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A Stately Experience

I did something over the weekend that I hadn’t done in years as I made my way to Austin to cover the University Interscholastic League State Track & Field Meet. Local athletes from Anna, Melissa and Van Alstyne had qualified for the illustrious event and I wanted to be there to document their performances.

We could have relied on talking with coaches and athletes afterwards and bought photos from a freelance photographer but I wanted to be there and see for myself the talent that my sports writers cover on a regular basis. And, truth be told, I really just wanted to get back to my roots a bit. I cut my teeth as a sports writer, and the state meet was a regular thing for me to cover back in those days. And since my wife was an award-winning photojournalist back in the day she came along to document the action through the lens of a Canon.

If you’ve never been, the state meet is a happening. Thousands of people flock to the University of Texas in Austin to catch the fastest guys and girls in the state, not to mention the best pole vaulters, discus hurlers, shotputters, high jumpers, long jumpers and triple jumpers. The action is intense — the culmination of an entire year of competition is at hand and for some of the athletes, including seniors such as Van Alstyne’s Evan McQuirk and Melissa’s Clifton Littleton, it is the end of their high school careers.

There are plenty of compelling stories at the state meet. Locally, McQuirk was attempting to overcome a foot and ankle injury to medal in the two-mile, Littleton was running as only the second male state qualifier in Melissa High School history, Nesha Hampton was trying to hit the podium in her second trip to state and the Melissa girls and Anna boys mile relay teams were running to hold off the premier Class 3A teams in the state.

On top of that, one story was catching fire nationwide concerning a pole vaulter from Emery Rains High School. Charlotte Brown has been the center of national attention concerning the Texas state meet and for good reason - she is legally blind. Brown uses little audio devices that emit beeps positioned down the vault lane that tell her how close she is to the bag and when to drop her pole. ESPN was a constant presence on Friday chronicling her story, and in an odd coincidence she ended up sitting in front of us in the media tent on the morning of her competition. It was fascinating to see a high school athlete walk in with a seeing-eye dog (its name is Vader and he is a sweetheart.) Vader took Brown all over the track to familiarize her with the setup while UIL officials came over in waves to let her know that whatever she needed would be handled. They also let her know that ESPN was chomping at the bit to talk to her but if she was not comfortable with that they would not allow the sports network access to her. It was great to see the UIL handle the situation.

Speaking of Brown, she is an incredible story. She eventually finished in a tie for fourth (just one spot away from a medal) despite the obstacles in her way. She can not make out objects but she can tell the difference between light and dark. To do what she did was inspiring. And despite all the pressure on her, not an insignificant amount coming from the media, she was very polite, humble and accommodating from what we saw in our brief time around her.

As well as covering local athletes I was also documenting a Prosper athlete for our sister paper The Prosper Press. It was at that time that I noticed a competitor from Vista Ridge with some serious wrappings around her lower leg. I later discovered she was competing in the state high jump competition with a broken leg.

The state meet is not just about the competition - Austin is a cool place to visit. It’s also home to some great food, and while we were there I decided I wanted to visit Franklin Barbecue which was recently named by Yahoo! as the No. 1 barbecue joint in the country. The reviews have been incredible so we decided to make our way east of I-35 to check it out. We needn’t have bothered. Franklin Barbecue is open for lunch only from 11 a.m. until they run out of food and the line we found wrapped out the door, around the building and out into the parking lot where people were tailgating. Some of those in line had even brought chairs, umbrellas and books with them to pass the time. No thanks.

Austin is a unique place; there are more tattoo shops per square mile than seemingly anywhere else on the planet, people flock to the Congress St. bridge at night to see the bats emerge from their slumber and — this one threw me for a loop — the local Walmarts do not give you bags. In Austin, if you visit a Walmart you either bring your own bag, go without or pony up 10 cents for a paper bag. Weird.

All in all, it was a good weekend but there are some things I would change concerning the event itself. Parking on Saturday was atrocious; all the lots were closed and we ended up parking a half-mile away on the street and were lucky to get that. There are no parking directions given nor signs posted, you just have to get lucky. The other part that rankled me was the fact that media is not allowed in the podium tent where they do medal presentations. Now, if you want to get a podium shot you have to buy those pictures from one of the UIL’s paid photographers. Aside from that, I look forward to more Austin trips in my future.

Rodney Williams is the managing editor for The Anna-Melissa Tribune and the Van Alstyne Leader. He can be contacted at news@amtrib.com or rwilliams@vanalstyneleader.com.