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Young runner discovers calling as a sprinter

A runner stands poised in preparation for the hand-off. He is running the last leg of a relay and once his teammate arrives, the team’s fate lies in his hands. As he whispers a soft prayer, the hand-off is made. His heart slams hard in his chest as he bolts forward to complete the last leg of the 400-meter dash to take home a second-place finish. He is only 10 years old.

Alex Sotolongo brought home a silver medal for his team, the Bay Cities Unleashed, at the 2013 USATF National Junior Olympic Track & Field Championships held in Greensboro, North Carolina last month. Alex participated as the only member representing Claremont on the Carson-based team.

This finish officially makes the BCU Division 9-10 the second fastest relay team of their age group.

Alex started to get involved in sports around the age of 5. Starting with tee ball, he soon graduated to baseball, basketball, soccer and flag football. He had never considered track before one of his coaches noticed his speed and suggested he try out in February.

“All of this happened in such a short period of time. It is really exciting to see that your kid has a talent for something without really knowing or pursing it before,” Alex’s mother, Heather Sotolongo said. “We knew he was generally fast, but we would have never thought of track. He loves his team sports.”

After Alex came in first place at a local community track meet, Ms. Sotolongo looked into other track meets for Alex to participate in without a team affiliation. That’s when she found the Los Angeles Jets Invitational that took place in May at Cerritos Junior College.

She remembers arriving at the meet and noticing Alex was getting nervous, because it was his first big track event. He also had never used starting blocks before. Surrounded by children in uniforms with the names of their official teams, Ms. Sotolongo told him to “just run.”

“There is nothing like being a parent and feeling that anxiousness for your child. It is not that you are concerned over if they win or lose, it’s just this feeling of hoping they feel proud of themselves,” Ms. Sotolongo said.

His inexperience did not stop him from giving his all as he competed in 3 events: the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash and the long jump. Though nerves impacted his first event, Alex got more comfortable and made an impact in his next 2 races.

Alex placed 11th out of 89 places in the 200-meter dash with a time of 29.70, and placed fourth in the long jump with a distance of 3.87 meters. His time in the 200-meter dash caught the attention of a BCU coach. BCU is a nonprofit organization that prides itself on teaching youths to develop skills and disciplines to improve in track & field. The organization ranges in ages from 6 to 17 years old.

“We saw some raw talent and asked him if he wanted to join the team,” BCU Coach Mike Bryson said. “He started working and went through some very difficult transitions, because now his body was having a hard time adapting to the training. It all worked out in the end.”

The teams had been training since November 2012 when Alex joined in late May. Coach Bryson credits Alex’s success as a runner to his overall natural strength. To prepare him for the competitions, Alex started undergoing training to help his body adapt to a lactic acid threshold. It paid-off in June when Alex ran the second fastest time for his age group in southern California.

“As soon as we identified that he was going to run the 400, we really focused on speed and endurance training,” Coach Bryson said.

After he joined the team, they entered into the Junior Olympic program. The program itself is a series of meets that go from regional to national.

Alex and his team ran together for the first time in the Region 15 competition that took place in Nevada. The team placed first in the 4x400 meter relay with a time of 4:28.

“I got really nervous my first time, but I felt great because I just wanted to go out there and have fun with my friends,” Alex said.

The team then headed out of state for nationals at North Carolina A&T University and broke team records by taking second place with a time of 4:19.

“I was really happy. I cheered when I found out that we came in second place,” Alex said.

Alex will be starting fifth grade at Chaparral Elementary this fall. With his newfound love for track, he hopes to continue to exceed expectations and compete with his BCU team .

“We are trying to keep these boys together for a couple of years at least and let them grow together. This whole sport is about trust, and it makes the team component very rewarding once you’ve seen the camaraderie that they’ve built up,” Coach Bryson said.

—Christina Collins Burton

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