of athletes received financial support to travel and compete.

For most outstanding athletes, the competition they find locally is far below the level necessary for them to significantly improve. It is generally agreed that an athlete with Olympic potential will fare far better with a background of solid competitive opportunities. But, until the inception of the NSSF, they rarely got such a chance.

The Golden West meet was the first to offer a shot at National-level competition. Many of our country's Olympians benefited from that meet. Unfortunately, no funding was available and too many kids simply couldn't afford to go.

Another meet, the International Prep Invitational, better known as the Keebler meet, also gave kids a chance to go up against the best, but it was by invitation only and thus very few athletes took part. When the sponsor, Keebler, was purchased, the meet was dropped.

Then, then the NSSF stepped in. It was the goal of the organization to foster success in track and field at the international level. An ambitious goal for an unknown organization with no staff, no offices and no money! In 1992 we funded our first athlete, Melody Fairchild, to the USATF (TAC) World Junior Cross Country championships. She made the team and finished third, the highest finish ever for an athlete representing this country. Since that time, the NSSF has funded literally hundreds of young Americans to countless competitions.

With the completion of the 2008 Olympics just a few days ago I stepped back and looked at the medal winners from the USA. Of the twenty-three medalists, no less than 14 competed in one, or both, NIKE championships. Now that's a pretty good percentage and we're quite proud of how we've helped. But the NSSF has assisted our Elite youngsters, including the great many that, for one reason or another, never rose to Olympian heights.

Several years ago we instituted the Select Meet program. This endeavor selects top quality meets throughout the nation and provides Elite athletes a travel/housing grant to enable them to find the top-quality competition they need to advance their careers. Virtually EVERY medal winner was provided support to at least one such competition. How does this help an athlete? First, very few could afford to travel to such a meet. Having an Elite athlete within one's household, whatever the sport, requires a constant flow of money. Shoes, implements, clothing, books, films, at time, coaching and the largest nut, travel and housing, all at the expense of the parent. If you watched the OG's you saw how the Chinese solved this problem, they virtually "adopt" any/every youngster who appears to have outstanding potential. The child is removed from his/her home and goes to live at one of the many national training centers. Here they receive top quality coaching, room and board along with numerous competitive opportunities. They see their parents and siblings but rarely. The cost? To the state, little; to the kids and their parents, everything. In China there is the state; in the United States there is the National Scholastic Sports Foundation.

Lashawn Merritt credits the NSSF with doing a great deal to assist in his quest for the gold medal. "I could never have gone to the meets they sent me to," he explained to Larry Rubama, sports journalist for a Norfolk newspaper. "Because of them I had a chance to go up against the best and I realized I was as good as anybody," he continued. Those same sentiments could be credited to several others on the medal list. But remember, in this article only Olympic medal winners are being mentioned. In a prior piece I mentioned the huge number of Olympic team members who have been helped along the way by the NSSF.

The nation's finest two meets, the NIKE Indoor/Outdoor Nationals are NSSF events. But make no mistake; both had to survive many years of financial struggle prior to gaining sponsorship from NIKE. An athlete competing in the NIKE outdoor meets receives a terrific bag, before NIKE they got a coffee cup! That was all we could afford then. But it was a major step up from the plastic water bottle they got the year before.

Every year forty of the nation's Elite, twenty from each sex, are provided support to the USATF National Junior championships. It is only at this meet an athlete can qualify for international track and field competition. Our travel/housing grant makes it possible for these athletes to attend, hopefully qualify for the US team and thus take a step closer to the World Championships and/or the Olympic Games. It's no wonder that TRACK & FIELD NEWS stated that the NSSF was the single most important entity involved with the sport.

But I'm not finished! Several years ago we conceived of the CARIBBEAN SCHOLASTIC INVITATIONAL. A team of about thirty athletes is chosen to compete against their counterparts from throughout the Caribbean. It's another competitive chance for the future international stars to advance their careers.

At both NIKE meets there are several clinics for these aspiring Olympians to be taught skills from some of the best coaches in the country. Hundreds of our young people take advantage of these learning experiences along with their coaches.

Due to the exposure competitors in NSSF-sponsored/administered events, hundreds of scholarships are awarded to colleges and universities in the United States. Unfortunately, too many of these are awarded to foreign youngsters who take advantage of the superior facilities and coaching offered them and then goes home and wins Olympic medals for their home country. More on that another time.

Through the efforts of the NSSF, primarily by Jim Spier, the Top Five in every event are highlighted on our, and other, websites. Every interested athlete can find out what they have to do to advance to Elite status. I can vividly recall in my early days of coaching, painstakingly finding the leading performances in our local league, region, county and state. These lists were posted and team members could see what they had to do to "make the list." Of course, the highest list a kid could aspire to was that of TRACK & FIELD NEWS. It took quite a few years but eventually the athletes from Wantagh High School could see their names among the nation's best. They can still do so but due to the efforts of Jim Spier and John Dye, the list is far timelier and everyone has access.

All of the aforementioned programs, competitions, services, etc. are a part of what the NSSF does for the hundreds of thousands of youngsters who compete in high school track and field. And we're glad to be of service!

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