GOTHENBURG – 3,600 athletes, 174 schools and 16,000 fans in seven years have turned a local end-of-the-year track meet into the de-facto junior high state championship. That was exactly what the organizers wanted. Where better for it to be held than in “track town Nebraska,” Gothenburg. The Nebraska Championship Meet is set to take place May 13.
A decade ago when a group of Gothenburg track enthusiastic (the Cindermates) got together to work on a new track facility. Some had a plan of a year ending track meet for junior high athletes. They were concerned that these budding track stars didn’t have a final goal to work toward. One of the Cindermates, was Jim Clark.
“Years ago kids would just run to win their race,” Clark said, “now they are running to qualify for this meet. They want to shave a tenth of a second off their time to move it into the top 24 in the state that qualify for this meet. That makes me smile.”
Clark and his fellow organizers including his lead organizer, his daughter Ali, have a lot to smile about. The first meet in 2010 was a struggle to get junior high track coaches to list their athletes in athletic.net which would allow them to run in the meet. So, the numbers didn’t explode right away. However, from the beginning the organizers wanted to make the track meet as close to the state track meet at Omaha’s Burke stadium as they could. Even down to the medal presentations, check in stations and parading in front of the packed grandstand. From there a theme was born, “the road to Burke goes through Gothenburg.”
“One of the amazing things,” Clark said, “the names we hear in Gothenburg are the same names we hear winning state medals at the high school meet at Burke.”
Not only that, but team success counts too.
“The teams that do well here are also the teams that win state championships down the road,” Clark said.
It has been a bit of a family affair for the Clarks. Not only do Jim and Ali help to put the meet together, but there will be eight Clarks officiating the event on Saturday. Not only that, but upwards of 70 volunteers will be keeping the meet moving along. In the past Clark has invited, and several have accepted, many of the most important judges and officials in USA Track and Field. Clark a master official himself, has consistently heard from these “VIP”s that they loved coming to such a “pure” event.
“We all love to see these kids participate at the highest level,” Clark said. “Everyone is competing for the fun of it.”
Clark said that isn’t lost on the officials. In fact, one of the coaches from internationally known Oregon Track and Field was there last year, and while the Pac Ten Track Meet will not allow him to be back this year, he says he will be back in 2018. Clark said the coach says he tells people all over the country about the special meet in the middle of Nebraska.
As the Nebraska Championship Meet moves into it’s eighth year it is bigger than ever. Clark said that he already had nearly 300 athletes registered to compete. The top 24 individuals and 16 relay teams will have a chance to compete. You can bet, most of them will be in Gothenburg on Saturday.
The dream of the Cindermates has come true in the NCM, along with that, are the dreams of young people achieving a state championship medal.