University of North Florida to welcome USA Track and Field Junior Olympics this week

Track event to draw more than 6,000 young athletes

Clayton Freeman
Florida Times-Union
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Girls line up at the starting line for the 3000-meter run in the 13-14 age bracket at the 2015 USATF National Junior Olympic Track and Field Championships. The Junior Olympic meet returns to UNF Monday.

Let the Games begin.

Junior Olympics-style.

As the Summer Olympics continue across the Pacific Ocean, Jacksonville is welcoming its own dose of Olympic fever as the USA Track and Field National Junior Olympics begin Monday.

"A lot of these young athletes, that's what they aspire to be, and it's great for them to see these professional athletes on that [Olympic] platform," meet director Angela Harris said. "Someday, that may be something that [Junior Olympic athletes] can do."

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Competition begins 8 a.m. Monday and continues through Aug. 1 at the University of North Florida's Hodges Stadium.

In all, the event is expected to draw more than 6,000 competitors, ranging in age from 7 to 19, from all 50 states, as well as numerous parents and coaches.

Harris said she's expecting more than 500 participants from around the Northeast Florida area.

And while the athletes on the track might not yet be able to match the feats of American medal contenders like hurdler Grant Holloway, steeplechaser Emma Coburn or decathlete and Episcopal High School graduate Garrett Scantling, the Junior Olympic competition traditionally serves as a training ground for the next generation of American athletes.

When the Junior Olympics previously stopped in Jacksonville in 2015, among the featured competitors was 15-year-old Armand Duplantis, who set the meet record in the pole vault. A half-dozen years later, Duplantis, now representing his mother's birthplace of Sweden, holds the world record.

Armand Duplantis breaks the event pole vault record for 15-16 year olds at the 2015 USATF National Junior Olympic Track and Field Championships at the University of North Florida. The meet returns to UNF this week.

Gabbi Cunningham (women's 100-meter hurdles) and Bryce Hoppel (men's 800-meter run) are among the athletes on the United States' 2021 Olympic squad in Tokyo who competed at the Junior Olympics in Jacksonville six years ago.

Visit Jacksonville, the city's tourism department, has projected an economic impact of about $11 million from the week-long event.

The meet is also drawing local support. JTC Running, which also organizes the Gate River Run, donated more than $20,000 as part of the bid to bring the Junior Olympics back to the First Coast.

"It's really exciting, and it's also big for people who are outside the usual running community," JTC Running president Larry Roberts said.

Roberts said organizers are still seeking additional volunteers for the event. Volunteers can apply through the meet website, usatfjojax.com.

Tickets, on sale each day at UNF, cost $15 for adults and $10 for children age 7 and up.

USA Track and Field had originally designated Jacksonville as the Junior Olympic host for 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the meet until this summer.

Still, COVID-19 concerns are adjusting the usual protocols for the Junior Olympics. Unlike the 2015 meet, Harris said there will be no official parade of athletes, and medal procedures will also be modified.

"It'll be an exciting time," Harris said. "We can't wait to see the first race, as well as the last race."

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