The B-Side: The COVID-19 Summer Response Proved Its Worth

The 2020 COVID-19 summer track season has ended and I'm still recovering. It has definitely been an interesting few months. I predicted this would be a rough time period as early as New Year's Eve. Life, as we know it is no longer the same with ever-increasing violence, looting, the coronavirus, and death worldwide- pure pandemonium among us. And yet... there was a semblance of a summer session.

My team is called the Dominators and we are based out of Decatur, Illinois and for us, the drama started after leaving the AAU U14 Indoor Nationals in Ypsilanti, Michigan. It wasn't long after our return the IESA (Illinois Elementary State Association) season was shut down. It was initially frustrating because I was in a position as a coach to possibly win eight titles. Subsequently, the high school indoor calendar was canceled due to 'Team Corona.'

In the month of April, USATF (United States Track & Field) canceled their summer track series which included the Olympic Trials and Junior Olympics. Needless to say, the Olympics was on the chopping block for this year and moved to 2021. Attempting to coach much less finding any competition would be extremely difficult. My brother Chris coaches in Kentucky, and he was attempting to put something together competition-wise while we trained.

In May, things continued to remain bad as AAU (Amateur Athletics Union) canceled their national championship from the venue in Norfolk, Virginia. But at the bottom of the announcement, it stated they were looking to move the meet elsewhere. In the coming weeks, we would hear Texas, Disney World, Satellite Beach, FL, and even Chicago as possible destinations.

It did not take long for phone calls and messages regarding the latest cancelation. 'Coach, we're going to sit the summer out. 'Coach we're going to wait until indoor [2021],' was a common statement. I had no choice but to respect their decisions. The virus was killing people, so I simply said 'Cya indoors.' At that point, I knew I still had the 13-year-old youth indoor national shot put champ Addi Johnson and 4th place in the U.S. in the discus for 2019. Along with "Rocket" who was in the top three indoor in the 800/1500m. I'd simply coach these two and be done with it. My original plan was to go after the great MGX crew of Florida's youth world-record-holding 4x400m relay team, but that fell apart and they canceled their season as many teams did.

Things took a turn for the better by mid-May as I got a message on Facebook from Braylon Peacock. He wanted info on the summer track season. We met previously during the indoor season at the University of Illinois Armory and he was the key. Later I had a conversation with his father and three days later we went to work. Braylon gave himself the title of "Director of Operations." There was another night that I received a call from a kid named "Daniel" Masweka Mboyo. He is going into his senior year and his life was literally on the line. When I hung up the phone, there would be another one- almost incessantly. This kid's name is Jackson Gilbert and he was the one I pegged for that 4x4. He was third indoor in the Big 12 Indoor Conference Meet as a freshman. All of a sudden in two weeks Braylon had rebuilt the Dominators by himself. And I realized there were kids who wanted to run and along with their parents, they all were willing to take the chance despite the virus.

As the team increased and challenges grew my attitude got better. I'm one of the most mentally tough people on this earth. But the coronavirus lockdown status had gotten to me. My coping mechanism in life is coaching. That's how I deal with life good or bad I just go and coach kids. I am a front line worker and was placed in positions to die so I was stressed from the very beginning of the pandemic. Every day I'm literally in life or death situations with clients who will tell you they don't care about life. So my mind was totally different than the person who worked from home. I was already in the "matrix." I literally cussed out anybody who angered me, and from there it went to laziness where I didn't care anymore. And at one point I didn't even want to coach anymore. I simply lost it and hated everybody as for the first time in twenty-eight years I was sitting on a couch with no track and field, and I wasn't handling it well.

June 10th arrives with the best news ever. AAU announced they would hold their championship in Satellite FL (near the Atlantic Ocean and among the finest places to live in the state). I got my life back. I was a totally different person after that announcement. The moment the words Florida was said all hell broke loose. Florida and Texas were the two hottest spots in the U.S. for coronavirus. I remained calm and quiet as teams from all over the country shut down their seasons.

The track sites that were selected had angry people whose season were ended. I wasn't saying a word, as I sat in my office and marked off team after team. I wasn't entirely sure if we could pull it off. I wasn't going to inspire other teams to say well hey if he's doing it we can. I knew that the fewer people from our state would attend, and if my kids performed we'd get all the attention. It was plausible to think that we would be the only team rolling, and the media needed stories. It could put my kids in the forefront and on the radar. The world doesn't function on who didn't run, only the ones who did.

The biggest problems were finding meets and where would we practice? All the tracks were closed. But winners make the impossible possible. In the beginning, we were at the park doing conditioning and running hills, fartlek's, etc. Later the team was still doing speed work and practicing block starts on the grass. This wasn't a problem for me because that's how I coach anyway. I don't necessarily need a track to work on the essentials.

Several more training weeks pass and we find a track in the middle of nowhere with a cornfield across the street. What do we do? We jump the fence and start practicing for days on it. The fence jumping strategy worked until the looting and violence due to George Floyd's death occurred. Once that happened the kids would change their normal afternoon workouts to early morning while all the looters were sleeping. Practices would be held typically 6-8am to ensure safety for us all.

One day an older white guy saw the kids working out on the track during one of their off days. Instead of asking the guys about their workout, he called the police. This unknown man frightened the boys who soon called me, "Coach the police are on the way to the track to get us!" I instructed them to leave: "Get outta there now!" They had already left when the police arrived. We've got street sense too, and there was no time to be dealing with the police. Can you imagine going to jail and being asked, what are you in here and the reply 'I'm in for jumping a fence and doing a track workout.' They were willing to risk going to jail to get better. These are my type of kids. Seriously, though, this is the most disciplined and dedicated group I have ever coached. We were limited to about eight in-person contact days throughout the training period. The majority of the workouts that were sent in were expected to be completed as early as possible to avoid any unforeseen distractions. 

Our first of the season that was scheduled to be in Kentucky, is canceled. We would now have to wait until July to get some action. Meanwhile, the local tracks opened, so no more jumping fences. Hilariously speaking,  I'm getting too old for that anyway! The summer season meet research was that of underground fight movies- you had to read, research, and know people in order to get invited. I found a series of meets in Russellville, Missouri (5 hrs from Decatur) and that would be our focus.

At this point, "TJ" Terrell King had been recommended to me by Coach Greene his football coach at Urbana Middle School. I watched a 40-yard dash on Facetime followed by some research, and he was on the squad. I had a feeling he would be good based on the fact that he was right with my older guys during block starts. That began the iron sharpening iron saga. Every day they went at it, and I was the mad scientist pushing buttons.

The first meet oh I'm sorry "Showcase" It seems if you said meet this summer it was a cuss word. But if you said "Showcase" you could have it. So the first one was at Richton Park, it was a 14 & Under meet and I took Addi and TJ. We entered four events, got four personal records, and four team records. TJ ran 11.28./23.43 to win the 100 and 200 dashes. He was #1 in the U.S. in the 100m and tied for #1 in the 200m for his age group. Addi was #3 in both the shot/discus.

We almost did not make the Russellville meet as the parents who were driving seemed to get sick the day before in a five-minute time frame. One parent contracted the virus, so I lost an athlete for the meet because his results hadn't come back. Jackson's mom volunteered to drive. We are set to go and I'm thinking this will be a low key meet. We were surprised and pulled up and there it was 29 teams- like a high school invite. They're looking at us like who are they? We were hyped in the car, finally a REAL meet with solid competition. They were taking team pics and they were in shape. I'm trying to figure out how all of these teams are in shape. It didn't matter we won the invite with four kids and Addi was a 7th grader competing against high school girls.

We traveled to Indy for a meet which many teams from around the Midwest were in attendance. Things started to feel like a real season. Daniel won the LJ at 22'2" and was quietly working his way up the national ladder. TJ easily won the 100/200m and Jackson had two huge PR's in the 400m/800m. Braylon, in his first meet, made the 100m final with a PR. I'm thinking if we can handle the national pressure we're going to be a real threat.

Every weekend since June I would send everyone the results from Texas and Florida meets and nobody was beating us. The last regular-season meet was back in Russellville. And this time when we walked in we were celebrities. Everyone thought we were from Chicago, so we had to check them real quick. TJ was upset after his 100m run and snapped in the 200m with a 23.03 U.S.#1. When that happened I said he's on the podium, as long as he executes. I had four kids again and we got 2nd in a 19-team Invite. The next day Jackson would win the 400m in Chicago at the Sprints and Jumps Fest

The week and a half before nationals were stressful as the storms killed our workouts. We'd try to steal a distance run in between stops. Then it was are we going to drive or fly or even go. It was one thing to say "Yeah we're going to nationals." But now we were faced with a serious reality and it was decision time and the decision was mine. We are literally looking at death in the face. Kids could die and it would be on my watch. Mentally, I was in bad shape. The flights were very cheap and I was concerned because people felt you could catch the virus being in close quarters.

The 17 hr drive would kill us and cost us money we didn't really have. Ok, there's a quarantine in Chicago, ok we will fly out of Indy. Just forget it we'll drive. The next day the Governor actually probably saved us by saying the quarantine was for Chicago, and not the rest of the state. We got the tickets that night. I was tired of thinking about it. Oh did I hear it from my wife, mom, friends, and other coaches! The people that did stand with me were cautious as if to say "I really don't want to come to your funeral over a track meet."

Various track websites were on major hate mode because they were mad that what they thought would be shut down, would be actually happening. And they weren't going to be a part of it. This team and that team won't be there. The so-called stars won't be there. Again life doesn't function on who didn't show up.

I was stressed at home dealing with some family items. Does my son go back to college, is he playing football and my day job was not on the same page as me. I felt like nobody was with me and the whole world was against me.

All we wanted to do was compete. And on top of all of this here comes Hurricane Isaias headed towards South Florida. Are you serious? What if it hits while we are there and we are stuck or even die. Could nationals be canceled because of a hurricane? It turned the day I started packing. I was under serious pressure. If someone catches the virus and we don't perform BIG-TIME, everyone will say kid's lives were foolishly risked over sports.

However, the parents make the final call and could have pulled the plug on the operation. The thing I love about my personality is I'm determined and will stand alone. I've never been a follower of what everybody else does. The more people were against me, the more determined I was to go and silence their mouths. It actually gave me energy. I love saying, "Told You!" "Now what you got to say!"


 Day 1: Daniel gets 7th in the 17-18 Long Jump after a long lightning delay and becomes an All-American. The thing I loved the most about this team is they fed off each other's success. When Daniel came back with the medal around his neck. Everyone's face said, "I got to get me one." He had an outside chance of getting on the podium but had pulled it off. Jackson won his 800m heat. And TJ won his 200m semi by a blowout. They both were headed to the finals. Braylon was 2nd in his 200m semi with a huge PR and finished top 25 in the U.S.

 Day 2 : TJ kicks it off winning his 100m semi by blowout and would face Malachi James (NJ) a top sprinter we had focused on from the very first practice. Jackson had another PR in his 400m semi-final winning his heat After some major sweating he advanced to the final. I had told the kids 2-3 weeks before nationals I'd done my homework and 95% of the people in the meet lied about their times and had no meets. And besides us with our four meets- unless you went to the 13 meets between TX and FL, we were the most prepared.

Day 3: Addi got 3rd in the shot for 13yr olds and then TJ would face Malachi in the 200m final. I'd been awake since 3:30 in the morning analyzing how it could go. What America didn't know was Malachi got all the hype on track sites, but it was TJ who was #1 in the 100/200m in the country throughout the summer. Malachi trained but didn't have one meeting to show on his record. We were supposed to face him in the Indy meet, but they pulled out.

In the final, TJ got 3rd in the 200m and there was NO Malachi (injured back). TJ was highly upset after the 200m. He told the competition "I'm winning the 100m tomorrow- PERIOD!" All night at the hotel "Coach, I'm winning the 100m!" He said he needed that 200m loss. I really wanted to see him and Malachi hook up. TJ did run  a PR 22.97! So I knew he was ready.


 Day 4 Finals Day: Addi kicks it off with a silver in the discus with a huge PR adding 7ft! Jackson had an asthma attack in the 400m final but was still an All-American. We worked on him for about an hour because the 800m final was coming. He said he could go and we were on some serious prayer. He bounced back with a 5th in the 800m and a PR 2:02.37. He showed MAJOR heart! So what happens if he doesn't have the attack? It was TJ's turn for the 100m final. He didn't look well when he got to the track. He said he was in a zone.

The heat was at 102F all week and leaning on us hard. I decided to take a serious gamble and shorten his usual warm-up. I didn't think if he did his usual warm-up he'd have enough to win it. TJ was focused the closer it got. All the while I was in his head Bundini Brown-style (Muhammad Ali's hype man if you're too young). "They're not on your level!" "Your slowest time is faster than the best time!" "You've been #1 all season, they can't write #1!" He got a good start and around the 60-70m mark he started pulling away. I couldn't keep the camera still as I screamed "He's going to be National Champ!" over and over until he crosses the finish line. TJ wins the 100m title in 11.25!

TJ closed the show and became a celebrity as people shook his hand, an interview from Milesplit which he said he wanted since we arrived. Texts were coming at me non stop from everyone that watched nationwide. All of a sudden I didn't hear the "You shouldn't go'" People that I hadn't heard from all summer or rolled with us were calling. TJ's enemy even texted saying he had watched and congrats! What!!! See what winning will do. I had coached to near exhaustion, I'm still recovering as I type this.

We were able to navigate the COVID-19 season with better caution than before, doing it with fewer meets, less in-person coaching, a different team than from the indoor season, produced a national champion and collected a total of seven All Americans. The national experience was gained, lessons learned, it changed lives and it put the kids on the right path for a bright future. I would say the risk was worth taking.