LAURINBURG — Eight-year-old Samantha Barnes is the fifth fastest runner in her age group in North Carolina.
And she accomplished that feat just six months after beginning her track career.
The Scotland County native first started training in January and wrapped up her inaugural season with the Fayetteville Flyers earlier this month, appearing in the North Carolina USA Track and Field state and regional meets.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Barnes, who is set to enter the third grade at Laurel Hill Elementary School, rose to prominence so quickly. She hails from a family that has a stellar history on the track — Barnes’s cousin, Ashlynn Chavis, was a dominant runner at Scotland High who went on to shatter multiple school records at Methodist University.
So how does Samantha, who prefers to be called ‘Sam,’ feel about already being labeled as one of the top runners in the state?
“It’s pretty fun,” Sam said. “I want to stay in the top five.”
Chavis was the first to introduce the idea of Sam running track to the Barnes family, and it didn’t take long for her mother and father, Sammie and Derrick, to see the talent their daughter possessed. The trick was harnessing that potential and showcasing it on the competitive stage.
Sam joined the Fayetteville Flyers track and field team, which Chavis was a part of during her youth days, and began training in January. She soon fell in love with the sport, and though the family sacrificed some freedoms and the occasional beach trip to drive Sam back and forth for practices and meets, they remained persistent in fulfilling her desire to become great.
“It’s nothing like just playing around, it’s hard work,” Derrick Barnes said. “She enjoyed it — we didn’t know how far it would go. Driving to and from Fayetteville two or three nights a week is a long way, but she loved it, and if your kids love it you have to keep doing it.
“There’s been a few times where she didn’t want to go to (practice) because she didn’t go to the beach or play with her cousins that day, but I told her, you’ve got to sacrifice.”
Sam joined the Flyers program because there is not a USA Track and Field team in Laurinburg, and most of the squad is comprised of athletes from Fayetteville. Sam is the only girl from the area currently on the 30-45 person roster, and she said it feels “special” to represent Scotland County.
Derrick said Sam trained at Westover High, Reid Ross Classical and Scotland throughout the winter to prepare for the season. While the overall goal was for her to improve her times, the Flyers’ coaches stressed the importance of not overworking their young athletes and making sure they enjoyed the experience.
“The coaches at practice made it fun and did a lot of exercises. They have to run long distances,” Barnes said. “We’ll get there some days and they’ll run two miles around the neighborhood and build up endurance. She’s got plenty of energy — way more than I got.”
After months of preparation, Sam traveled to Greensboro in June for the state championships in what was her first meet on the big stage. She was slated to compete in the 200 meters, the 400 meters and the 4×400-meter relay run. Sam said the relay run is her favorite because, “my teammates are there to cheer me on.”
Sam mentioned she was intimidated at first by the bright lights and the large crowd at the event.
“It was pretty scary,” she said. “There was a lot of people.”
But once the gun sounded, all inhibitions were left at the starting line.
It was a successful meet for the Barnes and the Flyers — she qualified for the finals in the 200 and the 400, placing fifth in both races. Her relay team finished third, one second behind the runner-up team.
Two weeks ago, the Flyers concluded their season at the Region 3 Junior Olympic Track and Field Championships in Hampton, Virginia, where Barnes competed in the 400 meters and the 4 x 400 relay. She appeared in the finals in both events — she placed seventh in the 400 meters, and the Flyers finished .06 seconds out of fifth place in the 4 x 400.
While the team came up just short in its bid for nationals, Derrick said Sam and the girls can use the near-miss as motivation now that they’re moving up to the 9- to- 10-year-old group.
Friends of the family made sure she was properly recognized for her accomplishments when they arrived home.
“We went to CrossFit and they were cheering for you, weren’t they?,” Derrick said to Sam with a smirk.
She grinned, and nodded her head in humble agreement.
The Flyers will reconvene in December to begin preparations for the spring season, but Derrick said he and Sam will start training around October. By the sound of it, Sam has already taken over as the instructor of the family.
“We ran two miles the other night, me and mom were tired and she had plenty of energy. She was like, that’s nothing,” Derrick said, laughing.
Logan Martinez can be reached at 910-506-3170. Follow him on Twitter @L_Martinez13.