A high school track athlete’s season typically culminates with conference, regional and state championships, but the excitement of those meets will likely pale in comparison to what this summer holds for Jelonnie Smith.
The South Brunswick sophomore sprinter has been invited to represent her school, her state and her country at the 16th Annual Down Under Track & Field Meet in Australia.
While Smith has been building a name for herself in local track circles over the past few years, she never imagined her ability to run fast would take her halfway around the world. The invitation left her stunned.
“I was like, Whoa! There are people out of the country looking at me. That’s amazing,” she said. “I was like, people actually notice what I’m doing. I get comments all the time, but I guess it doesn’t really occur to me or doesn’t click. And then I was like, wait, they actually notice me. I’m actually really cool.”
A five-foot bundle of energy, Smith will be one of approximately 300 athletes representing the USA at Down Under Sports Tournaments on Australia’s Gold Coast. The national team leaves in early July and will be gone for nine days.
“I’m really excited,” said the 15-year-old from Bolivia. “Getting to work with different trainers and learn new stuff, and then there’s the food. I’m big on food and sightseeing because I’ve never been out of the country. But for the most part, I’m looking forward to the track, getting to meet new people, learning new stuff and actually getting to compete somewhere else.”
Smith has always been able to run fast, according to her mother, Cajita Clarida, and she‘s been competing since she was in third grade.
“I actually started running at Bolivia Elementary School,” Smith said. “We had this thing called Project Fitness, and it’s a chance to go run against other elementary schools. I did the 100 and I’ve been doing it ever since. It’s a lot of fun.”
Smith participated in Project Fitness through the fifth grade and then joined the track team at South Brunswick Middle School. She specializes in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash and 400-meter dash on her high school team.
She’s unbeaten in all three events so far this spring, and she made waves as a freshman when she was the conference champion in the 400-meter dash and placed third in the region and 10th in the state in the 200-meter dash.
Smith competes in indoor track during the winter season and qualified for the state championships each of the last two years.
“I think coming in as a freshman I was the baby of the group, but I feel like I succeeded a lot my freshman year and I’m going to continue to succeed my sophomore year and my junior and senior year. I want to get better and just soar,” she said. “I can’t really say much about this season because we’re just starting, but I would say I’m off to a good start and I can only go up from here.”
Smith’s goals for the rest of the outdoor track season are to break her own personal records and improve as an athlete and a person. She tries to focus on the big picture.
“My mom taught me to think big. Don’t ever doubt myself,” she said. “When I go to a competition, I don’t think of it as racing other competitors, but more racing myself and racing the clock.”
Smith’s personal records include 7.54 seconds in the 55-meter dash (indoor), 12.69 seconds in the 100-meter dash (outdoor), 25.64 seconds in the 200-meter dash (outdoor), 42.85 seconds in the 300-meter dash (indoor) and 59.21 seconds in the 400-meter dash (outdoor), according to track website milesplit.com.
She doesn’t have a favorite event but believes the 400-meter dash is her best. Over the last couple of years, Smith has gone from favoring the shorter sprints to liking the longer distances.
“I feel I’m strongest at the 400 at this point, and then would come the 200 and then the 100. The 100 used to be my strongest point, but last year I tried the 400 and now I feel like that’s my strongest event,” she said.
“In middle school, I was like I’m never doing anything over a 200. Then last year during indoor season I got to do the 300 and then I was running the four-by-four during outdoor season, and I was like, ‘Whoa, this is actually kind of cool. I think I’ll try it.’ And now I’m good at it. I’m going to keep doing this. I like this a lot.”
Smith is a natural athlete but says she works as hard as anyone to get better. She enjoys running and everything that goes along with it.
“I guess the adrenaline, the rush you feel, the wind blowing in your face,” she said. “Then there’s always the great part about when you’re done. It’s like, whew, I did it.”
Smith doesn’t participate in any other sports at South Brunswick, unless you count marching band as a sport, which she does.
“Marching band is so much fun. You sweat. You have competitions. Therefore, it is a sport,” she said. “It’s a lot of hard work. People think it’s easy, but it’s not. It’s a lot of multi-tasking.”
She plays the mellophone, a brass instrument similar to the French horn that is used in marching bands and drum-and-bugle corps.
“It looks like a trumpet with a gigantic bell,” she said. “We’re not high or low. We’re in the middle. So sometimes we may have trumpet part, sometimes we may have saxophone part, and then sometimes we may be low brass.”
It was Smith’s success on the track, not marching band, that got the attention of the folks at Down Under Sports. For that, her mother is thankful. Clarida said receiving the invitation to compete in Australia stirred her emotions.
“It was kind of crying. It was kind of praising God. All of it all in one,” Clarida said. “I’m always telling her to strive for her best, so it was just like an overwhelming feeling. This is what I’ve been telling you. This stuff pays off. People watch you. People notice you when you do good. So it was kind of like happiness, tears of joy, all of it all wrapped up in one.”
Clarida describes her daughter as multi-talented. In addition to track and music, she loves art and plans to become a fashion designer or graphic designer when she grows up.
As far as the trip to Australia, Clarida wants her daughter to enjoy every aspect of it and take advantage of the opportunity.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime event that not too many kids get to do. I mean, not too many adults get to go to Australia, so to me it’s like she’s making her mark,” Clarida said. “I want her to get the appreciation of another place, another country. I want her to see what it’s like and just know that she worked hard to get this.”
The trip will cost around $6,000, and Smith and her mother are working hard at various fundraisers to make it possible. They’ve raised a little more than $2,500, so far but still have a long way to go.
They are selling Down Under Sports T-shirts and seeking donations, and their church, Holy Bethel FBH Baptist Church in Thomasboro, is planning a spring concert to help pay the way. Final payment is due June 1.
To donate, call Clarida at 910-712-1160 or Down Under Sports at 435-753-4732. Online payments can be made at www.DownUnderSports.com/payment?160743.