Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2007

Wootton’s Ekponé is on track to be the next big thing

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Rising Wootton freshman Olivia Ekponé recently won gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter dashes at the AAU Junior Olympics in Tennessee.
Rising Wootton High freshman Olivia Ekponé, who set a national record in the 100-meter dash at the AAU Junior Olympics last summer, admits there’s nothing more nerve-wracking than waiting in the starting blocks before each race, anticipating the sound of the starting gun.

But Ekponé, 14, has learned to calm her pre-race jitters. In fact, she’s become so serene in the moments leading up to each race that she’s habitually the last to hear the gun go off.

Her slow starts have seemingly become a good-luck charm, though. In just her second year of competitive track with the Germantown-based Titans Track Club, Ekponé picked up four top-six finishes at this year’s AAU Junior Olympics in Knoxville, Tenn., July 30-Aug. 4, including gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter dashes.

Ekponé, who moved up a division from Sub-Youth Girls (13 years old) to Youth Girls (14 years old) this year, led a group of 18 Titans to qualify for the Junior Olympics, helping them to their best-ever showing in the club’s three years of existence. The Titans collected two gold medals, two silver medals, one bronze and four other top-eight finishes — Ekponé finished fourth in the 400 and sixth in the 4x100 relay.

‘‘It was very exciting for me and for the club to do so well,” Ekponé said. ‘‘There was a lot of pressure on me after setting the record last year, especially when I looked on the time sheets and I was first going in. But that meant I had a great chance to win.”

Ekponé has taken astonishingly large strides in just two formal years of track training. But it just seems she was destined for success in the sport.

She was nicknamed ‘‘Popcorn” at day care when she was younger, because of her ability to move so quickly. And always at the front of the pack on mini-race days there, she remembers constantly having to look back and make sure she was going the right way.

Four years ago, she was beating up on high-school athletes as a fifth-grader, after being brought up to the varsity track and field team at the McLean School in Potomac before transferring to the county’s public-school system to Robert Frost Middle School in Rockville.

Ekponé’s lean 5-foot-7 stature was made for running. And she glides effortlessly with her long strides.

‘‘Anything that goes along with what you’d want to start with and then train, she had,” said Alexia Knight, who coaches the Titans with husband Dave Knight. ‘‘And though she has the natural strength, the natural ability and speed, put that with 110 percent every single time she’s out there on the track, that makes all the difference in the world.”

Ekponé has her eye on some state high-school track titles next year, but her ultimate goal is the Olympics. She almost has the times to qualify for the 2008 Olympic Time Trials. And if she doesn’t make it this time, she could be one of the favorites in four years.

‘‘When you look at the times she’s producing now, these are times people are happy to produce going into college,” Knight said. ‘‘Right now, based on where she’s running and looking at where she came from and all that progression, she’s definitely capable of qualifying for time trials and possibly the Olympics. And if not this time, definitely the next one.”

Titans at the AAU Junior Olympics

Primary girls (8-under)

Brionne Pyles: 100-meter dash (14th), 200m dash (26th)

Miya Mozie: 400m dash (28th)

Bantam girls (10)

Kennedy Knight: 100m dash (5th), 200m dash (3rd), 400m dash (2nd)

Sub-midget girls (11)

Alexia Mitchell: 100m dash (17th), 200m dash (30th)

Sub-youth girls (13)

Bailee Freeman: high jump (2nd)

Youth girls (14)

Olivia Ekponé: 100m dash (1st), 200m dash (1st), 400m dash (4th), 4x400 relay (6th)

India Knight: 4x400 relay (6th)

Nichelle Tierney: 4x400 relay (6th)

Intermediate girls (15-16)

Katie Wolf: 200m dash (12th), 400m dash (19th)

Jennifer Reed: 3,000m run (16th)

Olivia Durr: 100m hurdles (30th), 400m hurdles (12th)

Intermediate boys (15-16)

Mark Small: 200m dash (21st), 400m dash (10th), 4x100m relay (27th), 4x400m relay (4th)

Marquis Woodyard: 400m dash (24th), 4x100m relay (27th), 4x400m relay (4th)

Donovan Mahone: 110m hurdles (28th), 400m hurdles (11th), 4x100m relay (27th), 4x400m relay (4th)

Hassan Dixon: 4x100m relay (27th), 4x400m relay (4th)

Ibrahima Kebe: discus (15th)

Young men (17-18)

Josue Cruz: discus (29th)