KOKOMO, Ind. — Little boys with pretend gold medals around their necks fought Wednesday to get their pictures taken with a pint-sized superstar who had won three real gold medals for herself.
Twelve-year-old Tionna Brown just returned from Texas after competing in the USA Track & Field National Junior Olympic championships and winning gold in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash and long jump.
She strolled into Carver Community Center Wednesday in jeans and a sweatshirt, not knowing what to expect. The tiny Olympian was greeted with cheers and hugs from the more than 50 people who surprised her with a celebration for her achievements.
"This is exciting," she said, shyly.
Tionna was a celebrity for the night, shaking hands with the mayor and stopping for photos with everyone.
Her aunt, Trey Beard, organized the surprise party complete with flowers, cake and balloons. She said she thought her niece deserved to be celebrated by people in the community because she had worked hard to get where she was.
"She did a good job," Beard told the Kokomo Tribune (http://bit.ly/1pt9vEh ). "She went to get the gold, and she got it."
Tionna said she was a little shocked when it sank in that she won, that she had really beat out people from across the country, especially when you consider the fact she's only been running competitively since November.
Her father, Ty Brown, though, isn't even a little surprised. His daughter has always been an athlete and has always been competitive, he said.
Tionna started walking when she was 7 months old, he said, because she couldn't stand to watch her 2-year-old brother walking without her.
"She just jumped up and took off," Brown said, with a laugh.
By 5 years old she was the running back for a local flag football team. No one could catch her, her dad said. That's when they realized she was fast. So last year, her parents and brother took her to see track coach K.O. Jackson. They told him they didn't think he'd seen anything like her.
Jackson said he'd decide for himself after watching her run.
"He came back and said she's the real deal," Brown said.
So for eight months she trained for her moment in the spotlight. She ran up and down stairs and ran on the track as much as she could.
Jackson said she lost only a few races all year, and one them came when she was competing against girls in college. She'd beat herself up over it, and he'd tell her to pick herself back up and try again next time.
He knew she had more fight in her.
"She's very dedicated," he said. "She focused, and she's committed. And I'm not an easy coach to run for."
He gave Tionna's family and friends a play-by-play Wednesday of her performance at the Olympics, stopping occasionally as he fought back tears when describing her wins.
When he finished his story, he turned to Tionna and gave her a hug.
"I'm proud of you sweetie," he said.
When Jackson moved to the area four years ago, he told some friends he was going to develop an elite track program here. He wanted to send kids to state and national competitions. Devoted runners like Tionna are helping him do just that, he said.
Tionna's mom, Dionna Brown, said her daughter's accomplishments are something the whole community should celebrate because people all across Kokomo made it happen.
When Tionna's parents couldn't get off work to take her to track meets, others would step up and fill in for them, she said.
"Kokomo, you pulled us through," she said. "Everybody came to our rescue when we couldn't be there."
Tionna said she was just glad she could take home the gold. After all, she gave up the chance to play with her traveling softball team in the World Series to run at the Junior Olympics.
Softball is her favorite sport, she said.
"We let her make the decision," her father said. "I think she made the right choice."
If the spunky 12-year-old has her way, she'll soon add another accomplishment to her resume — making the football team.
She really wants to be Kokomo High School's running back someday.
"I told her no," Ty Brown said, with a laugh.
She told him she'd say she was trying out for cross country but would try out for football instead. If she made the team, they wouldn't be able to say no.
Beard said that's pretty typical of her niece.
"She's feisty," Beard said. "She's smart, and she works hard."