OPINION: 4 Gridley girls overcome the odds at state track meet
Mark Nielson had no fancy uniforms, no assistant coaches or even a selection process.
He scraped together four 9- and 10-year-old girls for the Hershey Nor Cal State Championships in San Jose on Saturday.
"It was like David vs. Goliath," he said.
Four young athletes, pieced together for one qualifying 4x100 team — from Gridley.
Gridley, a quaint city, is not exactly known for sprinters. The fastest qualifiers in town weren't even available for the meet.
"We barely had enough for a team," Nielson said. "I just took whichever four could go."
Four solid sprinters, six practices, focused on one crucial detail — the exchange.
"We mostly worked on exchanging the baton, that was it," Nielson said.
Then came the meet.
"We show up in our peach-colored shorts. These teams had uniforms, several coaches — these were clubs," Nielson said.
Track clubs from San Jose, Oakland, Redding, then Gridley ... the misfit.
No time to explain, Jaime McEntire, Emma Little, Alyra Andies and Sierra Nielson, Mark's daughter, were focused.
The pistol sounded and they were off.
"The other teams were so much faster than us," Nielson said.
Then came the exchange.
"With each exchange, we inched up on them, it was incredible," he said.
The race ended in dismay, in more ways than one — these "farm girls" showed up in San Jose and won the Nor Cal finals with the fastest time.
"I still don't know how they won," Nielson said in disbelief. "I guess they had a better exchange than any other team out there."
Then came the dagger.
With a few girls from other teams crossing San Jose City College's lanes, a coach contested the second of two heats and the tournament director obliged — re-run.
"I said, 'not my girls,' I'm happy with their time,'" Nielson said.
Sorry coach, your team too.
"So they ran the rest of the events while we waited in the center of the field under the sun for an hour," he said. "I couldn't believe it."
Then the coach couldn't believe what he saw for a second time on the day — Gridley won again, this time recording a 1:06.53, a full second quicker than their first time.
"I was shocked," he said.
Nielson also watched his daughter finish fifth in the 400 and ninth in the 100.
While relay teams don't advance to the nationals in Hershey, Pa., you could say coach Nielson had a pretty nice Father's Day weekend.