The great thing about the 8-year-old girls from West Baltimore's Mary Ann Winterling Elementary School is that they're fast — fast enough to beat the boys at school, fast enough to qualify for the USA Track and Field Junior Olympic Championships regionals in North Carolina.
The frustrating thing about the girls is that they are perhaps too fast. Because when you've had to solicit donations from church and friends and family to travel down to North Carolina A&T State University last week, only to secure a spot in the national championships, in Kansas of all places, and there's less than a month to raise thousands more dollars, a certain kind of dread infringes on parental bliss.
"We were supposed to be happy that we made the nationals," said Karen Washington, the mother of one of the nationals-bound girls. "We've still been happy. But the minute they won [a spot], we were happy and sad at the same time. … They made it to the nationals, but how are we gonna get there?"
The dream the girls of Turbo Track Club never foresaw, to run for Junior Olympic gold in the 4x100-meter and 4x400 under-8 girls relays, was on Tuesday kept alive by a man they've never met. Not that they would recognize Chad Johnson, anyway, if they saw Ocho Cinco himself in his faux Hall of Fame jacket or performing Riverdance at Rock Chalk Park later this month in Lawrence.
That the former Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver would end up donating over $2,000 to a Baltimore youth track team's GoFundMe page is something of a miracle. But then, so is that four of the city's fastest youngsters would end up going to the same elementary school and find an aspiring track coach as a physical-education instructor.
James Peterson started teaching at Mary Ann Winterling in 2014, when three of the girls to later join his team were only in kindergarten. A former high school track participant himself, Peterson always had his students race in class. The kids would stretch and exercise, and then they'd line up on one baseline of the school's gym, about the size of a small basketball court.
The girls would sprint first, from one baseline to the other and back. One girl always would reach the baseline before another even got to midcourt. "This doesn't make any sense," Peterson thought. "Why is she going this fast?"
Another girl did the same thing. When Peterson matched them up against the whole class, "they beat the boys by the same distance," he said. He knew he had something.
The next year, Peterson and his brother, Johnny, started Turbo Track Club, a team with no jerseys or registration fees. It was a small group initially, about seven or eight regulars with as many as 14 showing up for practice, but there was promise. Ta'Leah Phillips, one of the fleet-footed kindergartners, had joined. Less than a year after joining the team, she made it to regionals.
The Petersons' recruiting efforts broadened. "You know what, we're going to make sure I get some girls to run with this girl," James recalled promising. "Because she's pretty fast."
Dayonna Jackson, the other blur of a kindergartner, joined in. At a Potomac Valley Association qualifier in June for Baltimore and Northern Maryland, Ta'Leah and Dayonna finished second and third, respectively, in the 100 for their age group.
When they teamed with schoolmates Jasmyne Felder and Kamauri Holland, Washington's daughter, in the 4x100 and 4x400, Turbo Track Club finished second and fifth, respectively, in the USATF PVA junior championships. Next up were regionals, where, wearing their new jerseys for the first time, they again finished in the top five in the relays. They'd made it to the July 24-30 national meet in Lawrence, Kan. — if they could afford to go.
"I know that these parents don't have the best financial situation," Peterson, 27, said.
One parent suggested starting a GoFundMe page. The initial fundraising goal was $4,000; others feared even that might not be enough. They asked friends and family to share the page. They made plans to sell waters and soda for extra cash. On Twitter, Tariq Touré, a Baltimore writer who works with a mentoring program at Mary Ann Winterling, made a "huge request" to his 11,000-plus followers.
"A track team in Baltimore has a shot at nationals," he tweeted Monday night, with a link to the GoFundMe site. "They just need to get there. Please give/share."
On Tuesday afternoon, after Touré's plea had been retweeted thousands of times, @ochocinco wrote back: "You good now, I'll see y'all at Junior Olympics in Kansas." Johnson, whose 12-year-old daughter is a rising star in track, had donated $2,200, taking Turbo Track Club over its goal. (The team later raised its benchmark to $5,000; as of Wednesday night, 117 people had given a combined $5,190 over two days.)
"With the plans that we had, I don't think we would've made the $5,000 in two weeks," Washington said. "We definitely needed it."
On Tuesday night, she was still trying to reckon with the suddenness of it all: how she'd previously known Johnson mainly as the ex-husband of a star on the VH1 reality-TV series "Basketball Wives," how Kansas will be the farthest her daughter's ever traveled, how now the families can afford lodging in resorts with entertainment for their kids. Maybe a playhouse, she said, because they are just 8, after all.
Mainly, she was grateful that her daughter now could run with the best.
"This was something hidden," she said of her daughter's ability. "I've never known." At Mary Ann Winterling, it seems, you learn fast.