Last summer, elementary school track and field sensation Anthony 'Ace' Valentine returned from the AAU Junior Olympic Games draped in medals both silver and gold.
Back then, he was merely scratching the surface of what he could achieve. His age aside, the youngster was still learning the basics of his events.
The talent, however, just came naturally.
Earlier this month, Ace did himself one better, capturing wins in the 400-meter dash (1:04.64) and long jump (13-10.75) at the same championship event in Des Moines, Iowa. He also finished fifth in the 200 (28.48).
Rather than push their son, though, parents Craig and Kacy Valentine choose instead to enjoy the moment, knowing just how special it actually is.
"You might have 12,000 kids at the national championship, and maybe six or seven of them will pull off a double like that," said Craig Valentine. "Just to come in the top-8, and be known as an All-American, is very special. To come in at the very top in those two events, though, is very rare."
Ace, 9-years-old and full of personality, said he's enjoying the opportunities that track has presented at such an early age. What's his favorite part about the competition circuit so far?
"I like that we go to different places, and that we don't go to the same place every time. We like to try new restaurants," he said.
That's Ace, just another normal kid who loves SpongeBob SquarePants, video games and making friends and family laugh.
Still, normal is a relative term. he also shaved three seconds off his 400 time in the last year — probably not something many of his peers think about on a daily basis. He's working toward a specific set of goals, and doesn't want his age to get in the way.
"I want to catch Bill Russell," he jokes, alluding to the seven championships on the national stage he has already won. The former Boston Celtic great had 11 NBA titles. Ace is well on his way.
"His athleticism is beyond his age," said track coach Sharron Smith, who heads the Elite Track Club that the Valentine children compete with. "Ace is a very quiet, laid back type of kid. He's the kind of kid who wants to reinforce what was taught to the others. The sky is the limit for him."
A year removed from his first interview as an athlete, the speedy runner is still finding his voice. He's shy when talking about his experiences, yet bursting with energy when it comes to the simpler things in life.
When asked if he gets anxious before a race, he dodges the question and instead throws a friendly jab toward his sister, older by nearly three years, and also a budding track star who has improved her times nationally as well.
"I'm confident. I don't get nervous," he said. "Tori does!"
While they do have a close relationship, the older sister is always ready to put her little brother in his place if he strays too far out of line.
One of those moments came earlier this year, when Ace ran a personal-best time of 1:01 in the 400. Tori couldn't let him hold onto the spotlight for long. Not 30 minutes later, in the same meet, she bested him by one second.
"Tori is the best big sister you can have," Craig Valentine said. "And they support one another."
Smith echoes the sentiment about the close-knit family, saying that it stems from their upbringing. "They are ready, willing and able to compete at any level," she said. "You don't have too many kids like that."
Like anyone his age, Ace regularly changes his mind when it comes to his future. While some of his friends teeter the line with aspirations of becoming a firefighter, astronaut or racecar driver, Ace is still deciding what his favorite sport is. From there, he'll be able to choose the path he wants to take.
At this point, he says he prefers basketball, where he won a league title and five tournament championships this year.
One thing his parents and coaches are especially proud of is Ace's maturity. With the success also comes responsibility, and, so far, he's holding up his end of the deal.
"Ace isn't the youngest any more on the team, and he's taking a lot of the ones who are new to track under his wing," Kacy Valentine said. "He's just a leader. As much as he does when he's running, the things that he does off the track really impressed me."
Smith, who the Valentine family regularly refers to as the "best coach in the country," enjoys having worked with the two kids year after year. The way they buy into the teaching, according to the coach, should serve them well in the long run.
"Normally you'll get a kid for one or two years, then they'll disappear for whatever reason," she said. "(These two) seem to enjoy and embrace the sport."
After a year of traveling the country for events, Ace has shifted his desire to enroll at UCLA, rather than N.C. State, which was his original ideal school.
Whatever his future may hold, he knows the adversity that will come along with it. Craig Valentine says his son is certainly up for the challenge.
Ace's father points to this year's regionals at Wise High School, when race organizers lost his time and forced him to run in an earlier qualifying heat. His time was slower as a result, yet he reached the national championship race and won from the seventh lane anyway.
"He ran a very smart race," his father said. "He handled it. He finished very well all this season, and that's why he won."
Ace should get ready to face a multitude of challenges as he pursues his dreams on the track. His coach said this year was his best test to date, because instead of working toward the top, he had to find a way to stay there.
Luckily, there is always going to be someone to chase. One of Ace's favorite track athletes, Jamaican speedster Usain Bolt, ran a personal-best time of 45.28 seconds in the 400 in 2007.
It's something to shoot for.
"With the support system he has, he can beat anybody he wants to beat," Smith said, "academically or athletically."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun