Suffolk S.T.A.R.S. expecting to shine in national spotlight

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 2, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

Staring down the long jump runway at the AAU Regional Two track championships in Baltimore last weekend, Gabrielle Snipes hoped to go far. Far into the air and far down the dusty landing area.

But before she took flight on her trial jump (in preparation for the finals), the seven-year-old Oakland Elementary School student and member of the Suffolk S.T.A.R.S. youth track team had other precautions to consider.

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&uot;I was trying to not pass the white lines,&uot; Gabrielle remembers. Touching the lines, which lay just in front of the dirty area, is considered a foul and nullifies a jumper’s attempt.

Finally, Gabrielle bolted down the pavement and launched herself down the landing area. But even as she flew, the youngster was already astounded at her performance. &uot;I thought I was going to land on my bottom,&uot; she says, &uot;but I’d gotten really high, so I landed on my feet.&uot; When the flight touched down, the pilot had flown a total of 11 feet, 11 inches – not just her personal best, but the top jump of the meet, and one that beat the AAU National title-winning jump for the Junior (eight and under) division in four of the last five years.

But Gabrielle still had one more leap of faith to make in order to reach her first national competition. In the finals, she again soared past the 11-foot mark to take first place. From July 22-Aug. 2, she’ll be competing at the AAU Junior Olympic Games in Detroit.

On the other end of the spectrum was Lakeland senior Andrea Wheeler. Ranked fourth in Virginia in the 100-meter hurdles, the Lady Cavalier was poised to take her third trip to the AAU Nationals. Unfortunately, a fall during the event ended her chances for the top events.

&uot;My pride was gone,&uot; she says sadly. &uot;Crying helped me recover.&uot; But Wheeler didn’t let her disappointment slow her down, literally or figuratively. She came back later in the day to help the S.T.A.R.S. 4X100 and 4X400 relay teams make it to nationals, teaming with her sister Sarah, Quanetria Taylor of Nansemond River, and Kristin Gilliam of Hampton’s Phoebus High School.

&uot;It was the first week that we’d all actually ran together,&uot; Wheeler says. &uot;But we knew we’d qualify. We showed the other teams what we had on the track.&uot;

So did teammate Jaquan Demiel, 11, who finished third in the 80-meter hurdles. &uot;The boys there were faster that any I’d ever run against,&uot; said Demiel, who only started jumping hurdles for the S.T.A.R.S. in May. &uot;But I didn’t worry about them. I just looked at the hurdles.&uot;

Gabrielle, who also qualified in the 100-meter dash, wasn’t the only Lady Suffolkian to jump her way to the country’s spotlight; John F. Kennedy Middle School student Ransheda Jennings took fourth in the Youth (13-14) event, missing third place by less than one inch and second by three inches. &uot;I know that I can jump a lot farther than that,&uot; said the 13-year-old.

As a Virginian, Lakeland’s Valerie Jones was already at a disadvantage in the javelin; state public high school meets do not carry the event. But she still finished fourth to make her third trip to AAU national competition.

&uot;If they had the javelin, I’d throw it,&uot; said Jones, who tossed the discus and shotput for the Lakeland outdoor track and field team last season. &uot;You have to have a lot of upper and lower body strength to throw it, because you’re reaching far back and running forward.&uot;