Down Under

Published 10:46 am Monday, August 8, 2016

AHOSKIE – Joya Blackwell called her summer trip to Australia ‘amazing’, but she still doesn’t care for the meat pie.

While some of the cuisine from the land down-under may not suit her taste, a week of sports competition at the world’s only island continent certainly did, even if it is winter in the Southern Hemisphere.

“It’s cold over there,” she recounted this week while sitting in the kitchen of her Ahoskie home. “It doesn’t heat up until about 11 o’clock. Luckily, I wore my big coat, so I was pretty warm.”

The Hertford County High rising senior track star participated in the 28th annual Down Under Sports Tournament held on the Gold Coast of Australia in Brisbane July 4-12. Blackwell, who sought to break the state record in the high jump last spring at the State Championships, was looking to hone her skills, both personally and athletically, with the trip.

“It’s the farthest I’ve even flown,” she admitted sheepishly, “and the most time I’ve ever been alone on my own.”

Blackwell’s journey took her from RDU Airport outside Raleigh to DFW in Dallas, and on to LAX in Los Angeles before crossing the Pacific on Australia’s native Qantas Airlines to the Gold Coast.

Down Under Sports began in 1989 by George O’Scanlon of New Zealand. His love of sports led him to fulfill a dream of bringing football to his country and Australia. After football O’Scanlon eventually founded the Down Under International Games, all with the goal of uniting nations with athleticism and sportsmanship. Now, over a thousand athletes from Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and the mainland U.S. participate in various sports, as well as tour the continent, over a ten-day period.

“They had nine days to travel, compete, and sightsee in Australia,” said mother, April Blackwell, a teacher at Riverview Elementary in Murfreesboro, who did not accompany her daughter on the trip. “They followed that up with three more days to relax and explore Waikiki, Hawaii (July 12-15) before returning home.”

Blackwell found out about the native delicacy of meat pie during one of her off-days from practice.

“I didn’t enjoy it, it’s just not my style, but the football players did,” she confesses. “I guess they eat about anything.”

After having her name submitted for the Games a year ago because of her track exploits in 2015, Blackwell then set about a vigorous round of fund-raising to come up with the $6,000 needed for the trip. She was originally going to compete in the hurdles, but dropped back to just the high-jump after suffering an injury back in the spring.

After flying halfway around the world Blackwell enjoyed a day of sight-seeing with fellow Games athletes from North Carolina before her competition, which was sandwiched between two days of practice.

“Some came with their parents, and they (organizers) provided us with coaches and stuff,” she said. “I only met about two mean people over there; everybody else was just so nice.”

Blackwell said the Games were like any other track meet for her, competing against about 10 other high-jumpers. Because of the schedule, she did not jump until later in the afternoon.

“I was able to take two naps,” she announced.

The metric system used in international competition was a bit confusing for Blackwell, so she says her best time was never really determined.

“Fortunately, I brought my own tape measure,” she said with a smile. “I had to end up writing it down. I think I finished about fourth or fifth.”

Though not competing on her final day, Blackwell says she attended and cheered for the new friends she met on the trip. The other North Carolina athletes (the closest being from Chapel Hill and Rocky Mount

“It was pretty fun,” she acknowledged.

After ten days the athletes got a treat: before returning home to the mainland, they returned through the 50th state and got a chance to experience Hawaii away from the pressures and rigors of competition.

Since returning, Blackwell’s agenda hasn’t lessened. It began in June with both Track & Field Camp at NC State, and Chowan University Graphics Camp. In July came the Australian Trip followed by volleyball tryouts for the Hertford County High 2016 team. She still had time to squeeze in one more volleyball camp – at Morgan State University in Baltimore – before school begins later this month.

One thing Blackwell says she won’t miss is having to write an essay on ‘How I Spent My Summer Vacation’ when her classes start at Hertford County STEM in Winton.

“My brother, Cole, will be writing that story for his sixth-grade class at Riverview,” she said with a sly grin.

Mother, April, wants to thank all those who made donations to assist the younger Blackwell in her trip abroad, including Roanoke Electric, Hertford County Public Schools, Gates County Public Health, Everett’s Beauty Salon, and Integrated Family Services, among others.

I got to do some things a lot of people don’t get to do in their lifetimes,” Blackwell concluded. “Everyone there taught me so much, and it really prepared me for college. That’s why I’m glad my parents didn’t go.”