Bryan Squibbs wiped the sweat from his forehead and thought for a bit. It was a tough question.
Which of your charges has the best chance to win this weekend?
"They all have a very good chance," South Pointe's assistant track and field coach finally answered. "All of these kids competed against high school teams. Now that they're against their own age group, all of them have a chance to advance."
The Junior Olympic Track and Field Championships, sponsored by South Carolina's division of USA Track and Field, begins today at Winthrop's Irwin Belk Track and will feature close to 1,000 athletes from six Southeastern states. It's the first leg of what will hopefully turn into a three-step journey, culminating in the national event in July.
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This weekend is the first step. A top finish puts an athlete into the regional meet, which will be held at South Pointe in July. After that is the national competition in Omaha, Neb.
Squibbs, who handles mostly pole vaulters at South Pointe, will oversee eight of his athletes through the process, including his two sons, Terry and Brett. They'll be joined by 15 other athletes from first-year local track club A-Head-A-U and three competitors from Fort Mill.
A-Head-A-U is a first-year program begun by venerable South Pointe coach Bob Jenkins, a dean of track and field coaches. He said he was a little disappointed in the turnout for the first year, but expects the success from this year's group to inspire other athletes to compete.
"It's a real opportunity to progress," Jenkins said. "I just believe a majority of these kids will advance. It's the beginning of something we hope will crank up in the future."
The event is broken into age groups with today mostly pentathlon and decathlon. Saturday and Sunday will be qualifying and finals for most of the local athletes.
To prepare, Squibbs had his vaulters at South Pointe trying to concentrate on running, planting and twisting over the bar instead of the almost-insufferable heat. Northwestern's Kimberleigh Riggs, the defending Class AAAA state champion in the pole vault, took a couple of minutes between jumps to cool off and speak about her chances.
"It's kind of exciting," she said. "This is just my second year ... I got into vaulting because (Northwestern coach Calvin) Hudgins knew I could tumble, because I'm a gymnast, too. I just learned from there."
Riggs is a rising high school junior but some of the other vaulters in the club are middle-schoolers. They cut their teeth this year by competing against the best in Region 3-AAAA -- usually finishing low -- but it was all part of the preparation.
As soon as they cleared their summer vacation plans and told Squibbs they were in, he pointed out they'd be competing against others of their own age at the Junior Olympics. A seventh-place in a high school meet could very well translate into a first-place among other eighth-graders.
"I thought it'd be fun to try," said Mariah Lawrence, a rising freshman at South Pointe. "My best jump is 7 feet even. I'm used to competing against people several years older."
The two younger Squibbs will probably lead the contingent, taking over their dad's family business and performing with honors. Terry is headed to USC Upstate to vault next year and Brett finished fourth in the country at a national meet in California last year.
"We're always trying to make him proud," Terry joked. "Between me and my brother, we feel like we've got a great shot at nationals. We expect it."