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Iowa superintendent and former Olympian bested in footrace by 5th-grader

Des Moines Superintendent Ian Roberts races students on an Iowa track.
Phil Roeder/Des Moines Public Schools
Des Moines Superintendent Ian Roberts races students on an Iowa track.

It seemed like it should be an easy win for Des Moines Superintendent Ian Roberts to dust off his racing shoes and compete against a team of elementary schoolers.

The 47-year-old Guyanese runner's skills had taken him around the globe, after all, even competing in the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney.

"I showed up to the school, and I'm waiting there. And I saw the principal and teachers and they brought the entire school out to the track. And I'm thinking, 'oh,'" Roberts recalled with a laugh.

What was initially going to be a race between Roberts and Everett Clark, a lucky second-grader who won the chance to race Roberts in a raffle, had grown as more students decided to join. Soon the student body flanked the track.

Des Moines Superintendent Ian Roberts autographs a sign for a student.
/ Phil Roeder/Des Moines Public Schools
/
Phil Roeder/Des Moines Public Schools
Des Moines Superintendent Ian Roberts autographs a sign for a student.

Roberts keeps himself in shape, running several miles, five to six days a week. Before the race, he ran drills with the students, teaching them how to stretch and showing them proper running form.

Phil Roeder, the district's director of public affairs who captured photos of the event, said he could tell how excited the students were to have the chance to race against a serious athlete.

"The little boy who won the raffle recruited a few other students to join him in the race. He did not necessarily want to race solo against the superintendent," Roeder said.

"One of the girls proved to be a pretty darn good athlete in her own right," he added, noting that Roberts didn't seem to be "going easy" on the students.

The day of the event, Roberts was in a maroon three-piece suit and a matching pair of tennis shoes. Roeder said the suit might have been a handicap, but the sneakers should have covered the gap.

As Roberts, the superintendent, sheepishly put it: "I decided, you know, I can do this in my suit. Why not? So here I am in my suit and my bow tie and some Nike Air Force One tennis shoes, and I felt that would be sufficient."

Instead, when the 100 meter dash began, Roberts saw how committed the students were to the race – and his eventual loss was all but decided.

"The most important part of that day for me was the recognition that our young people, our elementary school students, were taking this very seriously. You can see in their demeanor and disposition, and I'm so happy that they competed in the way that they did," Roberts said.

Des Moines Superintendent Ian Roberts stands with students.
/ Phil Roeder/Des Moines Public Schools
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Phil Roeder/Des Moines Public Schools
Des Moines Superintendent Ian Roberts stands with students.

It was fifth-grader Amayah Vilmael who sailed to victory, crossing the finish line with her eyes straight ahead as her former Olympian competition trailed steps behind.

"All of those students, especially Amayah, who – based on her form, based on her stride length – she definitely has a really promising career in track and field if she so chooses," Roberts said.

The superintendent has had a chance to speak with the parents of Amayah and Everett, and he said both of them are overjoyed to have gotten to race the former track and field star.

"Everett, for example, yesterday and even today, he is still walking around the house talking about his race. Amayah is still on cloud nine because she beat an Olympian," Roberts said.

"I am humbled and I stand proud in defeat to elementary school students, all of whom have very promising careers academically and athletically. And I will do it all over again if I can."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Alana Wise
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.