Sasa Vann assumed it was some kind of hoax when she received a letter from Down Under Sports last fall asking if she’d be interested in running the 400-meter dash at an invitational in Australia. Vann, who graduated from McGann-Mercy High School this spring, had never heard of Down Under Sports or the Tri-Nations Meet scheduled for July.
It seemed almost too good to be true.
“We would do online meetings in the beginning,” Vann said. “We did a lot of research on it to make sure nothing would go wrong.”
After her initial fears passed, Vann found the opportunity of a lifetime awaited. After spending months fundraising for the roughly $4,500 trip, Vann flew to Brisbane at the beginning of July for a one-week stay on the east coast of Australia, about 250 miles north of Sydney.
And when it came time for competition, the track and field star did what she’s done so many times before: win.
Vann won first place in the 400, one of four events she competed in at the Down Under Championships at Griffith University Gold Coast campus. The 2 1/2 day competition featured about 300 Americans, as well as competitors from Australia, New Zealand and a few other countries.
An all-state runner last spring for the Monarchs, Vann ran 59.25 seconds in the 400 for first place in the 18-19-year-old division. She also ran on the winning 4 x 100 relay team that finished in :49.03. In the 200 dash she placed third in :25.91 and was part of the 4 x 400 relay team that also took third in 4:30.69.
“Running in July after my whole season, I wasn’t thinking I would win anything,” Vann said. “I was going more for the experience and was excited just for that. But I was happy I came home with some medals.”
Running in the relays presented a unique challenge for Vann and her teammates. The group had never competed together before and had only three days worth of practice before the competition started.
During one practice Vann said it was an off day for her and another teammate. So while two girls were going full speed, the other two treated it like a run-through.
“It was very strange,” Vann said. “We all know different ways how to do handoffs.”
But when the lights came on, their performance was flawless, Vann said, although her one teammate pulled a hamstring handing off to Vann in the finals of the 4 x 100. Their relay teams competed in the 18-19 division, even though everyone other than Vann was 17. That was a common theme throughout the relays. Many of the competitors were 17 or even younger. The winning team in the 4 x 400 featured two 15-year-olds and a 16-year-old.
Vann said the racing conditions were ideal. The temperature hovered around 70 degrees and the track itself — which was nine lanes — was a good surface to run on. The only negative was that the bleachers weren’t big enough to handle the crowd, Vann said.
The competition was broken up into divisions for athletes 15 and under, then 16-17, 18-19 and 20 and over.
Vann was the only Long Island athlete from to participate. One girl from Albany and another from Syracuse were the only other New York competitors. Vann flew from New York to Dallas by herself before meeting up with several other athletes. It was then a 14-hour trip to Brisbane.
“My feet were swollen from the ride,” Vann said. “I tried to get up but it was difficult to keep moving.”
To make the trip possible, Vann had to spend a lot of time fundraising. Down Under Sports offers a set of guidelines with suggestions to help athletes get started.
Vann had her own unique idea that turned out to be her best source for funds: Recycling.
At track meets she would set up plastic bags for athletes to dump their water bottles. Collecting and returning bottles turned into a resourceful revenue stream.
“I told my mom, I’m going to do that in college,” Vann said.
She also sold T-shirts and sent out thank-you tickets to family and friends who donated, which entered them into a drawing for a free trip to Australia and Hawaii.
Just as she had been initially skeptical about the opportunity, Vann said she had to spend a lot of time assuring others it was a legitimate trip for a competition and not just a vacation.
When Vann was competing during the meet, she had an opportunity to watch many other events, some of which aren’t contested at the high school level here, such as the javelin and the hammer. There was a lot of camaraderie among the athletes, Vann said.
“It was interesting to talk to the other track girls and talk about their practices and stuff,” she said.
After returning to Long Island, Vann said she planned to take some time off before getting back into running. In the fall she’ll attend Buffalo State College where she’ll look to continue her track career.
“I’m very excited,” she said. “Half of my things are packed.”