If any single phrase should welcome some redundancy next week in Virginia Beach, it should be 'The Return of the Championship Athlete.'
Let's embrace it.
Because in all truth, adidas Indoor Nationals will represent the first tangible prospect for athletes from all corners of the United States to challenge for a national title.
Let that sink in.
Of course, we know how things will be different, how they will feel and look. Let's not get this twisted. The environment will have a different makeup, for we know that even being in his position requires some overhaul -- a certain amount of athletes in the venue at one time, a 24/7 urgency with masks on, limited spectators, and the absence of that whirlwind fan experience.
But the idea of a championship in a time like this? That distinction, and those crucial words, aren't lip service. We know we must do what's required in order to compete for what we want.
So next week's return to championship racing will be important.
This time, the challenges these high school athletes will face won't be just external. On the track, each athlete will have control of their own destiny from Feb. 26-28 at the Virginia Beach Sports Center.
It will, indeed, finally be Championship Time.
Consider the example of Kennedi Sanders, a high school junior from Madison Ridgeland Academy in Mississippi.
Last year, the Southern standout was all but assured to ascend into the national conversation as one of the country's best young talents. She had claimed the Class of 2022's fastest wind-legal 100m at 11.67 (-0.1) seconds and its fourth-fastest 200m at 23.88 (-0.1).
Like thousands of other athletes around the United States, her opportunities simply ceased to exist one fateful day in March of last year. She didn't race a single time the rest of the year, ultimately missing the entirety of her sophomore outdoor season.
And when she came back? Kennedi has been good, but she hasn't had many chances to be great.
Next week's competition -- with Sanders entered in the Championship 60m and 200m -- brings a real opportunity for her to change that.
Sanders will face Madison Whyte and Autumn Wilson, Kayla Davis and Hali Murphy, the Bella Witts and the Leeah Burrs of the world, all the athletes who are in the same position as she is. Hungry.
This chance won't be lost on her.
There's Austin Klingler, the up-and-coming mid-distance athlete from West Jordan (UT) High School who's made some very real improvements. He's had some very big times to show for it in 2021, landing at U.S. No. 3 in the 400m (47.88) and US No. 6 in the 800m (1:53.33).
But at nationals? It will give the Utah half-miler a chance to back-up those statements will real-life examples. It'll give him his tangible 'I'm here' moment -- plus, he'll get an opportunity to compete on his first banked track, too.
For others, like Audrey Dadamio, nationals will offer a chance to redeem oneself against an opponent who had previously taken them down.
The unpredictable nature of any race lends itself sometimes to the magic of a crazy finish, but only Dadamio will know on race day if she has what it takes to win a title over the heavily favored.
Because it's one thing to own a US No. 1, but it's quite another to earn a national title against the hardest field you've ever faced.
Don't forget about the unsigned athlete -- for there are still a lot of great prospects still deciding. They, too, are still looking for that scholarship-level time, or that big performance which could ultimately verify that elusive full ride.
You'll inevitably have the young athletes, in the freshmen and open races, having those remember-me-next-time! moments.
And then, if we are being honest, we must also be mindful of the magic that makes these events so beautiful to watch.
Regardless of event, athlete or even time of day, inevitably we will find ourselves in a position to watch something we didn't expect take place.
A jump so far it will make us drop our jaws. Or a race so fast, it will leave us shaking our heads.
Maybe it'll be a throw so ridiculous, it will offer hysteria.
We know those moments are coming. They always do. You'll know it by the way the creases around your eyes tighten as you smile behind those masks.
Let's embrace it.
We're ready for The Return of the Championship Athlete.
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