Running is in her blood: 9-year-old carries on family athletic legacy

Published: Aug. 25, 2015 at 1:20 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 11, 2015 at 2:08 PM EDT
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IRMO, SC (WIS) - You can say, using the commonly overused word "literally," that running, literally, is in Jais Ward's blood.

Running through Ward's veins ("running," get it?) is the blood of some elite athletes. Her mother, Bunnie, was about the same age as Jais when she started running. Bunnie Ward was a High School All American at Spring Valley High School and competed collegiately at Harvard.

"They contacted me while I was still in middle school. It was the first time I had thought about college," Bunnie said. "When they realized how old I was, they told me they would talk to me during my junior year.  I was recruited by Penn State, Duke, Stanford, Columbia, Brown and Harvard."

Bunnie's coach was her own mother, Catherine Lempesis, who led Spring Valley to 14 state championships in track and cross country, nine of them consecutive. She also coached Ridge View High School to a state championship in track and Lexington High School to a cross country state championship.

Among Lempesis' many honors and accomplishments are an 8th-place finish in the Boston Marathon Masters Division, 7th World Ranking by Runners World Magazine, South Carolina record-holder for the half-marathon in the Masters Division, Road Runners Hall of Fame, SC Track & Field Hall of Fame and SC Athletic Hall of Fame.

Like her mother and grandmother, the Harbison West Elementary School fourth-grader loves to run, and run fast. This summer Jais won a gold medal in the 800 in the USA Track & Field South Carolina Association Junior Olympic Championship and finished second in the 400. Her 800 time set a state record.

She finished sixth in the nation in the 800 at the USTA Track and Field Junior Olympics. She was the only 9-year-old to make the finals.

"It feels good because there were girls from all over the nation and it was just really cool to see how fast other girls were and to meet other girls from all over the nation," Ward said.

Ward said she dedicated the races this summer to her coach Doug Kotti, who is dealing with health issues. It was Kotti, as coach of the Storm Track Club of Irmo/Chapin, who encouraged her to extend her distance from the 100 to the 800.

Ward liked the 100 because it was shorter and over more quickly.

"I always wanted to do the 100 because I like to go fast and short," she said.

"Since he wasn't feeling good and he was the one who kind of got me there, I just wanted to dedicate my race to him," Ward said. "So I was running for him. I was thinking, 'I need to do this for coach Doug because he's sick and I just want to be able to show him what I've got and how much I care about him."

After the race, "He said 'Thank you for dedicating the race to me,'" Ward said.

Ward accomplished all this in her first year of running, so her genes must be partially responsible for her success.

"What is she most excited about? Just being a fourth grader," said her mother. "We're proud of what she's done through hard work and determination, but even more proud about how she is using her accomplishments to tell other kids they should set and reach their goals too.'"

Ward aspires to be a doctor and a professional athlete.

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