Na’Zariah James was busy with school and gymnastics, so she didn’t even know she had a knack for track.
But the 10-year-old Swansea girl made an impressive showing at Belleville District 118’s spring field day, placing first among fourth-grade girls in the 100-meter dash.
Her parents decided to enter her in an Amateur Athletic Union regional track competition in June. To everyone’s surprise, she qualified for the AAU Junior Olympic Games, which will begin Wednesday in Norfolk, Va.
“I think she can win,” said father Paul James, 35, speaking by phone from Afghanistan, where he works as a network engineer for a U.S. military contractor.
Paul won’t be able to see Na’Zariah run the 100-meter dash in person, but wife Teirra will transmit it to him via FaceTime. The whole family is bursting with excitement.
“I love running,” said Na’Zariah, who will be a fifth-grader at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Belleville. “It runs in my blood. My dad and all of his family ran track at one point.”
The Jameses hired Hofton Nelson, a St. Louis-based athletic trainer, to help their daughter prepare for the national competition.
Hofton saw Na’Zariah run at the regional meet in University City, Mo. She placed second in the 100-meter dash and sixth overall in track and field among 10-year-old girls.
“That’s unheard of,” said Hofton, 33. “To come off the street (with no training or experience) and compete at that level. ... I was just amazed.”
Na’Zariah is 4-foot-8 and weighs 92 pounds. She trains three days a week on the track at McCluer North High School in Florissant, Mo.
Na’Zariah already is strong and has good “turnover.” (She moves her legs fast.) Hofton is focusing on running form, reminding her to keep her knees up and elbows and chin down.
Na’Zariah showed up at a recent training session in a T-shirt that read, “I am why your coach makes you practice so hard.” Hofton started with hamstring stretches.
“She’s going to be doing a lot of lifting and kicking when she runs, so we’re stretching her hamstrings,” he said. “We want to avoid injuries as much as possible.”
Perhaps the most challenging drill of the morning involved Na’Zariah hopping up stairs in the stands by the McCluer track.
“This will help her explode out at the start of a race,” said Hofton, who also coaches the St. Louis Heat Track Club. “(Momentary hesitation is) one of the weaknesses she has.”
Teirra is an East St. Louis native who graduated from O’Fallon Township High School in 2002. She met Paul, who grew up in Texas, while both were in the U.S. Navy.
After discharge, Teirra worked as a St. Louis police officer, and Paul got an information technology job with a contractor at Scott Air Force Base. He went to Afghanistan in 2012.
The Jameses also have a 3-year-old son, Paul Jr.
Paul Sr. is heavily involved with his family, despite living 7,500 miles away. They visit on FaceTime daily, sometimes several times a day.
“He never misses birthdays (despite the $1,500 plane fare and 24 hours of traveling),” said Teirra, 30, now a full-time criminal justice student at Lindenwood University-Belleville.
Na’Zariah is a Level 6 gymnast with World Class Gymnastics in Belleville and an honor student at Abraham Lincoln. She fell in the top 90 percentile on recent state testing.
Last academic year, Na’Zariah also won the school’s fourth-grade spelling bee, danced in a talent show and placed second in an Optimist Club recycling poster contest.
“My daughter has had an outstanding year,” her father said. “What my wife and I are doing is promoting a work-hard-play-hard environment for the kids. We challenge them to excel.”
Thanks to wireless technology, it was Paul who researched AAU track and arranged for Na’Zariah to compete in the 100-meter dash and long jump at University City.
She ran the 100-meter dash in 15.5 seconds in preliminaries. That evening, her mother went out and bought her track shoes with spikes.
“The next day, Na’Zariah lined up with the fastest eight 10-year-old girls, and her time went from 15.5 to 15 flat,” Paul said. “She came in second overall (in the 100-meter dash).”
The AAU Junior Olympic Games will be held at Norfolk State University. Paul will be glued to his iPhone, cheering on his daughter from military style barracks in a foreign land. Teirra is excited about the trip for another reason.
“Na’Zariah doesn’t remember anything about Virginia,” she said. “I want to show her the naval hospital where she was born, and the place where she lived the first three years of her life.”