Half-Stepper head coach Johnny Holmes stood around Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park track Wednesday evening waiting for Moses “Bullet” Baker, age 8, — the first leg of his nationally ranked relay team—to arrive for practice. Teammate Josh Johnson, 8, was waiting, too, and had already loosened up when coach Holmes spotted him. This would be their last chance to iron out their hand-offs and make sure everything was correct before they jumped on a bus Friday night for New Orleans and the Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympic Games.
“This little guy turned out to be real good,” said Holmes of Johnson. “He used to be real slow when he first came out. Now he’s the fastest on our relay team.”
Holmes not only has high hopes for his speedy relay team, but for his entire track infantry. Composed of 10 boys and eight girls between the ages of 5 and 16, they will go up against nearly 20,000 other runners from across the country at the games which will be held from July 30 to August 6.
Another coach, Eric Avery, said it has been a fruitful experience for him getting this team ready for nationals. “We’ve come a long way,” said Avery. “This is the culmination of 10 months worth of work. We’re a small team but all these kids can run with anyone.”
The trip to New Orleans would not have happened if the Richmond City Council hadn’t agreed to adjust its annual budget Tuesday night and pitch in $17,000 to help with travel expenses. The money was used to charter a Greyhound bus for $17,800, said Avery. “I didn’t want to go to the city and ask for money,” said Avery. “I don’t like asking people for anything.”
Team treasurer Edith Bluitt said team members do their own fundraising and have earned money by selling candy and hosting breakfast fundraisers. A lot of the money, she said, is spent on travel expenses for in-state track meets, and for nutritional snacks and water for the kids. There are anywhere between 10 and 15 meets a year, she said. “The kids have been working hard all year for this,” said Bluitt. “We’re going to go and hopefully come home with some medals.”
Former Half-Stepper, Deangelo Hernandez, 15, competed in bantam, sub-bantam and midgets when he went to the Oregon nationals as a 10-year-old. To get mentally tough, Hernandez said coach Eric [Avery] always inspired him with words of wisdom during those hard Saturday morning practices. Hernandez now plays football and runs track for Salesian High in Richmond. He stopped by the Half-Steppers’ last practice just to wish his former coach well. “It’s a wonderful thing ,” Hernandez said of getting to see this team going to a national competition. “I like seeing the little kids out here getting it in, getting their work in, getting faster. They’ll get to see the world out there and how people is.”
When Bullet finally arrived, he immediately sat on the turf near the track and stretched his legs. A few minutes later he was on the starting line staring down a lane for a 400-yard race. “When I started running I really didn’t like it,” said Bullet. “But my auntie, she brought me here [to the Half-Steppers]. When I finally got to know all the people I really liked it—now I’m running pretty good and fast.”
Richmond Confidential will follow the team’s training for their competition with daily updates next week Monday through Friday. The team leaves Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial track at 8 P.M. Friday and arrives in New Orleans Sunday morning.