The Future: LB Poly Sprinters
Jasmine Lee comes from a long line of athletes. Her brother, Travon, is a former high school baseball and basketball player. Her dad, Hilbert, ran scholastic track and played baseball. And her grandfather, Bobby Lee Darwin, played in more than 600 major league games, including portions of three seasons with the Dodgers.
But Lee, a senior sprinter at Long Beach Poly, essentially owes her track career to a little mutt from Cerritos.
"My family is all athletes, but I started running because I got chased by a dog," confesses Lee, 17, the defending CIF state champion in the 400-meter dash. "I was playing outside my house, and the next-door neighbor's dog started chasing me. I had to run three blocks before he stopped."
These days, any canine with half a brain would quit after a few car lengths. Lee ran the nation's fifth-fastest high school 200 (23.45) and 400 (52.52) times during the 2003 outdoor season, and in addition to her state title in the 400 (53.17), she finished fifth in the state in the 200 (23.97) last spring.
Yet, the amazing thing is that she's not even singularly impressive among her own teammates. Poly senior and SchoolSports All-American Shalonda Solomon has already met U.S. Olympic Team Trials qualifying standards in the 100 and 200, while senior Derrick Jones ran the nation's eighth-fastest boys' high school 100 (10.44) in 2003 before torn ligaments in his left ankle forced him to miss all but the relays at last year's state track meet.
So, a dog got Lee moving. But that doesn't explain what kept her going.
"I stayed in track because I've constantly got goals for myself," says Lee, whose first-place time of 54.42 in the 400 at February's Simplot Games was the fourth-fastest time in the nation for the 2004 indoor season. "Now, it's more fun, but I like the competition. You gotta have heart in this sport. It's about how much you want it. It's about how much drive you have."
It doesn't hurt to compete in a program that is to California high school track what the New York Yankees are to Major League Baseball. And being coached by a local legend like 28-year veteran Don Norford surely adds to the karma.
The team's depth of talent extends, predictably, beyond Poly's Big Three. Lee and Solomon have been major contributors on relay quartets that have set national high school records in the 4x200, 4x400 and 800-meter sprint medley, while Jones has helped the boys' squad to two straight 4x400 relay state crowns.
"It's made a great difference to be in this program with these coaches," says Jones, 18, who finished first in the 200 (21.53) and second in the 60 (6.82) at the Simplot Games, with both times ranking in the nation's top five for the 2004 indoor season. "I'd be a totally different athlete if I'd been somewhere else. I've come a long way. The coaching staff and older kids helped me so much."
But even in a program that churns out track stars like Kobe produces highlight plays, coach Norford acknowledges that Solomon, Lee and Jones stand out among the best.
"They rank right up there in our top 10 of all time," says Norford, 57. "All three come from a good family and spiritual foundation. They'll all come after you. They're great kids to teach — they're coachable, they put team first and they do their talking on the track."
All three will compete at a USC next season — Lee and Jones at Southern Cal and Solomon at South Carolina — though Jones, who caught a total of 87 passes for 2,406 yards and 29 touchdowns as a Poly wide receiver the past two years, will also play football for the Trojans. Oh, did we mention that in addition to being one of the nation's best sprinters, Jones is also rated the No. 27 football recruit in the Class of 2004 by SchoolSports.com?
Nonetheless, the possibility remains that any or every member of this trio could earn a shot at the Olympics someday.
"I think about it all the time," admits Solomon, who finished second in both the 100 (11.48) and 200 (23.37) at last June's state meet, behind only former L.A. Baptist High record-setting sprinter Allyson Felix. "The question is: Can I make the time? I might be able to make the time to train enough, but that's a lot of time."
True enough. Then again, Solomon, 18, is already halfway there. Her personal-best times of 11.35 in the 100 and 22.93 in the 200 — which she ran to win both events at the Pan American Junior Championships last summer — already meet the "B" qualifying standards of 11.40 and 23.24, respectively, for July's U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Sacramento.
Athletes who attain the "A" standard will automatically be included in Olympic Trials preliminary heats, while those who attain the "B" standard will be included if additional competitors are needed to fill the field size. At press time, Solomon needed only to shave a whisker off her personal-best 200 to attain the "A" standard of 22.80.
Lee is very nearly in the same boat — her best 400 time of 52.52 was only 0.02 seconds off the "B" standard at press time. Plus, she's ferociously determined to get to Sacramento this summer.
"In July, I'm going to those trials," says Lee. "That's my goal for the end of this year, and it's something I want to do."
Despite putting considerable emphasis on his football career, Jones can be just as realistic about earning a spot in the Olympic Trials somewhere down the line. His career-best times in the 100 (10.44) and 200 (20.8) are both less than 0.2 seconds off this year's "B" standard, while his best 400 (46.1) is less than 0.3 seconds off the mark.
"Making an Olympic Trials is one of my goals," says Jones, who ran the fastest high school split ever (45.7) in anchoring Poly to the 4x400 title at the 2003 Penn Relays. "It depends on football. Whichever sport it's more likely that I'm going to make it in, that's what I'm going after."
While Solomon, Lee and Jones are unified in their dominance on the track, Norford enjoys pointing out the distinctions in their race-day personas.
"They definitely have different personalities," says Norford, who watched Solomon run the nation's top 200 time (23.44) this indoor season to win the event at March's National Scholastic Indoor Championships in New York. "Shalonda is like a lioness. She's trying to devour you and establish her dominance. She's very emotional.
"Jasmine is more like a cheetah," he continues. "She'll let you run out there ahead for a little while, but it's only a matter of time. She's more analytical. Derrick tends to be shy, but he's more aggressive than people think. He wants to beat you in the worst way. In the end, they all do."