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The Fastest Teenagers in America Run For a Track Club in Miami Gardens

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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 end, until classes begin in August — was founded in 2003 as North Dade Runners. Its 40 kids competed against more than 2,000 clubs that train for three pinnacle races — the National Club Championships, the Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympics, and the USATF Junior Olympics.

In 2005, Darius "Coach D" Lawshea, a muscular man who had been a track and football star at American High in Hialeah, was devastated when, after a divorce, his only son, a 7-year-old runner, was yanked 1,500 miles away to Michigan. "I needed something to keep busy," Lawshea says. He worked early morning till midday as a bus maintenance clerk for Miami-Dade Transit and picked up coaching in the afternoons.

The then-30-year-old Lawshea developed a routine that continues to this day: On Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, he picks up runners, ages 4 to 17, from Liberty City and Miami Gardens until his SUV is full. On the dirt track at Norland Middle School, they set up orange cones to form a 500-meter figure-eight track. Organized by age groups, they sprint over and over again, Lawshea waiting by the finish line with a stopwatch, spitting times and shouting, "Big shoulders! Run the curve!" Kids learn to be unfazed if they vomit from exertion. "Feeding the ants," they call it.

Meets take place on weekends. Lawshea charges $150 for new members for the seven-month season. "I've never turned down anybody. You don't know who might be that diamond in the rough."

In 2006, then-7-year-old Walton, whose family had moved to Miami from the Cayman Islands, joined Lawshea. "I started running fast in football, and coaches told me to go to track," Walton recalls. "I met Coach D, and he told me to go to his track club, so I went. And I've been doing great with him ever since."

On the track team — which was renamed Miami Gardens Xpress in 2007 and which Lawshea began head-coaching in 2008 — Walton initially finished toward the end of the pack, usually sixth place.

"Then, one day, when he was 13, he really started trying," Lawshea remembers. "He's won every game since. Track is funny that way. You can be not so fast today, and then they wake up and decide they can be great."

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 Lawshea married his high-school sweetheart, Johanna Cuevas, who works at Miami Dade College and began acting as the team mom, organizing paperwork, and keeping the Gatorade stock full for their team, which grew to 275 kids.

Without children of their own, the Lawsheas opened up their home. After practice, runners play PS3 in the couple's living room. As many as ten kids might sleep over before an early-morning meet. Older boys unofficially claimed the spare bedrooms. At the end of every practice and before every meet, the team huddles and says the Lord's Prayer.

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 2013, when Tyrese Cooper joined. Growing up, he had talked so little that his mother worried he was mute. But the introverted middle child had a competitive streak. He found catharsis running around Ruth Moore Park by his house in Liberty City. He began playing peewee football at age 7.

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 Lawshea remembers. It happened at the Junior Olympics last year in Detroit, when he was running the 400-meter event.

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 time, though he lost by one millisecond.

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 Lawshea, they wear matching athletic bands that read, "Don't settle; be great."

"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, Lawshea chides him for a mediocre time. "Don't shoot for the stars if it isn't going to make you run faster," Lawshea yells. When Walton jokes around at practice, coach Andrea Sinclair-Bergin quips, "If you ran like you ran your mouth, you'd be in good shape."

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 Lawshea or his wife will take Walton to his foreign meets.

"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 track, though," Cooper sighs.

"I want both my boys to complete high school and obtain full scholarships to a university and experience college life," Lawshea says. "Breaking and setting new records is just gravy along the way."

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.

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 depends if I'll have somebody there to push me."

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."

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