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.
William-Mensah has advanced to the CIF Southern Section finals before, but never in two races.
Getting back wasn't easy.
A left knee injury sidelined her for most of the track and field season. She sprained the knee while with the girls' volleyball team in the fall.
"At first, they thought I tore my ACL. I cried when I was told that," William-Mensah said. "It just took a lot longer to heal than usual.
"That was my main push throughout the season. I wanted to show everyone and myself that I could come back stronger than ever."
Her debut came at the Bell Gardens Classic Relays on March 30. A couple of days before April Fool's Day, she wasn't fooling her coach, Charlie Appell.
She ran the second leg of the 4x100, and right away Appell saw something was off.
"Very rugged," Appell said of how William-Mensah looked because "she was favoring her right knee.
"[Her left knee] was acting up. It was like that for three weeks in April. Then she started to get healthy."
Slowly but surely William-Mensah began to build confidence and her winning form. Before last week's CIF Southern Section Division 3 preliminaries, a half dozen meets is all she competed in this year.
Estancia played host to the prelims. At home, William-Mensah said she felt comfortable, until she had trouble getting into Jim Scott Stadium.
She convinced one of the volunteers that she was in the 100 and 200. The volunteer just had to check the program to look up her name, but that probably wouldn't have worked. Her first name was misspelled.
She got in without having to pay. Her performance was worth the price of admission.
William-Mensah turned in her best times in the 100 and 200, respectively. She ran the 100 in 12.13 seconds, good enough for fourth, and the 200 in 25.20, finishing eighth.
"I actually didn't know that I had qualified for the 200 until I was leaving the stadium with my dad," said William-Mensah, who barely made the cut to the finals by finishing in the top nine.
"My dad said he heard my name over the speaker, and he asked me, 'What else did you do?' I wasn't paying attention, because there are so many names announced during a meet."
Persis William-Mensah is one name that's hard to miss at the track.
Born: June 15, 1996
Sport: Girls' track & field
Coach: Charlie Appell
Favorite food: Chocolate
Favorite movie: "Finding Nemo"
Favorite athletic moment: "The first time I made it to CIF finals."
Week in review: William-Mensah qualified fourth in the 100-meter event in 12.13 seconds and eighth in the 200 in 25.20 during the CIF Southern Section Division 3 preliminaries. She advanced in both events for the section finals.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun