James Petersen has won a national title and he’s only 10 years old.
The Hermon fifth-grader ran into the history books at the Hershey Track and Field North American Final in Pennsylvania on Saturday, winning the 400 meters in the 9-10 age group in 1 minute, 3.55 seconds.
That, according to state Hershey coordinator Tim Baude, marks the first time any Maine athlete has left Pennsylvania with a gold medal, and Petersen won it in dramatic fashion over Ethan Smith of Ontario.
The two boys were stride-for-stride throughout the race before Petersen made his move down the homestretch to edge Smith, who finished seven-hundredths of a second back at 1:03.62.
“I thought [winning] was possible,” Petersen said. “I didn’t really have a goal, but I thought it was possible.”
A chance at a win increased when Petersen ran 1:04 at the national Junior Olympic championship meet in Sacramento two weekends ago, finishing fourth.
“It was a very exciting meet, and we thought he had a shot at it, so we were very excited that he was able to win it,” Petersen’s father, Dan Petersen, said.
Petersen was among six Maine athletes who competed at the Hershey meet on Saturday with the others being Molly Anthony of Bridgewater, 100-meter dash; Kolleen Bouchard of Houlton, softball throw; Brandon Theriault of Fort Kent, 100 dash; Seraphina Provenzano of Holden, 800 meters and Tia Jackson of Old Town, 100 dash.
The Hershey program was created more than 30 years ago to promote youth physical fitness and provide fun learning experiences for children ages 9 to 14, and it is the largest sports program of its kind in the United States and Canada, according to the Hershey website.
The Maine athletes received an all-expenses-paid trip to the Hershey meet.
To qualify for the North American final, Maine participants must place first at the state meet, and then they are placed in a pool among other Region 6 (New England states, Atlantic provinces) competitors for selection to the final.
However, if an athlete boasts the top time or distance in his or her region, they automatically qualify for the final, which Petersen did for both the 400 and 100. Hershey allows only one event at the national meet, and Petersen picked the 400.
This was Petersen’s second time competing in the 400 at the North American Final — he was fifth last summer — and that experience coupled with running in the national Junior Olympic meet made him extremely comfortable.
“I wasn’t as nervous as last year, so it was a little more fun,” he said.
Petersen, his five fellow competitors from Maine, Baude and Caribou Parks and Recreation director Kathy Mazzuchelli all flew to Pennsylvania together from Bangor.
“I knew we had a great group of kids this year, and I wouldn’t have been surprised by the number of kids that went this year [to] get a first,” Baude said.
The best chance for that was clearly in the boys’ 9-10 400, especially with Petersen on the incredible hot streak that has been a highlight of his summer.
“Before the season started, he had a goal to be able to go back to Hershey, qualify for it and maybe place in the top three,” his father said, “After the Junior Olympic nationals and how his time improved, I had to convince him you have a shot to win it.”
But even though the winning time from Petersen’s age group in 2009 was similar to that of his Junior Olympic effort, the trend at a high-caliber track and field championship meet is that winning times improve each year.
“I told him that a 1:04 is probably not going to win it again, so he knew he needed to go 1:03 or faster,” said Dan Petersen.
Petersen is following his father’s love of running as he ran four years of high school track and cross country and a year in college.
James’ first exposure to the sport came when he was 8 when he attended a track and field camp in summer 2008.
He said he started participating in track because he loved running and wanted to start competing. He also participates in soccer, basketball, baseball, football and wrestling.
The perks of qualifying for the North American Final don’t end at running in front of thousands of people.
There’s also the chance to check out the Hershey chocolate factory, enjoy the Hershey theme park, and, of course, devour some delicious sweets.
“Last year we got this big, huge chocolate bar; this year we only got a regular-sized one and some other stuff,” James Petersen said.
That other stuff included some Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Jolly Ranchers.
Oh, and a gold medal to go along with it.
“It was all pretty fun,” the soft-spoken James Petersen said.
Even though James still has one more meet on his summer schedule in the state 14-under championships this weekend, both father and son are ready for some downtime before school starts in a few weeks.
“James’ body needs to rest; he’s been racing a lot this year, and I know from his times in the workouts that he is starting to get fatigued,” said Dan Petersen.
Petersen also got to interact with 1960 U.S. Olympic gold medalist Rafer Johnson, who delivers a speech at the meet-ending celebration every year.
Petersen wasn’t the only person who made the Pine Tree State proud.
Jackson, who will enter Old Town High School this fall with a lengthy youth track resume, placed fourth in the 100 meters in the 13-14 age group, clocking in at 13.32.
Jackson specializes in the jumping events, and she’ll likely be right up with the best in Eastern Maine and statewide once indoor track starts in December, but her 100 time was quite impressive.
The Hershey program doesn’t have the long or triple jumps.
“Tia, she did a great job in the 100, she got off to a little bit of a bad start and made up a lot of ground to get that fourth-place finish,” Baude said. “She ran as great a race as anyone.”
Elsewhere among the Maine delegation, Provenzano finished the girls’ 13-14 800 in 2:36.34 to come in 11th, Anthony took eighth in the 11-12 100 dash in 14.60 while Bouchard was fifth in the softball throw with a toss of 104-0.50.
Theriault, the only other boys’ competitor, came in seventh in the 11-12 100 in 14.38.