East Xtra: Gateway sophomore among country's best

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This spring, Gateway's Aiyanna Crawford was arguably the top freshman girls track performer in the WPIAL.

Recently, Crawford laid claim to being among the best in the country.

Crawford, 15, won the gold medal in the 800-meter run in the 15-16 year-old age group at the USATF National Junior Olympics, which were held July 22-28 at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro, N.C..

Crawford called the final race the biggest of her career. She finished with a time of 2 minutes, 15.36 seconds, narrowly edging the second-place finisher. A total of 48 athletes competed in the event in her age group.

"I was proud of myself," said Crawford, a Monroeville resident. "I was glad that I've made it this far. I was just overjoyed and thankful for having my family, coaches, supporters and the rest of my team behind me. It's something good to go back to school and say I did this summer."

It was the sixth year in a row Crawford competed in the meet, which featured more than 1,000 athletes ages 7-18 from across the nation. It marked the third consecutive year she had medaled. A year earlier, Crawford placed fourth in the 800 and sixth in the 400.

"Nationals is the biggest meet I've ever been to before," Crawford said. "The girls are all running good times and the competition is great. I expect a lot when I go down there."

Crawford, a member of Next Level summer track club, chose to concentrate solely on the 800 this year, and her decision paid off with gold dividends. Crawford was one of the youngest runners in the event, but that didn't deter her. She made her presence felt right away by posting the best time of any runner in the preliminaries when she finished in 2:13.87.

"I was definitely feeling good [at that point]," said Crawford. "Thinking about going to the finals was really exciting."

Three days later, Crawford topped the other six finalists. Her closest competitors hailed from Indiana, Georgia and Kansas.

Crawford's mother, Epryl King, was in attendance and understandably proud of her daughter's accomplishment.

"I can't even find the words," said King, a second-grade teacher at Evergreen Elementary School. "It was so exciting because she's worked so hard to this point. It was even more exciting because she strategized so much for this meet. In the past, she had just run and hoped for the best."

Each of Crawford's parents ran track in high school. In fact, King and Michael Crawford both competed in their daughter's top events, the 800 and 400.

Aiyanna Crawford was among a large contingent of Gateway athletes who traveled to North Carolina to compete in nationals. The group included Montae Nicholson, Julius Rivera, Jae'Len Means, Cameron Gray, Jahniah McAllister and Aneia Dutrieuille.

Nicholson, a senior, placed fourth in the 110 hurdles in the 17-18 year-old division. He is the defending WPIAL Class AAA champion in the event.

As a freshman at Gateway, Crawford placed third in the 400 (57.07) and fifth in the 800 (2:15.57) at the WPIAL championships. She was the only Class AAA freshman girl to finish so highly in multiple individual events.

Crawford also competed in the 100, 200, 400 relay and 3,200 relay during her freshman season. Next season, she wants to give the 1,600 a try.

Despite her success in the 800, Crawford said it's not her preferred race. At the same time, she realizes it might be her best.

"It's not my favorite, but I'm sure I'm notorious for saying that. But it's something I'm good at and something that's going to get me to where I want to be in college," she said.

Crawford will be the top returnee in the 400 among WPIAL competitors. The two girls who finished ahead of her at the WPIAL championships both graduated. The competition in the 800 will be even better, though, particularly because of the return of Shaler junior Brianna Schwartz, the defending WPIAL Class AAA champion.

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