BLUEFIELD — The dream of standing on a winners’ platform emblazoned with the Olympic rings came true for four young Bluefield tennis players last weekend after a whirlwind trip to the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., for the first national Junior Olympic Skills Competition.

The foursome won at the local and regional levels, both of which were held in the Bluefield Recreation Center on Stadium Drive, to become national finalists in a "Rapid Rally" tennis task run by the United States Tennis Association. The task was to serve a low-compression tennis ball and continue to hit the balls against a wall, above a net line, as many times as possible in a 30-second period.

Chas Stonestreet won the gold medal in the division for 12- and 13-year-old boys by getting "31 or 32 hits against the wall" at the Olympic venue, he said. Danielle Gabe took the silver medal in girls the same age. Her sister Nicole got a bronze in the 8- and 9-year-old girls division. Cross Tolliver earned a bronze in the 8- and 9-year-old boys’ finals. According to the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), more than 1.5 million youth participated in the program from all 50 states. The finals included 18 children in each of four sports — tennis, soccer, basketball and track and field.

Alisa Tolliver, Cross’s mother, read about the new competition months ago in Tennis Magazine. She said, "There was nothing near us. Everything remotely near us had no tennis competition scheduled." She took that up with Robin Lefler, head of the parks, recreation and youth activities department for the city of Bluefield.

Lefler said, "I told her I was very much interested in the Parks and Recreation Department hosting this for the youth of our area. We were accepted as the host for the local and the regional competitions."

Tolliver said, "She was super. She took the ball and went with it."

Meilai Gabe, mother of Danielle and Nicole, said, "I think the amazing part is that we were four out of the six (tennis finalists) from the Central Region."

After the four Bluefield players won on the regional level, they started planning for their trip to Colorado. Stonestreet went into training on the unique skills necessary to win.

"It really was about controlling the ball so it didn’t go too hard, and didn’t go at an angle," he said Wednesday at the city’s rec center. For about two weeks he had spent time smacking the ball in front of the blank wall set up at the center.

"My wrist was hurting. I was working really hard," Stonestreet said.

His mother, Cindy Stonestreet, said that when he competed in the finals, "He was really focused. I was really proud of that."

When he received his gold medal on the winner’s platform, Chas Stonestreet said, "I thought to myself, ‘Practicing hard pays off.’ "

In addition to the "great experience," he said the tennis participants got a couple of racquets, backpacks, duffel bags, a basketball, soccer ball and clothing outfits, packs of low-compression tennis balls — and boxes of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes.

Danielle Gabe said of her regional win, "I was surprised, because I had to compete against everybody (else). … I told my friends. They said they were proud of me."

Cross Tolliver said that when he won in the region, "I was really excited." Like Stonestreet, he said, "I went to the rec center (and) usually stood there for 15 minutes and practiced." The 8-year-old has been playing tennis since he was 3 1/2, he said, and has played in "five or seven tournaments" this summer.

The event officially began last Thursday evening with the lighting of the outdoor Olympic cauldron at the training site. Once the torch had set off the flame, it was brought down into the crowd and Danielle Gabe got the unique opportunity to hold it for a moment, her mother said.

Last Friday morning, the children marched in a procession along the Olympic Path. The quartet of Bluefieldians, the only finalists from West Virginia, marched with the flag of their state.

"It was great. It was pretty cool," said Stonestreet.

The first event of the nationals was the tennis competition at what is known as the "Ring Wall." Saturday night included an Awards and Medals Ceremony in which the children took their places on three levels of the winners’ platform while music played.

Stonestreet came back with a program autographed by several athletes working out at the Olympic site. "Dream big" was the inscription by five-time Paralympic medalist Marlon Shirley, an amputee. Paralympics are the official Olympic-level games for disabled athletes. The Bluefield boy, who is going into the eighth grade at Bluefield Middle School. said he got "high-fives" after winning his event.

Meilai Gabe said, "They got to meet some wonderful, wonderful athletes. I don’t think the kids realize the impact, what they’re going to get from having gone through this experience."

"Every Olympic athlete started his or her career through programs and activities similar to those offered by the U.S. Junior Olympic Skills Competition," said Jim Scherr, USOC chief executive officer, in a press release.

"We partnered with Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes and its Earn Your Stripes program to teach kids about the importance of setting goals and working hard to do their best, and to encourage them to strive for the same commitment to excellence that our Olympic and Paralympic athletes demonstrate," Scherr said.

Danielle Gabe made new friends, too. "You got to meet a lot of people," she said. "It’s easy to talk with them. You’ve got a lot in common."

"The children got along so well with the participants from the other age groups," Alisa Tolliver said. "They made new friends in the sport."

"It was fun, too, beating everyone," Stonestreet said.

— Contact Tom Bone at tbone@bdtonline.com

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