Estancia High sprinter Persis Williams-Mensah will compete in the 100- and 200-meter events at the CIF Southern Section Division 3 finals. She qualified fourth and eighth, respectively, at the preliminaries last week at Estancia. (Don Leach, Daily Pilot / May 17, 2013)

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In third grade, right before lunch, a teacher let Persis William-Mensah and the rest of the class out early. The kids found out they were going for a little exercise.

William-Mensah remembers how she and the rest of her classmates lined up against a fence. The teacher ordered them to race to a tree.

The first one to reach it was William-Mensah. She beat everyone, even the boys.

Another teacher noticed the winner of the 50-meter race. He approached William-Mensah and told her about the track and field team at the school.

She never really knew she ran fast until that afternoon. Dressed in regular clothes, her speed impressed the teacher.

On that day, a sprinter was born.

"I always felt the need to run after that," said William-Mensah, who now runs for the Estancia High girls' track and field program as a junior.

Running helped William-Mensah adjust to life in a new country. She didn't hit the ground running when she emigrated with her family to the U.S. from Africa as a first-grader.

When she arrived from Ghana, William-Mensah switched elementary schools as often as a baton exchanges hands during a 4x100 relay.

She went to three schools during first and second grade in Orange County. In third grade, she had to start all over again and make new friends in a different county.

The family moved to Riverside, where she found her stride. It was there, at Hawthorne Elementary, where she learned to run freely as a kid.

Kids stopped teasing her about her accent. They started praising her speed.

She couldn't lose the accent. She couldn't lose a race, either.

For three years, she ran and ran. Then she stopped.

She and her family moved again, back to Orange County to live in Costa Mesa.

"After leaving Riverside, I didn't want to do anything," William-Mensah said. "I missed Riverside a lot because it was the longest place I had stayed in the U.S."

It took a year for William-Mensah to settle in at TeWinkle Middle School. She felt at home when she began to run again.

During lunch, she went out to the track and ran with some friends. They noticed she was very fast.

None of those friends followed her to Estancia, where she's been the fastest girl on campus for three years. She can also claim stake to that title in the Newport-Mesa area this year.

William-Mensah is the only local girl competing in the 100 and 200 events at the CIF Southern Section championships at Mt. San Antonio College on Saturday. The top nine sprinters in each event advance to next week's Masters meet.