COLUMBIA — On a hot summer day two years ago, 6-year-old Eryn Puett peered across the track at Hickman's LeMone Field toward the shot put ring. Already a skilled enough athlete to qualify for the Amateur Athletic Union's Junior Olympic Games in the 800-meter run, Puett asked her coaches if she could try her hand at an event they didn’t expect.
"It just looked fun, all those people throwing," she said.
After they showed her the basics, Eryn Puett stepped into the ring and let loose. The four-pound metal ball sailed more than 20 feet in the air, placing her first attempt within 2 feet of her age group's top national mark that year. Her coaches were impressed, to say the least.
"They basically said, 'Uh, you're gonna do shot put next year,'" Eryn's father, Don Puett, said.
Eryn Puett has developed her many talents as a member of the Blue Thunder Track Club, a youth organization partnered with the Columbia Department of Parks and Recreation. Head coach Camren Cross has been with the group for 6 years, and has helped the club grow from a class focused on teaching children the fundamentals of track.
"I really love it because there's not any politics involved," Cross said. "It's not, 'Why isn't my kid starting at quarterback?' and 'He's not getting the ball enough.' This is pure, clean athletics. You just throw it the farthest, run the fastest, jump the farthest."
Blue Thunder has evolved from that small class into an AAU-affiliated club with more than 150 members ages 6 to 18, and Cross now characterizes it as a group "most Midwestern track folks know about." His assertion is backed by the group's results: Blue Thunder is sending a club-record 43 participants to the regional qualifying competition for the Junior Olympics, set for Friday through Sunday in Lawrence, Kan.
In a remarkably strong group, Eryn Puett manages to stand out. In addition to the shot put, she set the club's Primary Girls (ages 8-and-under) records in the 400, 800 and 1500-meter runs last year. She said she enjoyed competing at the 2010 Junior Olympics, during which she competed in the shot put, the 400 and the 800.
"It was exciting because I thought I had a pretty good chance of pulling a medal, and I did," Eryn Puett said, referring to the bronze medal she earned for the shot put in her first year of competition.
Eryn Puett, who joined Blue Thunder at age 5, has witnessed firsthand the club’s shift in focus over the past few years. Her father said dealing with the more competitive AAU environment was an easy adjustment for his daughter.
"She's always been a competitor," he said. "It's just kind of in her nature."
Although she comes off as more humble and reserved than that characterization might suggest (she says her shot put prowess is a result of listening to her coaches), Puett showed a little confidence when asked if she expects to qualify for the Junior Olympics again this weekend.
"Yeah, I think so," she said, smiling.