Seven Haines City Student Athletes Heading to Junior Olympics
by James Coulter
The Free&Forward Express Track Club has superseded the expectations of their head coach Twanna Henderson. With the pandemic overshadowing society, Mrs. Henderson shared how her club faced various challenges due to different health and safety protocols.
Often, the team had to resort to practicing in the parking lot of her home church, New Mount Zion MB. Despite the odds, these Haines City student-athletes will be heading to the Junior Olympics for a chance to win the gold medal.
Seven members of the Free&Forward Express Track Club in Haines City will be going to the 2021 National Junior Olympics and Summer Festival later this month in Humble, Texas.
These seven student-athletes include Ariel Pierce (shot put and discus), Saahnir Young (shot put and discus), Isabella Saint Justin (100 meters), Derion Berry (400 and 200 meters), Jasia Jordan (long jump), Valeria (1500 meter), and Jakea Colman (shot put and discus).
They qualified for the Junior Olympics after competing at the regional district level. Ariel Pierce won second place in disc and sixth place in shotput. Isabelle won third place in the 100 meters. Derion won third place in the 400 meters. And Valerie won fourth place in the 1500 meters.
“They are some of the tops in this region that represents Florida,” explained Henderson. “It is very, very hard to make Junior Olympics your first year, especially to do it out of district, so we were successful to get at least seven.”
Henderson comes from a family of track and field athletes. Her father still holds the state championship record at Haines City High School.
Henderson has three children: two sons, 26 and 21, and a daughter. All of them have competed in track. Her daughter participated in various track clubs, but she did not like them. This inspired Henderson to start her own.
She started the AAU track club last year with her partner, Kenneth. They have since changed the name to the Free&Forward Express Track Club. Their team currently consists of 30 members from local schools.
They currently practice at Haines City High School and have been able to participate in over 10 track meets this season.
“Every track meet, we are getting better and better,” Henderson said. “We haven’t had a track club in Haines City for the past few decades, so to bring that avenue back to the kids has been an awesome experience and the kids involved are gaining more and more interest in the sport. Not to mention we have some of the highest-ranking kids in the area in their events.”
Henderson owes their success to training her students in body as well as in mind and character. She does not simply teach them track and field. She also instills in them training in good behavior and self-management skills.
One of their proudest achievements was traveling to Atlanta to participate in the 14th annual Mark Trail Invitational and compete alongside some of the highest-scoring athletes around the country. They returned home with four medals.
“Everywhere we go, we get applauded for the success we are having as a first-year club,” she said. “Our eight and under are very successful. The field athletes are a team of four, ‘The Four Stooges’, and they are the top four out of the region.”
Henderson hopes to return from the Junior Olympics with her students bringing home at least two medals. Their hopes remain high, and considering their previous track record, they expect to exceed those expectations.
“At first, it was a little shaky and often times along this year we have battled doubt and discouragement but through it all God has sustained them and for that she’s grateful! Our Athletes will be taking donations for their trip [through the] Cash App Free&Forward. [Any donation] will be greatly appreciated.”