In one year, RFA's Imani Pugh made the leap from new track athlete to Junior Olympian

Noah Ram
Observer-Dispatch

Imani Pugh is a born athlete.

The Rome Free Academy sophomore has excelled in every sport she's tried. First it was swimming, then basketball, then cross country.

Before her sophomore year, Imani approached her parents, Thomas and Jerilyn Pugh, and told them she wanted to try her hand at something else: indoor track.

Less than a year later, Imani is traveling to Greensboro, North Carolina, for the annual Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympics to compete in the heptathlon.

RFA's Imani Pugh finished second in the long jump at the 100th Lou Cook Peter DeStefano Invitational at Thomas R. Proctor High School Friday, April 22, 2022.

On Saturday, July 30, she battles in the 100-meter hurdles, the high jump, the shotput and the 200 hurdles. Sunday, she fights for the long jump, javelin and 800.

Imani joins Proctor star Tamiah Washington, Washington’s sister Raiyah Patterson and Westmoreland’s Emma Scarek as the other Mohawk Valley track stars who are making the trip to the Tar Heel state.

Washington, a Texas Tech commit, will vie for the triple jump and long jump. Patterson wrestles in the 100m dash and the long jump in the 12-and-under category, and Scarek spars in the 800 and 1500m in the 13-and-under group. Scarek is the defending 2022 indoor champion in the 1500.

Four athletes, one coach

IMANI PUGH

All four athletes are under the tutelage of Jim Peterson. The Rome-based AAU coach met the Pughs at an indoor track event last year.

“We heard of AAU basketball, but we were unaware of it in track and field,” Thomas Pugh said. “We asked Imani if she was interested, and she was, so it all came together from there.”

The Pughs came into this whole process blind, but Thomas Pugh said Peterson has assisted them throughout, and Peterson praised their commitment to Imani’s track career.

“[Thomas] buys all the best equipment, he trains Imani when she’s not with me, he does research online, and he is not afraid to challenge me,” Peterson said.

Thomas Pugh said he expected Imani to play basketball like her sister before her, but she ultimately chose track, so she can control her own destiny.

Peterson and RFA’s track and field coaches encouraged Imani to try out for the Junior Olympics at the trials in New Haven last month.

She wasn't expecting to make it, but she finished in first place.

“I asked my coach what that meant, and he said I made it, and I was like, ‘Oh, OK that’s cool,”’ Imani said.

Jerilyn Pugh was in a state of shock.

“I kept saying, ‘What is this? What are the Junior Olympics? What do you mean?’” she said. “She’s so young, and this was all new to us.”

Unpacking Imani's past success

Imani Pugh from Rome Free Academy competes in the girls 55 meter hurdles at the NYSPHSAA Indoor Track & Field Championships at the Ocean Breeze Athletic complex in Staten Island,March 5, 2022.

Imani is no stranger to contending in big events. She performed in the New Balance Indoor Track and Field Championships in Manhattan in March, and the Outdoor edition in Philadelphia in June.

Indoors, she landed in 35th place in the pentathlon, but Imani attributes that to a stressful five-hour drive through a winter storm to get to the event.

Outdoors, Imani improved to fourth, second highest in New York State. She claimed top five spots in each section of the pentathlon and won the high jump portion, showcasing her versatility. Better conditions and more experience, she believes, made the difference.

At RFA events, Imani has also done well. She finished 10th in the 55-meter hurdles at the New York State Indoor Championships in March on Staten Island and landed third in the pentathlon at the Outdoor Championships in June in Syracuse.

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In those months between, Imani picked up pentathlon due to urging from her coaches.

She was rewarded for her efforts — Imani was named First-Team All-TVL for indoor track and to the spring All-Mohawk Valley team. That's in addition to her spot on the winter team for swimming.

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Imani is too young to compete in her usual pentathlon at Junior Olympics, so she is settling for the heptathlon, which entails two more events.

But Peterson believes Imani is built for these high endurance events.

“Imani is very developed in her legs, and we need to unleash that leg strength into her throws and into her jumps,” he said.

'I knew she could reach those higher levels'

Rome Free Academy's Imani Pugh competes in the 100m hurdles during the 2022 NYSPHSAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Syracuse on Friday, June 10, 2022.

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Imani has a long-term goal in her sights, and she's putting in the work to get there.

She's ramped up her training since the school year ended, and even during the year, has practiced for two hours daily and sometimes more — if she completes her homework.

She executes all this to reach her final goal – A Division I scholarship.

“I want go to Oregon,” she said. “I’ve always liked Oregon sports, and it is pretty out there,” she said. “I like the dynamic of the team also.”

Peterson believes that objective is achievable.

“I didn’t think she could get to this point this quickly,” he said. “Once she finished fourth in the pent at states, it changed my perspective. I knew she could reach those higher levels.”

Noah Ram is a sports reporter for the Observer-Dispatch. Email Noah Ram at nram@gannett.com.