There is a reason Aaliyah Brown smiles a lot.
"Track and field should be fun and I really have fun at the meets," said the admittedly extrovertish Lincoln-Way East (Frankfort, Ill.)
junior. "And the most fun is winning — I love winning."
Brown does that a lot, including sweeping the sprints at the prestigious Arcadia Invitational two weeks ago, clocking wind-legal times of 11.48 seconds in the 100 meters and cracking the 24-second barrier in the 200 for the first time at 23.96.
The 100 mark is the No. 2-fastest time in the nation this season and the 200 time is No. 3, according to dyestat.com
Not bad for the first meet of the year.
The 5-foot-7 speedster didn't run indoors while protecting a hamstring pull she suffered last June in Puerto Rico. But she wasn't about to miss Arcadia, where she had run 11.57 as a sophomore and knew she had to return.
It wasn't just the competition, though. It was the joy of running, of meeting new people and sharing whatever kids share when they're chatting. Having fun, in other words.
"I'm outgoing, I admit it," said Brown, who just tries to absorb all the new sights, sounds and scents, packing them away on the positive side of a sport that can be deadly grinding if allowed to be. "The hardest thing sometimes is to find the fun, but it's there."
Of course, there is a serious side. She is also her own worst critic, dissecting every race to find areas where she can improve, often before she takes off the gold medal that inevitably is hanging around her neck.
That's where Angelo, her father and coach since she was 7, comes in. When Aaliyah is too hard on herself, he accentuates the positive. Conversely, when she thinks she might have run the perfect race, he knows there are still areas of improvement.
Take that 11.48 time in the 100 at Arcadia. It was just .04 off her personal best, in her first meet after pulling the hamstring while representing the USA team in a meet in San Juan.
"I think the strength of my race is the start," said Aaliyah, "but I don't think I got a very good start. I was behind. Some of that could have been thinking about the hamstring. I felt really good but I was kind of nervous about it.
"The start is where races are won or lost and I've really worked hard to perfect my start."
In addition to taking lots of repetitions, her father has honed her reaction time by holding her in the set position until he claps or stomps his foot or says a certain word, at which time she explodes from the blocks.
She has learned to screen out everything else and focus. The two have worked on her first 3 to 5 steps, staying low and pumping her arms. But even when all that doesn't get her the lead, she has that extra gear brought about because despite wanting to have fun, she is also extremely competitive.
Angelo saw that even before she stepped on the track. She danced and played all of the sports — volleyball, softball and soccer. It was while chasing the multi-colored ball that the father noticed she simply outran everyone on the field.
It seemed like she might like to run competitively, so she joined a youth team at age 7 and a few years later, Angelo decided to get more involved, starting the Illinois Elite Track Club. She flew well above the radar in youth track, winning six national titles as an age-grouper.
When she isn't running, Aaliyah helps her father coach the club team and said she thoroughly enjoys sharing her knowledge of the sport, especially with the younger runners. And she had plenty of time to help out after that hamstring pull. She went through extensive physical therapy, always wondering in the back of her mind if the hamstring would hold up when she started to push it.
So she and her father-coach didn't push it, taking it slow, avoiding fun things like indoor track, pointing to the Arcadia meet to see how it would hold up. Luckily, the weather that evening in the Southern California city was almost balmy, in the 60s — friendly conditions for a sprinter.
"That really felt good to run again," said Brown, 17, who has generally narrowed her college choices to Texas A&M, UCLA and Oregon — preferring warmer weather than than found in her home town Frankford, which is about 30 minutes from Chicago.
"I ran 11.57 at Arcadia and improved to 11.44 at the Illinois state meet. I'm hoping by running 11.48 at Arcadia this year, I can reach my goal of the state record by running 11.2. I was 90 percent at Arcadia and in four weeks I'll be 100 percent."
That isn't a time just swiped out of thin air. One of the quests of Aaliyah, who carries a 3.5 GPA, is to visit the University of Oregon by qualifying for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials. She'll need an 11.29 for an automatic berth and 11.4 to be considered. In the 200, she'll need to run faster than 23.35 to be considered.
With a month to go before looking to make it three straight state titles in the 100 and 200, not to mention running on a 4x100 replay ream that cracked 47 seconds (46.83) a year ago and a decent 4x400 team, she isn't getting ahead of herself.
But she can hardly wait to see what fun she could have in that track-happy town of Eugene with all those older runners sharing their stories.
Fun, fun, fun.