The first time Jedah Caldwell traveled out of state for a track and field meet going into ninth grade, she couldn’t calm her nerves.
“It kind of did get in my head like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m traveling somewhere,’ ” said Caldwell, a soon-to-be senior at Chanhassen.
Caldwell is plenty used to traveling for races by now. She has competed in Chicago and Jacksonville so far this summer and is one of a few dozen Minnesotans headed to Norfolk, Va., for the AAU Junior Olympic Games starting Saturday through Aug. 8.
“I’ve gone to nationals the past few years, so I know what the competition is going to be,” Caldwell said. “I’ll do pretty well.”
Caldwell, who took first place in the 100- and 200-meter dashes at the Class 2A track meet in June, is arguably the top high school girls’ sprinter in Minnesota. But she’s not the only athlete headed to the national meet with big-time experience under her belt.
Maddie Gourley of Eagan first competed at the AAU Junior Olympic Games in 2005, when she was only 7 years old. She’s been back to the meet almost every year since and is an accomplished 200 meters runner. Gourley is focusing now on the 400 meters.
“The 400 is more fitting for me, and I’m not so much of a speed person. I’m fast, but I can keep it longer,” Gourley said. “It’s just the perfect amount for me.”
Gourley and Caldwell both compete for Track Minnesota Elite, a club team coached by former Gophers football and NFL player Melvin Anderson. More than 40 athletes from Anderson’s program will compete at nationals, led by those who have experienced the stressors that come with the high-profile event.
“It helps [that] they’ve been there,” Anderson said of Gourley and Caldwell. “Nationals is a different animal. … They learn how to deal with success and failure. They learn how to perform in front of thousands of people and perform against kids they’ve never seen or heard of.”
Brieasha Hunter will compete for another Minnesota-based club — ICAA Breeze in St. Paul — at the AAU Junior Olympic Games. The Cretin-Derham Hall senior-to-be is also familiar with the national meet, having competed at it twice, and is looking to regain top form after an off year.
Hunter finished first at state in the 100 meters in 2014, then slipped to fourth in 2015 while battling a knee injury. She still isn’t done with physical therapy, but keeps racing.
“I had a really rough season with my injury,” Hunter said. “I fell so far behind. … I’m feeling good. I’m getting stronger, much, much stronger.”
Hunter finished second at nationals in the 400 meters last year and has been focusing on that event to make herself more versatile and thus more attractive to schools at the next level.
“Colleges need more flexible runners and the 400 is a good range,” she said.
Caldwell, Gourley and Hunter relish when the spring season hits and they can line up to run against each other.
“I kind of like [racing Caldwell and Hunter],” Gourley said. “We all cheer for each other and want each other to do the best we can.”
There’s plenty at stake at the national meet, with college scouts filling the stands. Caldwell has a two-year streak of being part of the top 4x100 relay team she badly wants to keep alive. But three years removed from her first AAU Junior Olympic Games, the veteran is not sweating the details anymore.
“I’ve learned to not stress out as much. I know I’ve worked so hard getting up to nationals, so I don’t have to be nervous about it because of all my training,” Caldwell said. “You can’t psyche yourself out.”