They look like your little sisters.
They sound like a gaggle of gigglers.
And they run like angry cheetahs.
The Fleet Foursome of Tennessee High isn’t daunting – until they charge by you, that is.
Jennifer Cannon. Caitlin Wood. Sam Gudger. Sierra White.
Woosh. Woosh. Woosh. Woosh.
“I like showing up and people being like, ‘Who is this team?’ ” said Cannon, a junior. “But then we run and they’re like: I will never forget them.”
Brawny they’re not.
Mighty they are.
As most things do with the Tennessee High track program, the story of the Fleet Foursome – or the Vikings’ girls 4x400 relay team, as they’re more formally designated on the meet lineup – starts with Cannon.
Cannon, who runs the opening leg for the 4x400ers, will be making her third consecutive trip to Murfreesboro for the Tennessee AAA state track and field meet, which begins Monday.
As a sophomore last year, she competed in five events at state, recording a third-place finish in the 300 hurdles for her top showing.
This year she’ll be competing in the same quintet – pentathlon, 100 hurdles, 300 hurdles, 4x100 relay, 4x400 relay – only this time she’s heading to Murfreesboro as the school record-holder in all five and a legitimate threat to come home with multiple state titles.
Vikings coach Randy Irvin said Cannon has made the difficult leap this season from great to exceptional.
“Obviously she’s very talented, but what comes with that is a lot of self-discipline and just a tenacious work ethic,” Irvin said. “She enjoys tough workouts.”
Cannon enters the 2011 meet as the top seed for both hurdle races after breaking former THS state champion Tina Banks’ 1983 school record in the 100 at last week’s Section 1-AAA meet with a 14.32 dash.
The May 13 sectional meet also marked the breakthrough for the 4x400 team, which boosted by Cannon’s opening sprint, won the event and smashed a 29-year-old school record with a 4:02.73 finish.
“You think of Jennifer Cannon as the only weapon we have, but we’ve got some other girls that can run,” Irvin said.
Even the other three members of the Fleet Foursome, though, acknowledge that Cannon has no equal.
“She’s the legs of our team is what she is,” Wood said, indicating Cannon’s swiped-from-a-giraffe lower appendages. “Her stride is so long.”
Gudger, a publically soft-spoken freshman, summed up all that needs to be said about Cannon.
“She’s,” Gudger said, “really good.”
Cannon is steady.
Wood is … well, let Gudger explain it again.
“She’s loud,” Gudger said.
The lone senior of the Fleet Foursome, Wood is more eccentric aunt than wise elder.
But when the Vikings need to get fired up, Wood is the perfect fuel.
“She provides the spunk to the team,” Cannon said. “She’s got the most energy definitely out of all of us.
“Before the 4x4 race, Caitlin is the one jumping around going, ‘I’m ready, I’m ready. Let’s do this.’ And we’re all saying, ‘Caitlin, calm down.’ But that’s how she gets into her zone.”
Wood, who will run for Milligan College next year, doesn’t dispute her hyper reputation.
“Don’t put sugar on my Frosted Flakes,” she said.
The emotional leadership of Wood, however, amounts to more than just rah-rah rantings.
The four sprinters stood in a spaced-out semi-circle to begin an interview earlier this week, but by the time Wood gave her teammates heartfelt thanks for helping her earn her college scholarship, the Fleet Foursome was arm-in-arm like church campers singing praise hymns.
“I’m about to cry again,” Wood said.
Make no mistake, though, Wood is no wuss.
While the rest of the team will have at least one more chance for state glory, next week will be Wood’s last hurrah for Tennessee High.
“No. 1 in the state, that would be a good way to end my senior year,” she said.
Ask Gudger a question with a recorder anywhere in sight and you’ll get a sunshine smile but fewer words than pearly whites.
White, however, said the trick isn’t getting Gudger to speak up.
It’s getting her to shut up.
“If she needs to know something, she always comes and asks one of us,” White said. “She will ask you 50 million times about something.”
When Cannon, Wood and White, along with departed senior Candace Foster, were just missing out last May on a berth in the 4x400 state finals with a ninth-place finish in the 2010 prelims, Gudger was graduating from middle school.
But even if Gudger asks questions like a rookie, she runs like a veteran.
Affectionately known as “Wormdirt” to her teammates due to her terror in the presence of wiggly earth-churners, Gudger has shown no fear in joining an already successful crew.
“She’s a lot different than all the freshmen we have on the team,” Cannon said. “She’s stepped up and taken a big role on our 4x4 team.”
Although Gudger is the newcomer to the Fleet Foursome, she’s no stranger to the history of the Tennessee High program. Her mom, Tina Turner, was a member of Tennessee High’s 1982 4x400 team whose school record was wiped away by Gudger and company last week.
“[Turner] told me she couldn’t have picked four better girls to break it,” said White, acting as Gudger’s de facto spokeswoman.
Although White is willing to answer questions for Gudger, she’s not about to let her young teammate keep up her reserved façade.
“She loves to rap at practice,” White said. “She raps about our workouts.”
Asked to share, Gudger just offers up another one of her ear-to-ear smiles and shakes her head.
The Fresh Princess of Bristol will let her sprinting do her rhyme-spitting for now.
By the time the baton gets to White, the junior anchor of the Fleet Foursome, the pressure is on.
Luckily for her teammates, she’s one matriarch who always brings home the bacon.
“I want to call her like the mama,” Cannon said. “I know Caitlin’s the oldest and definitely a leader, but Sierra keeps us all together.”
White said knowing her teammates have already done their jobs is all the motivation she needs to do hers.
“I know if I don’t run my best I’m letting three other people down and my coaches,” she said. “I’m the type of person, I hate letting other people down in anything I do.”
White pulled her hamstring in mid-April at the Johnson City Invitational, but returned as strong as ever at the Times-News Relays on May 6.
While not quite as cutthroat as Cannon, as kooky as Wood or as inquisitive as Gudger, White combines a little of all the qualities of her teammates to make the Fleet Foursome a unit instead of four individuals.
“If we didn’t have her, we wouldn’t be here right now,” Wood said. “We’d be sitting at home eating potatoes.”
With White, however, the Tennessee High crew is one of the fastest bunches in the state.
And White already knows how she would celebrate a state title.
“I would run in circles all day,” she said.
While Tennessee High’s 4x400 team smashed a school record and won its event at sectionals, the Vikings’ 4x100 squad has racked up plenty of its own accolades recently.
The 4x100 team is comprised of three of the 4x400 members – Cannon, Gudger and White – but the final runner is a star in her own right.
The Fleet Foursome?
Try Quick Quintet.
Sophomore Ashlee Mitchell, who doubles as a defensive terror for the Vikings basketball team, anchors the short-distance relay squad and will also be competing individually in the shot put at state for the Vikings.
Mitchell, Cannon, White and Foster teamed up last year to break the Tennessee High 4x100 record, which also had stood since the 1980s, and finished 12th at state.
This year’s version has lowered the record, qualifying for state again with a third-place finish at sectionals in 48.84.
Tennessee High’s 4x400 boys squad of Alex Pender, Justin Fahn, Jonathan Foote and JaMichael Miller also will be making the trip to Murfreesboro, although it will take an upset for the boys relay team to make the finals.
But for the girls 4x400 team, after just missing the cut in the 2010 prelims, anything short of running in Thursday’s season-ending race will be a major disappointment – even if the Fleet Foursome still won’t strike fear into any hearts when they walk on the track.
“What I like most about our team is we don’t look intimidating at all,” Cannon said. “I like when we get out there and we show who we really are.”
And who is that?
“I’d rather people think we’re underdogs,” White said, “and prove them wrong.”
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