It wasn’t until the year 1928. It was the Summer Olympics held in Amsterdam, and it was the first year females were included in the athletic program. That year launched the first Olympic track competition for women, held on a 400-meter track. And no doubt it paved the way to many female track Olympians who inspire young women to this day. Some of those young females are among the many local talents emerging from Kathleen High School and are some of the top track and field athletes in the city. So we went out and met them on the field to learn what makes them tick.

Photography by  Paul Bostrom

Track and field is one of the oldest sports in recorded history. Even with its ancient origins (ancient, as in, Olympic Games circa 776 B.C.), women’s track and field wasn’t modernized in the Olympic games until 1928 and, even after, struggled for widespread acceptance until the 1970s.

In 1960, Wilma Rudolph swept the Olympic Games by breaking records in the 100, 200, and 4×100-meter relay, coming home decorated in three gold medals — a huge feat, between the societal tensions for women and after enduring a childhood plagued by serious illnesses. She represented the many dedicated female track and field athletes who remained faithful in their athletic careers despite a lack of encouragement, opportunity, and recognition. She also represented many who loved the game and rose above difficult obstacles to become victorious at their sport.

About a half-century later, the same spirit is still evident in young athletes across the country, including here in Lakeland. In order for an athlete to succeed, “They have to LOVE what they do,” says Head Girls Track Coach, Robert Whitaker. The Kathleen High School girls’ track team is made up of ladies who love what they do and rise above obstacles to succeed at their sport. The team currently encompasses strong and seasoned ladies, as well as some surprising new talent. According to Whitaker, this dynamic is what gives the team a competitive advantage.

Some of the team has encountered unexpected hurdles that shortened their strides and slowed their performance on the field. However, they have grown despite these circumstances. A few of the ladies on the team endured injuries this past year. But these setbacks only propelled them to victories. Many of the girls fought for recovery and, because of their perseverance, are some of the top athletes on the team who “push the team through their own leadership and experience,” says Whitaker. They are all determined to bring their best individually and as a part of the team.

There might be differing opinions as to what makes up the anatomy of an all-star athlete. “To become an all-star, the athlete must have a desire to put in work on their own,” says Whitaker. Many of the girls on the team do just that, striving to do their best by pushing themselves toward greatness while empowering others on the team as well. Everyone aims to bring their best to the sport and are hopeful the results will follow.

Whitaker and the team are ambitious for the season ahead, with goals to win a county, district, and regional title, as well as make a run at state. Looking to 1 Corinthians 13 for inspiration, Whitaker firmly believes that, “Love always gives its best no matter what the assignment.” The team is committed to loving what they do and giving their best at the task ahead.


01. Umayah Clarke

“Track and field has given me opportunities to push me outside my comfort zone and grow in my leadership.”

Age: 17

Year: Junior

Event: 100 hurdles, 300 hurdles, 4×100, long jump

Role Model: Coach Haggins

What do you love most about the sport?  “I love being able to better communicate with other people and grow in my leadership.”

[separator type=”thin”]

02. I’Asia Wilson

“Track and field has helped me be more confident.”

Age: 15

Year: Freshman

Event: 200, 400, 4×100, 4×400

Role Model: Grandma Patricia Gulley

How does the team inspire you?  “The team inspires me to keep moving and to keep working.”

[separator type=”thin”]

03. Jo’Kierrea “JoJo” Kelly

How my team inspires me: “The team pushes me.”

Age: 15

Year: Freshman

Event: 400, 800, 4×400, and 4×800

Favorite Quote: “Always do your best and compete against yourself.”

Role Model: My Mom, Loretta Poole; she ran track as a student too.

How I get focused pre-meet: I like to say a prayer and listen to music. I also envision myself winning every race!

[separator type=”thin”]

04. Sonia Santibanez

In order for athletes to succeed, “They have to love what they do.” – Robert Whitaker

Age: 16

Year: Junior

Event: 1600, 800, 4×800, and 3200

Quote: The 3 “Ps” to life: prayer, patience, progress

Role Model: Coach LeDarius Haggins

How I get focused pre-meet: Praying the Lord’s Prayer with the team

Performance Best: 24:30 in 5k

[separator type=”thin”]

05. Elizabeth “ Lizzy” Tausch

“Track and field has empowered me in my everyday life because it makes me more responsible.”

Age: 17

Year: Junior

Event: 1600, 3200

Role Model: My sister Moriah Tausch

Favorite Quote: “It’s not about being the best. It’s about being better than you were yesterday.”

[separator type=”thin”]

06. Unique Rivers

Many of the girls on the team strive to do their best by pushing themselves toward greatness while empowering others on the team as well.

Age: 18

Year: Senior

Event: Discus, Shot Put

How I get focused pre-meet: I like to listen to

music and talk with my friends on the team.

[separator type=”thin”]

07. Robert Whitaker

“To become an all-star, the athlete must have a desire to put in the work on their own.” – Whitaker

Position: Head women’s track coach, head women’s weight lifting coach, and assistant football coach

Years Coaching: 26 years

Role Model: Tony Dungy

Favorite Quote: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13 (NKJV)

Performance Best: Helping send multiple students to college on athletic scholarships, so they can continue to fulfill their dreams