Several Plant City youth athletes took to North Carolina earlier in the month to chase gold at the 2022 AAU Junior Olympics.
Several youth athletes from Plant City headed to Greensboro, N.C. in late July for the 2022 AAU Junior Olympics. With over 19,000 competitors, from age 6 to 18, across 12 different sports, the Junior Olympics signifies the largest multi-sport event in the United States.
From Plant City, seven swimmers and six karate competitors were in attendance.
In swimming, the local competitors were Noah Jones, Saige Starford, Sophie Griffis, Zealand Ploch, Andrew Beck, Carolina Mattison and Elise Mattison.
Jones finished in the top 8 in every event that he competed in, with his best finishes coming by way of a third place finish in the 400 meter individual medley and a fourth place finish in the 200 meter backstroke. To make it all the more impressive, Jones was 15 years old and competing in the 15-18 year old age group for the first time. Additionally, Beck finished fourth in the 1,500 meter freestyle, the longest distance event of the meet for the 15-18 year old age group, and finished as a top 8 swimmer in the 400 meter freestyle.
All of the swimmers in attendance swim at the club level with Blue Wave Swimming, a part of High 5 Inc. in Brandon, coached in part by Jamie Peterkin. Peterkin swam at the collegiate level with the University of Kentucky and competed in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, representing Saint Lucia.
In his role as part of building up the competitive program, Peterkin has seen this generation of Plant City swimmers play a part in the growth of Blue Wave Swimming.
“We did excellent,” Peterkin said about Blue Wave’s performance as a whole at the Junior Olympics. “We were fifth place overall out of, I believe, somewhere around 26 teams, and we were the head of all teams that participated as their own organization. What I mean by that is, all four teams ahead of us were combined state teams. There was a combined Arkansas state team, including numerous clubs, there was a combined New York state team, there was a combined Florida team and then first place overall was New England who had somewhere around 75 athletes compared to our 27. Of course numbers wise, they have the depth to win, but from a quality standpoint, almost every one of our athletes had a top 8 finish which is remarkable to have that kind of quality from a small group. So I was super proud to see where we were this year. They probably exceeded certain expectations that I had, which is good. And I don’t throw pride around loosely, so for me to be so proud of their effort and their attitude, which is what I would say was probably the biggest transformation, it was excellent.”
On the karate side, six competitors took to the Junior Olympics from Chris Welbon Karate Club, bringing home 11 gold medals and 19 combined medals in total. The event marked the end of a strenuous competitive season, bouncing right back after several competitors from the karate club participated in both the AAU National Championships and World United Karate-Do Federation world Championships back-to-back earlier in July.
“I’m extremely proud,” Welbon said. “For these guys to do as many tournaments as they did in a row too, to do Nationals and Worlds and then turn around a week later and go to the Junior Olympics, it’s very taxing on the body and the mind, so to stay focused and stay intense like that, it reflects their training and that’s how it needs to be. So I’m super proud of them, not just them going and competing and doing well, but winning so many golds, so many first place finishes.”
Individually, Nathan Gould, 16, won silver in Kobudo for nunchucks, bronze in Kobudo for bo staff and silver in team Kumite. Elijah West, 15, won gold in Kobudo for bo staff, silver in Kobudo for double nunchucks, bronze for Kata and gold in team Kumite. Cooper Bayes, 11, won gold in Kobudo for bo staff, silver for kata and silver for Kumite. Carter Bayes, 11, won gold in Kumite and bronze in Kobudo for bo staff. T.J. Bright, 10, and Brendan McMurphy, 14, both swept their competitions, winning gold in every event they competed in, as Bright brought home four gold medals and McMurphy brought home three.
In addition to his four golds, the second consecutive year that he’s won all golds at the Junior Olympics, Bright was also awarded the Joel Ferrell Memorial Award. In each sport, the Joel Ferrell Award is given to one male and one female competitor to recognize not only the athletic ability of the participant, but their sportsmanship in competition as well. Along with a unique trophy, each recipient’s name is engraved on a special plaque at the AAU National Headquarters in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
“He puts in a lot of work,” Welbon said. “He’s one of those kids where even though he’s young, he’s here at the dojo three or four nights a week, he’s doing private lessons on the side and then I hear from his grandma that he’s training on the weekends by himself. So it’s one of those things where he’s very focused, for being a young kid he’s very focused. Whatever he puts his mind into he’s going to be successful, whether that’s martial arts or school or whatever, he’s really a phenomenal young man and I look forward to seeing what he’ll grow up to be.”
For McMurphy, his three gold medals were a bit of a comeback story after an MCL injury forced him to miss competing in both Nationals and Worlds, even though he was still in attendance to support his team.
“It felt great, especially after the injury,” McMurphy said. “I was really upset when the injury happened and I really wanted to compete, but it felt really good to come back and win.”
Now at the end of their competitive season, Chris Welbon Karate Club combined for 155 total medals across their six major tournaments in 2022, featuring 39 gold medals, 37 silver medals and 79 bronze medals.