COLUMBIA — The starter's pistol fired with a loud pop, sending runners speeding down the track at Rock Bridge High School. Other athletes stretched on the infield as they waited for their races to be called.
Parents and supporters sat beneath portable canopies colored to match those of the teams they were cheering. No color was more prominent than blue.
Columbia's Blue Thunder Track Club was out in full force on Saturday as hosts of the meet. More than 75 of its 175 athletes competed in the 15-team event, a warmup for the AAU Junior Olympics in Detroit later this month. The home meet came toward the end of a successful season for the club.
Blue Thunder will send more than 50 of its competitors to Detroit, a vast improvement from a decade ago when only seven athletes qualified for the event. However, this year's success hasn't come easily. The team persevered through two tragedies to get to this point in the season.
First, in April, the mother of 14-year-old team member Semaj Horsley died. Shelley White-Horsley died at 46 due to congestive heart failure.
"We did a lot of praying," said Erika Buford, who is on the club's board.
The team stepped up to support the family. Many members attended a celebration of life ceremony at Rock Quarry Park, and at Saturday's meet, all the Blue Thunder athletes and parents wore wristbands with the initials "SWH" and reading "BTTC forever."
The next month tragedy struck again when Nadria Wright, a 12-year-old member of Blue Thunder, was involved in a serious car accident on the way to a meet in Kansas City. She was in the ICU for close to a month with a broken arm, spinal damage and bleeding in her brain. Her parents and a friend who were also in the car escaped with minor injuries
The team rallied together to help the Wright family. They did everything, from taking donations in order to help with medical costs, down to doing "little things, like cut their grass." Nadria is now out of the hospital, but it's unknown whether she will be able to race competitively again.
"I think because we're so close knit is how we were able to get through this," Buford said.
Advancing so many athletes to the national meet has meant a lot to the Blue Thunder team.
"This is the most we've ever had," club treasurer Nawassa Logan said. "That's evidence of us growing."
The club used to host a smaller unofficial meet around Memorial Day, but with the club's growth, board members have expressed an interest in hosting an AAU district qualifying meet, and Saturday's meet, which included teams from Iowa, Illinois, Kansas and Minnesota, was a step toward that.
In order to become an official AAU-sanctioned event, the hosts must work with another team who has hosted a tournament before. Blue Thunder partnered with the Windsteppers team from Kansas City. If AAU officials approve, Blue Thunder can host more meets in the future.
"It's our tryout," Logan said.
Blue Thunder hopes to use the new facilities at Battle High School for its event next year.
The team does everything it can to raise money so as many members as possible can travel and compete in meets outside of Missouri. For the AAU Jr. Olympics in Detroit, the team is holding a car wash July 21 outside of the Dairy Queen on Forum Blvd.
Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.