FLORENCE, S.C. — Nine members of the Florence Track Club are headed to Sacramento, California, for the 2016 USA Track & Field Junior Olympics next week.
They are Cameron Aldridge, Kaleb Burroughs, Kaylanna Burroughs, Kamille Cunningham, Cassie Hitch, Alex Small, Caelin Sloan, Hidde Verkoeijen and Sanne Verkoeijen.
Eleven others qualified for the Junior Olympics but were unable to attend the event.
Though the nine are national qualifiers, practices don’t get any easier or less frequent for the group, whose members are all elementary to middle-school age.
“(Practice) gets bigger as we get closer and it gets harder too,” said Kaleb Burroughs, who qualified in the javelin competition.
At one station set up during a Thursday night practice, another javelin national qualifier, Cameron Aldridge, was launching practice javelins in succession. Aldridge qualified for nationals in the javelin, but coach Don Santianna still finds something new to improve on each throw.
“I can’t do it,” Cameron responded after some one-on-one training.
“You can do it,” Coach Santianna said, “I just saw you do it a minute ago.”
Though preparing for a national stage gets frustrating, it isn’t a do-or-die environment at practices. Willie Burroughs, assistant coach and parent of two national qualifiers, Kaleb and Kaylana, takes time during warmup drills to stress the importance of drinking water and doing what one can at his or her own pace.
Burroughs knows a thing or two about overexertion as well, having been a football player at Purdue University. He saw how contact sports took a toll on him and his friends over the years, and says that the Florence Track Club has been a blessing for his kids.
“This is one of the best things I’ve done since moving to Florence,” he said. “It’s very parent-oriented and they make a lot of friends.”
While the kids who compete for the Florence Track Club are good at what they do, many say that it is the people they are with who make the competitions special.
“My favorite part is definitely the friends I make,” Kamille Cunningham said.
Those friends are visible on the sidelines as well as the track in meets and practices. Though the Junior Olympics is the last meet for the Florence Track Club, nearly half of those at the Thursday practice were nonqualifiers looking to get better and encourage their friends.
Because of these bonds, the club manages to draw out hundreds of participants to its practices and a good number of those to its competitions, but team leaders like Burroughs and Bill Truman say conditions are not up to par with the successes of the team.
At the same Thursday practice, Burroughs and his two kids had to sweep up long blades of razed grass from the long jump track. Truman said he has had to cancel six practices because of other sports events being held at the same time at the West Florence complex, despite using different fields.
“Then we go to areas like Mount Pleasant, and it’s like a whole new world,” he said.
“We’re not asking for much more,” Willie Burroughs adds. “Just something.”
But parents and athletes have made the experience meaningful regardless of setbacks in facilities and practice times.
“It’s so sweet to see this team together," said Leslie Aldridge, a parent. "Even though they compete against each other, they cheer each other on just as much.”
The USA Track & Field Junior Olympics will draw about 9,000 competitors, family and fans to Sacramento State University for the last week in July.
And it isn’t just the large crowds or the sights of California that get the Florence team excited — it’s also the flight itself. For most of the young qualifiers, this long flight is their first.