A gathering of youth, boys and girls of varying ages, are busy jogging and sprinting around the track here at Burbank High School. None of the kids here are “names” beyond their households. But they might be one day.
They are members of the Valley United Striders, a collection of talented teens and preteens who already run relatively fast and jump relatively far. They are not only some of the very best track and field athletes for their age groups in the Valley, but also in the state and the nation.
The Striders are sending 107 competitors to the USA Track & Field Hershey National Junior Olympic Championships being held in Sacramento. The meet began Monday, July 22, and ends on Sunday, July 28. The youngest competitors are age 7-8, while the oldest are 17-18.
Head Coach Mike Russell, who has worked with the Striders for more than 30 years, said this is the largest group he has ever taken to a national Junior Olympics competition. They will face teams from all over the country, and Russell expects them to do well.
“We have kids ranked from No.1 to No. 5 in the nation (in their various age groups). It’s a pretty good combination of kids,” Russell said.
“A lot has to do with God-given talent. They get good coaching. And they want to win, they want to compete.”
The Striders are made up from the 15-member club teams that belong to and are governed by the nonprofit Valley Youth Conference. The conference, which was formed in 1966, is affiliated with the USA Track & Field Association, and attracts talent from the San Fernando Valley, Santa Clarita Valley, Antelope Valley, Pasadena, West Los Angeles area, and Simi Valley.
The program offers year-round sports programs in football, track & field, cross-country, and cheerleading for boys and girls ages 5 to 18. (Football and cheerleading were inactive for a year but are resuming).
The club’s reputation and results in regional and national meets keeps a steady level of talent flowing to the Striders, from those who are just finding their sport to others already being groomed for greatness.
Two potential breakout performers are Chase Hanson and Ife Orekoya. Both are top-ranked sprinters who will be running in the 400-meters as well as the 4x100 meter and 4x400 meter relays.
Hanson, who lives in Newbury Park, started participating in track at age 10. Two years later he is ranked No. 1 in his age group in the 400 meters. He credits the training and quality of competition in the Valley for providing an impetus to improve.
“My parents thought it would be better for me to go to Valley United because there were faster kids there, and I’d have a better chance of doing good in the relays,” Hanson said. “There’s another track club called Plyometric Fusion (located in Simi Valley) out near us. I ran for the Eagles to qualify for here. But there are faster kids here.”
This will be Hanson’s first time at a Junior Olympics event. “I’m nervous and excited,” he said. “It would be nice to win but I want to push myself to do my very best.”
Orekoya, 13, from Canoga Park, went to the Junior Olympics for the first time in 2016 — also held in Sacramento that year — as a 4x400m relay member. The team finished second in their race. But Orekoya remembers the day for other reasons.
“It was really hot…and very nerve-wracking because it was my first time on a big stage,” he said. “I ran hard, and PR’ed by three seconds. On the awards podium I threw up everywhere. It was crazy.”
He said he has a better idea of how to prepare — and how to react — this time. “I know what to expect. I will be drinking more water, staying hydrated and cool more. It won’t be as much a surprise,” Orekoya said.
Just getting to the Junior Olympics meet is hard enough. The athletes must post lead qualifying times in their club and regional meets that run from February to mid-May. The top five qualifying performances make up the team. And competition in the national meet can come from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
The Valley United Striders always seem to bring back their share of medals. But Russell also wants them to keep something with them he said is more lasting.
“A lot of things we apply out here on the track — responsibility, dedication, respect for your opponents and teammates — they’ll take along into their lives,” the coach said. “We’re trying to build character as these kids are growing into adults. You can be the most talented kid in the world, but if you don’t adhere to [their rules], you won’t make it on this team.
“As I said, it’s a great group of kids. They believe in what you say.”