In lane four of the Dwyer High School track in Palm Beach Gardens, Tyrese Cooper — nickname: "Smoke" — executes his ritual. He jumps twice. He secures his lucky, never-been-washed sweatband around his forehead and kisses the gold cross dangling from his neck. He taps his forehead, chest, and then each shoulder in a cross before pointing to the sky. At the announcer's call, he takes his mark, and with the shot, he's off.
"Give it everything you got, Smoke! Go all the way!" his coach barks.
It's July 12. If the willowy, six-foot-two 15-year-old wins this 400-meter final against seven other runners at the Junior Olympic qualifiers, he will be invited to the USA Track & Field Junior Olympics in Jacksonville July 27.
He'll win. He always wins. But he stopped running to win a while ago. Now he runs for time. Cooper has been training to dip under the 45-second mark.
"Now I'm trying for a 45.9. I'm almost there," Cooper says before the race. "No one has beat me this year. I'll make that time if I run with older people who can push me."
Cooper is part of Miami Gardens Xpress, a track team that breeds star athletes. Remarkably, kids are choosing to forsake video games and air conditioning to race in South Florida's searing heat. The team has swelled from 40 kids a decade ago to almost 300 runners today. MGX has won one national club championship and set 19 national records and eight Junior Olympic records. Cooper and his teammate, 16-year-old Jamal Walton, helped. They're the two fastest teenagers in Florida. Last year, Walton broke three of Usain Bolt's records in the 400-meter event.
The team — whose season runs from February, when school cross-country and football seasons
In 2005, Darius "Coach D"
Meets take place on weekends.
In 2006, then-7-year-old Walton, whose family had moved to Miami from the Cayman Islands, joined
On the track team — which was renamed Miami Gardens Xpress in 2007 and which
"Then, one day, when he was 13, he really started trying,"
In 2007, Walton, along with three other 9-year-old boys, began running the four-by-400-meter medley together and have never lost a race. In 2008, the pack of 10-year-olds set the team's first record with the four-by-400-meter medley at the AAU Junior Olympics. They've broken four records since.
"I love to see what the record is. Then I push myself to break those records," Walton says. "When I ran my fastest time ever, people started asking, 'Who is Jamal Walton?' I want people to know my name one day."
In 2010, Coach
Without children of their own, the
Coach Al Moore says Coach D "has mastered literally keeping these kids' feet on the ground and focusing on their education, future, and spiritual development."
If the team was good, it exploded in
When Cooper was 13, his great-aunt, a running phenom, passed away from cancer. Inspired by her, he asked Coach D, who had helped Cooper's football team, to teach him how to run fast. He can't remember when everyone started calling him Smoke. People say that one day, Tyrese Cooper started running so fast he left a trail of smoke.
"I met Coach when I was like 10," Cooper remembers. "I was fast in football, but I thought if I practiced with Coach D, I'd be even faster."
Like Walton, Cooper initially placed poorly at meets. "Then it was like one day, Smoke woke up and decided he was going to run really, really fast," Johanna
Before the meet, she had anointed his forehead with holy oil. Then Cooper kissed the gold cross that his aunt — Erica Wheeler, who plays for the WNBA's Atlanta Dream — had given him. He jumped twice and made the sign of the cross before pointing upward. Cooper ran 49.57, his fastest
Cooper hasn't lost since. He has broken countless records (mostly those set by Walton the year before). The fastest eighth-grader in the nation became, after Walton, the second-fastest kid in Florida.
Cooper admits his success is linked to Walton's. The young men push each other. Along with
"I tell Smoke, and all the other athletes, you got to believe in yourself, not be lackadaisical, take no days off, and keep on pushing yourself until you make it," Walton says. "We're ranked one and two, and he's trying to beat me, and I'm trying to get him better. It makes us both faster."
Despite the teens' fastest-kids status, the coaches don't let up on their star runners. When Cooper outruns Walton one afternoon,
In 2014, the Cayman Islands' national track-and-field team signed Walton, and now he competes internationally too. Walton's parents moved back to the Caymans six years ago. He lives with his uncle, and sometimes
"Coach D really helps us out. He's like a father to us," Walton says. "He doesn't let me pay for anything."
Last year, Walton made headlines when he broke Usain Bolt's 400-meter time record — by three milliseconds. Even though the 400-meter is not Bolt's signature event (the 100 meter is), it meant a lot to Walton, who spends afternoons watching YouTube videos of Bolt's races.
"Now people who don't know me follow me [on social media]. They even message me: 'How'd you become so fast?' and 'What's your strategy?'?" Walton says. Last week, he competed at the World Youth Championship in Cali, Colombia, against the eight fastest 16-year-olds in the world. He ran a personal best of 45.99 and came in fourth. In a couple of weeks, he'll head to the Pan American Games in Toronto.
The payoff for all of this hard work? Hopefully, college scholarships and maybe the Olympics. Cooper and Walton also play football at American High. They're wide receivers. The greater fame and bigger paychecks in football are enticing. "I think I'm better at
"I want both my boys to complete high school and obtain full scholarships to a university and experience college life,"
At the Junior Olympic qualifiers, Cooper gallops past his competitors. "Go, Smoke! Go, Smoke! Go, Smoke!" a 6-year-old squeals at the top of her lungs. A horde of 10-year-olds stomps in the stands. Parents gawk.
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Coach Moore beats a tribal drum when Cooper hits the second curve. It's the halfway mark and teen's signal to sprint the last 200 meters.
He does. As if running against a ghost, Cooper twists his face in agony and dashes off, beating his competitors by almost 100 meters. When he crosses the finish line, he doubles over and waits for the scoreboard to post his time: 47.04 — the fastest in the race and almost a half-second faster than Walton's — but two seconds slower than he'd hoped for.
Between sips of Gatorade, he declares that he can hit his goal in Jacksonville July 27. "It
He hopes Walton will be back from Colombia by then. "I'll call him on the phone before I run if not," Cooper says. "I can't run without talking to him."