Damarion Dean wants to be an Olympic track star or NFL football player when he grows up. On Saturday, on a sweltering, 100-degree day in Houston, Texas, a sweaty but smiling Dean took a step toward making his dreams come true. He showed his speed when he placed first in the 11-year-old AAU boys 100-meter dash with a time of 12.68 seconds.
The Summer Olympic Games are happening now in Brazil, and young athletes like Dean had a chance to compete in their own events last week.
Dean traveled with his mom and dad from their home in White Hall, Arkansas, to compete in the 50th AAU Junior Olympic Games. Dean was one of more than 15,000 athletes who competed in the largest national multi-sport event for youth in the United States.
And Dean’s mom and dad were two of nearly 30,000 spectators who watched youth athletes from across the country compete in 17 events over 12 days.
Track and field was the premiere event at the AAU Junior Olympic Games, with more than 12,000 athletes competing in those contests. Other events included 7-on-7 football, jump rope, swimming, table tennis, and power lifting.
50 Years of Youth Athletic Competition
Retired track and field star Carl Lewis lit the cauldron at the opening ceremony to mark the start of the festivities. Lewis, winner of 10 Olympic medals (nine of them gold), spoke about the importance of the AAU Junior Olympic Games.
“There will be kids sitting in this room tonight that we'll be cheering for in the Olympics in 2024,” said Lewis. “That's what makes this exciting.”
The first AAU Junior Olympic Games was held on August 21, 1967. Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey kicked off the inaugural event, held in Washington D.C., during which 523 youth athletes competed in track and field and swimming.
In the 50 years of the AAU, some competitors have even gone on to become Olympians and professional athletes. Former AAU Junior Olympic competitors turned pro athletes include Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott; Cleveland Browns quarterback Robert Griffin III; and Basketball Hall of Famers Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, and Lisa Leslie. Olympians who also competed in the AAU Junior Olympic Games include diver Greg Louganis, sprinter Jackie Joyner Kersee, and gymnast Kerri Strug.
Hard Work and Dedication
Getting to the Olympic Games or becoming a professional athlete is not a slam dunk for the AAU competitors. But these young athletes are already showing the dedication to training that is required to get to the elite level.
That’s a hard thing to do, especially in the summer. Many kids are spending their time off from school swimming, going to camp, taking a vacation, and, this summer, probably playing Pokémon GO. Athletes who competed in Houston may have done those things, but they also spent a lot of their summer training.
One of those athletes is 15-year-old Hope Sage, who is from Houston. She runs with the Visions Track Club. Sage has spent her summer getting ready for the AAU Junior Olympic Games and for her high school track season. Said Sage, “I train about 1½ to 2 hours for running. I also do planks and strengthening exercises every night before bed.”
And, for some of these athletes, like Sage, part of training is eating! In order to have enough energy for intense training, Sage said, “I eat lots of Greek yogurt bars, granola snack bars, and include a protein at every meal.”
Last year, Sage traveled to Norfolk, Virginia, to compete in the AAU Junior Olympic Games. This year, she was able to compete in her own backyard.
Sage, who is in the 15-16 age group, ran in the girls 3,000 meters, where she placed sixth overall, and in the 1,500 meters, where she placed 11th. She also ran in the 4 x 800 relay, placing 13th out of 25, with teammates Dontaya Bolden, Jordan White, and Kiana Hines.
When asked about her future athletic goals, Sage was direct: “Run fast.”
Photographs by Zach Johnson (action); Amateur Athletic Union (opening ceremony)