COLUMBIA – Wearing a floppy, red fishing hat, Blue Thunder Track Club head coach Camren Cross is anything but serious before his team practices.
He and his athletes crack jokes and pretend to fight as they wait for practice to begin Tuesday, but when practice begins, Cross leads the sprinters across the track with his head down.
The Blue Thunder Track Club will hold a track meet and barbecue on July 14 at Rock Bridge High School.
For athletes wishing to compete, there is a $5 preregistration fee or $8 fee the day of the meet. To register or for more information, go to bluethundertc.shutterfly.com.
Participants can enter multiple events. Check-in starts at 7:30 a.m. with the meet beginning at 9 a.m.
“There’s a time to have fun, and there’s also a time to be serious,” Cross said.
Under the leadership of Cross, 42 Blue Thunder athletes have qualified for the national AAU Junior Olympic Games set for July 28 through Aug. 4 in Houston.
Blue Thunder is a youth club organized through Columbia Parks and Recreation. The club is open to children ages 7 to 18.
The team began in 2005 with just 12 athletes, but over the years the club has added more coaches and competitors. This year, the team had 151 athletes sign up to travel and compete in track meets across the state.
“You can tell that we’ve really developed from where we came,” Cross said. “It just took a while to gain that kind of trust from the parents to where they would let us travel out of the Columbia confines."
In seven seasons, Cross has seen the team become a respected youth track club across the region. This past weekend in Joplin, the team won 18 events at the Area 16 Championships, the qualifier for the national meet. At Tuesday's practice, pinned across Cross' University of Arkansas football shirt is a bib number that one of his athletes wore at the event.
Cross says one of the unique things about Blue Thunder is that athletes remain in the program for years.
“You get to watch them grow from year to year,” Cross said. “Some of them I’ve had since 2005, and they’ve become the leaders of the team and are reinforcing some of the policies and the culture of the club to the younger ones.”
Makayla Jones, 15, has been with Blue Thunder for seven years. In that time she has risen to be one of the leaders on the team, constantly giving encouragement and support to her younger teammates.
"Just to see the kids and see them improve is amazing," Jones said. "I've enjoyed it so much. Getting better and watching them get better is really, really inspiring."
As one of the athletes who qualified for the AAU Junior Olympic Games, Jones says she and the rest of her teammates have become closer over the years.
"We are more of a family," Jones said. "I feel more connected to everybody here. I've been in this environment so long and have grown up with this."
Jones' grandfather, Ben Vineyard, has seen the growth of the team firsthand as both the president of the group and as a spectator.
“I think the team has gotten better because we have good coaches and good kids,” Vineyard said. “We’ve got coaches who are getting better as they go along, and kids that understand what it’s all about.”
The team has grown from just two coaches in 2005 to now having 11. Cross says this lets the coaches and the team specialize in areas and give more one-on-one attention to the athletes.
Former MU runner Stephanie King is in her first year as an assistant coach for the Blue Thunder. She says the club has already made a major impact on her life.
“This is the highlight of my day,” King said. “Everybody here is really supportive, and they’re all working hard to get better.”