Anthony 'Ace' Valentine settles into his runner's stance like a ticking time bomb, ready to explode into a full sprint.
Clad in his neon yellow and green, Valentine has executed this routine countless times. Whether it's in practice or a big meet, it's obvious he doesn't let his focus waiver.
On this day, though, it's just fun and games. His dad and sister watch him goof off for the camera on Howard High School's track. In between runs, he jokingly holds his up his index finger in true 'I'm No. 1' fashion.
Valentine just returned from the 2013 AAU Junior Olympic Games in Michigan, where he took home a national championship in the long jump, as well as two silver medals in the 200 and 400-meter dash.
The scary part is, Valentine may just be scratching the surface of his potential. After all, the standout athlete with the big smile is still only eight years old.
And when you ask him about his favorite thing about competing on the track, he responds in the short, to-the-point way you'd expect from a kid his age.
"When you get to beat people," he said. "When I have a lot of competition … I really get pushed."
On the surface, he is a typical elementary school kid. He loves cheese pizza, the Baltimore Ravens and playing football and basketball. Valentine, who says he's had the nickname "Ace" for as long as he can remember, is bursting with energy.
"He's the loudest kid you'll probably ever be around," his father, Craig Valentine, joked. "Without having to push him at all, he's outside playing basketball for four hours at a time."
Ace will enter the third grade this fall, yet his attitude about success seems worlds ahead of his peers.
"He's one of those kids who doesn't realize what he has just done," his father said. "I know he understands it, but it doesn't go to his head.
"He's onto the next thing."
Flying by his competition
When Ace was just six, he found himself racing against runners two years older than him at a regional championship in Hagerstown. His family didn't have high expectations, knowing their son was contending against much older competition.
Ace bolted out ahead of his opposition from the eighth lane. At around the 200-meter mark, the Valentine family waited for the rest of the field to catch up.
Except it never happened. Ace kept his lead and walked away victorious. Each year since, he has shown a steady ascent to the top of the national stage.
Sharron Smith, Ace's track coach, has high praise for her pint-sized pupil.
"Ace is basically before his time," the longtime coach said. "He's very focused and very determined."
Smith said it is easy to forget that he's still just a child.
"When I got him at five years old, he was shy and connected to his mom," she said. "The next year, I just saw him grow into himself. He just blossomed."
It runs in the family
Ace's mom, Kacy Valentine, played basketball at Georgetown, and now teaches at Lake Elkhorn Middle School. Dad, a noted public speaker and motivator, played his college basketball at Towson University. He represented the Tigers in the NCAA Tournament in 1990 and 1991.
His sister Tori is a budding athlete as well. The soon-to-be 11-year-old runs on Howard County's Elite Track Club along with her younger brother.
"Oh we are very competitive, always trying to win against each other," Tori said of the sibling rivalry.
According to Craig Valentine, his son still has trouble beating his older sister — something that "drives him crazy."
Athletic success isn't the most important thing, however. Academic achievement in the Valentine household is top priority.
"As good as (Ace) is in basketball and track, he's probably even better in math," said his father.
One of the perks of traveling across the country for various track events is visiting college campuses. The Valentine children don't solely look up to decorated Olympians like Usain Bolt. Athletes that work toward achieving their degrees are held in high regard as well.
Ace says he wants to run for N.C. State after a trip to the school while competing in North Carolina. Seeing the trophy room in each college campus fuels his competitive drive.
"These are true scholar athletes, and that's what we teach them," Craig Valentine said.
It doesn't matter who you ask when it comes to Ace Valentine's future. They will all say the same thing.
"He has the potential to be in the NFL, the NBA and he can definitely be in the Olympics," said Smith. "With his type of talent, the sky is the limit for him."
Sister Tori agrees, noting that her brother will only get better as he grows up.
He's already making a name for himself. In addition to the medals that he won at the AAU Junior Olympic Games, he also added three national championships at the USATF Junior Olympic Nationals in North Carolina a week earlier.
Along the way this summer, with a personal-best time of 1:04.86 in the 400, he set a new national record for 8-and-under boys.
Ace won't stop until he has at lest two gold medals in each of his favorite sports, he said. That means plenty more Cracker Barrel stops on long trips to track meets, something the Valentine family looks forward to the most.
"He's just out there having fun," said Smith. "If he's having fun doing what he's doing, all the accolades will come with it."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun