Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Sawyer's Journey to the Junior Olympics

   We had some early clues that Sawyer may have some special athletic ability.  He began walking at 9 months and quickly thereafter, he became rather coordinated in his movements.  He never really moved like a typical toddler.  He didn't even "toddle".  When he was about 2 years old, we went with some friends to a park that had a waterfall and a shallow stream.  There were 6 kids in our group playing among the slippery rocks in the creek bed.  They stumbled and slipped and tried, mostly unsucessfully, to jump from one rock to another.  The kids were having a great time in their efforts, although the rocks were hard to manage and they began to get wet from their uncoordination.  Then, I began to watch Sawyer.  He had a look of determination in his little round face.  I kept watching to see that he wasn't wavering.  He was jumping the rocks one after the other as if he were walking on flat ground.  His little calf muscles became prounounced with each leap.  I was fascinated with watching him play and navigate the rocks with such ease.  I'm not sure why I even remember this day or took such notice of how he was manipulating the rock course, but it was the first time I remember thinking that he could move his body more easily than other children.
  A few months later, when Sawyer was close to 3 years old, I noticed his speed for the first time.  We were on a camping trip and were staying the night in Dayton, Ohio.  We were standing in a little clear area that had some trees nearby.  We were waiting to board a hayride that the campground offered for kids each evening.  While we waited for the tractor and wagon to arrive, we decided to pass the time by telling the boys to race to a tree that was across the open area.  We never thought about it being a fair race, since Tucker was 7 at the time and Sawyer was only 3, it was just something to pass the time.  Bradley and I gave each other a confused look when we realized that it was Sawyer who came around the tree running back to us first.  We all gave high fives and decided that he must have gotten a head start.  The boys both wanted to race again.  This time, we gave them the signal to start and watched to make sure they both started at the same time.  Again, Sawyer ran around the tree first and came back to us smiling and proud that he was able to outrun his brother, who was 4 years his senior.  The boys raced over and over around that tree while we waited on the hay ride.  Tucker never did beat Sawyer on a race that day and has never beat him since then.         
     Sawyer has always been unusually competitive.  Actually, "unusually competitive" doesn't even begin to describe his competitive personality.  I've never known anyone like him.  Never knew someone with such a desire to everything....even existed. Until I gave birth to Sawyer.  His drive to win started so very young.  Everything in his life became a competition.  I did NOT make him this way.  He came to us in this little package from day 1.  Typical words from his mouth as a toddler or preschooler were, "I can brush my teeth faster than you."  "I can swing higher than you." "I ate my food faster than everybody else."  "I will beat you to the car." And his most common one was "I win!". Most of the time, no one else was even aware they were involved in the race.  I have tried to veer him away from making everything in his life a competition, and he has gotten a little less vocal about it as he has gotten a little older.  But I can still see it on his face, even when he doesn't say it out loud, the pride he feels when he does something first, fastest, highest, longest, or better in any way than others.  Being so overly competitive definitely has its drawbacks.  He gets upset very easily when something doesn't go his way, he is frustrated with himself and others when games do not end in victory, and he is very emotional and sometimes even hard to deal with.  His little muscles that were popping out and and were very defined even as a toddler also comes with a price.  Sawyer has almost no body fat and an unusal amount of muscle.  He doesn't have a "body builder" type body, just more muscular than other kids his age.  Having this type body has caused some frustration over his life.  He has always needed more "fuel" for his body than other kids.  After being active for a while, he crashes.  In the past, he has blacked out several times, become dizzy at countless other times, been nauseated, has muscle aches, can get pale, sweaty, and very grouchy!  He has been poked and tested for every known "diabetic" type illness.  His doctors suggest that his high muscle ratio may cause his quick fuel loss and he has a health care plan that requires him to eat a high protein snack every 2 hours.  I would love to be able to burn fuel as quickly as he does!  Although his dietary needs can be tricky to manage at times, his body was built for athletics, which is his true love.  I have come to the realization that his competitive nature and phsyical makeup will be an asset to him as an adult.  It will propel him into success in whatever he does, so I decided to just go with it.  To embrace who he is.
              (This photo was taken while we were waiting on lunch to be served at a restaurant.  We had waited too long to eat and Sawyer had gotten upset over something of little importance, which is very common when he has gone too long without food.)
Since the day he first raced with Tucker, Sawyer's speed has increased and it has just become a part of who he is.  His speed is a great advantage in all of his sports.  He can run bases without fear of anyone ever running him down.  He can race past other players in soccer and maneuver the ball into the goal.  He can "fast break" with a basketball dribbling past the other team. And most recently, his speed has played a part in earning him a spot in the Junior Olympics in track.
     Our family has always enjoyed watching the Olympics together, especially the Summer Olympics.  During the last Summer Olympics, one of the commentators mentioned a "Junior Olympian".  Sawyer's interest was instantly piqued.  He asked questions about how you get picked to participate in the Junior Olympics and was very adamant that he wanted to run in the Junior Olympics one day.  Being from a town with no track and very little track and field support, Bradley and I really had no idea where to start.  A friend of Bradley's found out that we were interested in letting Sawyer run in a track meet, so he told us about an event that would happen just a few days away.  The event was the Alabama State Finals Track Meet.  We registered Sawyer to run in the 100 meter and the 200 meter dash, having no idea how he would do compared to other track runners.  The first time Sawyer ever stepped foot onto a track was moments before he approached the starting line and the gun was fired. In that first race last year, Sawyer ran fast enough to earn a spot in the Regional Championship, which would be held a few weeks away.  We spent no time practicing or preparing for the race and it showed.  Sawyer ran in the next race, the Regional Championship, in Louisiana.  He wasn't able to advance to any other races and said,  "I am just glad that I didn't come in last and at least I beat somebody!"  He finished 9th, but was proud to point out that he was the fastest of all the 7 year olds.  The boys that beat him were all 8.  Things were looking bright for the upcoming year.
    Over the course of the next year, Sawyer told us that he didn't want to run any more track meets.  He wanted to just do his other sports, but when track finals rolled around, he changed his mind.  The Alabama State Finals, which is the last qualifier for the Junior Olympics, were approaching.  Sawyer decided that he wanted to try again this year for a medal.  We entered him into the track meet, just barely making the deadline.  Sawyer would be running against some of the fastest sprinters his age in the state of Alabama in hopes of winning a medal. This year, he would be participating in 3 events, the 400 meter dash, the 200 meter dash, and the javelin.  The javelin throw was a last minute decision.  He wanted to try a field event and he thought he might be good at javelin, since he can hurl a baseball really far.

    The State Finals were like a fairy tale to Sawyer. He had been craving a medal since he had watched the medal ceremony on the "real" Olympics years before.  He won the gold medal in the 400 meter dash, the gold in the 200 meter dash, and the silver in the javelin.  He was pumped and ready to prepare for the Regional Championships.  He was a giant step closer to qualifying for the Junior Olympics.
    In the Regional Finals, Sawyer would be competing against other kids who had qualified from Lousianna, Tennesse, Mississippi, and Alabama.  The top atheletes from each "region" would be fighting for the coveted five spots in each event to advence to the National Junior Olympics.  Many of these kids had been training for a full year to increse their chances. Almost every child that would be competeting for these sports were members of a full time track team and received coaching year-round.  Sawyer, however, was counting on his natural, God given talent to get him to the next round.  We did encourage Sawyer, along with his brothers, to do some practicing to increase his endurance.  Running in the heat in July can be brutal.  We had family "challenges" to make the training more fun.  The boys earned bonus points that translated into cash at payday for trying their hardest or beating personal records.  They enjoyed the challenges and it gave them some money to spend on souvenirs during our trip.  After a couple of weeks of "practicing", Sawyer was ready for yet another track meet.  He stepped on the track a bundle of nerves!  Running track makes him infinitely more nervous than any other sport.  He ran his best times ever and was able to bring home THREE bronze medals in the Regional Championship!  We couldn't believe how well he did, and he was proud of himself.  Placing 3rd in Regionals secured him one of the spots in all three of his events for Nationals.  He was officially Junior Olympics Bound!

      The Junior Olympics were to be held in Wichita, Kansas.  As a family, we decided to head to Wichita, making the journey our family vacation.  On our trip we spent time in Hot Springs, AR, Springfield, MO, and Memphis, TN.  Although it wouldn't have been the vacation we would've chosen just for fun, we made the most of the route and had a great vacation.  We arrived in Wichita in time to get Sawyer registered for his events and to attend the Junior Olympic Opening Ceremony.  We watched Sawyer parade around the track with the other "elite" athletes, as they were called.  He marched around with his Region at the front of the pack, proudly.  A huge grin crossed his face when his group of athletes were announced and the grandstand gave hoots and applause for the young Olympians.  His personal cheering section, Bradley and I, his brothers, and his Nana and Pop, was beaming with pride as he paraded by.  After some songs, speeches, and the lighting of the torch, we were ready to rest up for his big day that followed. 

   Over the next 2 days, in 110 degree temperatures, Sawyer ran in 2 races and competed in javelin.  His first race was the 200 meter dash.  We arrived at the track just in time to get our tickets and go check Sawyer in.  One thing we have learned over this experience is that young track runners are not coddled by track officials!  The little athletes are not allowed to be accompanied by their parents/coaches for the hour prior to their event.  They are dropped off to a fenced in area that parents aren't allowed to enter.  The children must sign themselves in, complete warm-ups on their own, listen for their lane assignments, get lane stickers, stay in their heat assigments, listen for announcements being made to hundreds of other runners, and try to stay calm....all without the help of an adult. Parents arent even allowed to peek through the fence and give a smile or a thumbs-up. It can be VERY stressful for the young ones.  It certainly requires some responsibility and some independence. 
                               (I took this picture over the fence when the track official turned his head.  this was Sawyer in the 2nd staging area before his race.)

We took our seats after dropping Sawyer off and waited for his big olympic moment.  He stepped on to the track and my heart, which was fluttering before, began to pound out of my chest.  I started whispering a silent prayer.  I prayed for his safety and for a peace for him.  I know his personality and I knew he was shaking in his track shoes.  In his first race, the 200 meter, he finished 27th overall in his race out of 43 runners.  We were all very proud of his race.  He did his very best and he placed right in the middle of the best runners in the country.

    Sawyer also ran the 400 meter dash.  This is the race that makes him the most nervous.  It is a very hard race that requires the runner to sprint a quarter of a mile.  We repeated the check-in process again for the 400 meter dash, and again found our seats, choosing the best view of the finish line.  The excitement in the stadium was electric over the course of the three days we were there, everyone standing to their feet to see some of the close finishes.  We were all pumped to see Sawyer run for his 2nd time in the Junior Olympics.  Sawyer stepped onto the track and began doing last minute stretches.  This would be his most difficult race of the season.   The gun fired and we all stood to watch him run the biggest sprint event of his life, so far.  He started out strong and held onto great track position until the last curve, where his lack of training showed against some of the more well prepared athletes.  He crossed the finish line out of breath and exhausted and we had never been more proud of him.  He, again, finished 27th.
   His 3rd event was the javelin.  When track season began, Sawyer was certain that he would do well in javelin and really wanted to give it a try.  We try to always encourage any new sports endeavor, but weren't really sure how well he would do in javelin.  We knew the javelin had to be thrown with certain techniques and we also knew that we knew nothing about what those techniques were.  Still, he gave it a try, and to our surprise, he did well in both of his qualifying events just on natural throwing ability.  After reseaching a little about javelin techniques and practicing for hours, Sawyer had improved his throw to a very impressive 20 meters.  We knew going in to the Junior Olympics that the javelin was his best shot at earning a medal.  We knew that at the Junior Olympic level, the top 8 kids are awarded a medal at an awards ceremony.  A grand flourish of medals are presented and a photo session in several poses ensues as the junior olympians stand proudly on their blocks.  Sawyer was very hopeful that javelin would be his ticket to wearing a Junior Olympic medal.  He hoped, beyond anything he had hoped for before, that he would earn one of the top 8 spots and get to walk away with a medal hanging around his neck.  He took his spot among the other javelin throwers and was given some practice throws.  His practice throws looked great!  He was throwing around 18-20 meters in practice, which would surely be enough to earn a medal.  After everyone had a chance to practice, Sawyer was given his first attempt in competition.  There were 32 kids competing for 8 medals.  He needed to be in the top 8 in his flight to advance to compete with the 2nd round.  His first throw went just over 16 meters.  A great throw, but we knew it wouldnt be far enough to advance.  His 2nd throw was 17.88 meters.  This could be far enough for him to advance!  Sawyer was given one final throw and it landed just shy of his 17.88 throw.  All we could do now was wait to see if his throw was far enough. We held our breath as the other kids took their throws.  Our stomachs were tied in knots and our hearts were pounding in the hopes of Sawyer getting the medal he dreamed of.  We sat in the stands and watched, helplessly, as Sawyer's place dropped from 2nd to 3rd.  Then from 3rd to 4th...then 4th to 5th.....and one by one, the throws kept knocking him down until there was one child left to throw.  Sawyer stood in 8th place.  If the last child to throw could just throw it less than 17.88 meters, then Sawyer would have his medal.  We held our breath.  I could harldy even watch.  My legs were shaking and my knees bounced to relieve some of my nervous energy.  The last child stepped to the line and launched his javelin just over a foot farther than Sawyer's best mark.  As soon as the javelin left his hands, we all knew he had been beaten.  Sawyer finished his javelin competiton in 9th place.  When the top 8 were announced, Sawyer's chin quivered and tears rolled down his face.  He had been so close and he was heartbroken.
   We tried every encouraging word we could think of, but nothing seemed to help heal the heartbreak and disappointment Sawyer felt at that moment.  He talked about it all afternoon and again for days about how sad he was about not getting that javelin medal.  We are hopeful that one day, he will realize how amazing it is that he was able to advance all the way to the Junior Olympic Nationals and that even if he had finished dead last, we would've been so proud of him.  It was a great experience all the way around, and we will be forever grateful that we were able to be there in Sawyer's moment of glory.  I have a feeling that this was just the first of many great sports moments for him.    I am eager to see what his future holds.