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Leaping Overseas : Lynwood Track Stars Hurdle Barriers to Compete in Europe

Times Staff Writer

They have barely been down to the beach, their young lives pretty much confined to the concrete that is their campus. But now, out of the blue, six athletes at Lynwood High School have been rewarded with a 10-day escape to a place they know only through their geography books.

They are going to West Germany because they excel at track and field, a sport whose glory and rewards were always too compelling for them to resist, even in the face of all the temptations that have led many they have known into trouble.

On June 22, they will get on a jet plane, the last thing they dreamed they would be doing on June 22.

The Lynwood students are among 45 from California, Nevada and Arizona selected by the International Sports Exchange, a nonprofit corporation in Pomona, to compete against Cologne track clubs.

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The International Sports Exchange’s purpose is to “provide international competition for those who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance” for such competition, said John Norton, an ISE representative who has coached track at Mt. San Antonio College since 1965.

The ISE, Norton said, chooses “good, recognized high school athletes with good marks (times) who are good citizens in their community.” Athletes cannot apply for the trips.

One other student from this area, Compton High sophomore sprinter Samuel Simmons, was also selected.

The meets will be June 26 and June 29 in Cologne. The students, who will return July 1, will also ride a train to Belgium and tour castles along the Rhine.

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“We want to provide them with the experience of a lifetime,” said Norton.

“It was a complete surprise; all of a sudden, one day, I got a letter,” said Barbara Crawford, a senior and the San Gabriel Valley League champion in the 120-meter run.

She and some of the other honorees were discussing the trip last week near the school’s orange dirt track.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Ricky Barfield, a junior triple jumper for the league-champion Knights, who said he has never been out of California.

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For Barfield, whose goal is to be a deputy sheriff, the trip is an indication that he chose the correct direction in life.

“I started track in the ninth grade because I believed I have a God-given talent and I didn’t want to sit around and get in trouble,” he said. “Trouble is always there. It takes a strong person to stay away from it.”

Kerry Theus, who high-jumped 6 feet, 10 inches this year, said of life at Lynwood High, “There are three things here: sports, academics and trouble.”

Trouble at Lynwood, Crawford said, can mean “dope, ditching school, or not coming to school at all.”

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“When I was in the 10th grade, I was in all kinds of trouble,” Crawford said.

“Running loose” is how her mother, Betty Minnis, put it.

Then Crawford, who plans to attend San Diego State University, started taking track and herself seriously.

“She knew she had responsibilities,” Minnis said. “She knew she had to study hard to stay on the track team.”

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Chavenia Williams, a junior, said she’s anxious to sample German cuisine.

“I’ll try anything they eat over there,” said Williams, whom Lynwood Coach Rick Smith calls the school’s top all-around girl athlete. She broke the school long-jump record this year and competed in four events at every meet. She also plays basketball and volleyball and is an honor student.

The students have not become instant celebrities at the school, and they did not expect to.

“Some (of the other students) are jealous, some are happy for us and some don’t care,” Theus said.

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“Some kids,” said Williams, “will say, ‘You just think you’re bad,’ but others say, ‘Send me a postcard.’ ”

“The only students happy for us,” said Crawford, “are those involved in sports. If they’re not, they don’t care. They say, ‘Big deal, so what.’ ”

Virgil Grant, a senior hurdler and sprinter, received his letter from the ISE May 4.

“I told Virgil, ‘You’re going, this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing,’ ” said his mother, Alice Grant.

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But there was a problem. The cost was $1,695 a student and it was due May 22. Where to go for the money?

Mrs. Grant got together with the mothers of the other five.

“They were determined that their children were going, too,” she said.

“We were all trying to do our own thing (looking for sponsors), then we came together as a group and worked together as a family.”

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They decided on a raffle.

“But the time was drawing near and we had barely scratched the surface.” Mrs. Grant said.

Then Eula Cole, mother of freshman Tonya Cole, a hurdler and long jumper who has been running track since she was in the second grade, approached Lynwood Councilman Robert Henning. He told the parents to attend a council meeting.

What happened overwhelmed them.

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The council unanimously approved sponsoring the athletes and appropriated $10,170 to cover their expenses, including air fare, hotels, meals, sightseeing and uniforms.

“I think it’s important to back your kids, because kids are going to be the future of the city,” Henning said.

“Crenshaw High sent their kids (basketball team) to Europe and they came back winners. We’re hoping our kids come back winners, too.”

But Al Higa, Lynwood girls track coach, said the council’s generosity “could open a can of worms. What will they do next year? I don’t see them giving another $10,000. I wish they’d give us money so we could buy equipment.”

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The parents, already thinking about next year, have decided to continue with their raffle.

“We want to use the money to set up a fund for the next kid who comes along, so the parents won’t have to go through what we’ve gone through,” Mrs. Grant said. “It’s hard going up to someone and asking for money.”

But the parents came through, as Mrs. Grant said, “like champs.”

Unlike their children, who seem to be taking all the excitement in stride, the parents are having a hard time containing their joy.

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“It’s a blessing,” said Mrs. Cole.


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