By Zack Huffman
The thrill of victory is a sweet champagne that every sports competitor craves. While most athletes are willing to taste that heady brew wherever it may come, it is always just a little bit sweeter when success comes at home.
Such is what Aubrielle Wright and Shani Chandler can look forward to as they both enter the summer track and field season as Running Panthers fresh off their gold-medal performances at the Georgia High School Association state track and field meet.
The names Wright and Chandler should be sound familiar to those who follow Clayton County high school sports.
Before the 2008-2009 school year, both were students in the county.
Chandler attended Morrow, while Wright actually won a gold medal in the 800-meter for Lovejoy during her sophomore year of school.
That was before the Clayton County School Board lost accreditation.
"We lost a lot of kids that not only left for another school system in georgia, we lost kids that went to different states," said Running Panthers coach Marc Nichols. "It really changed the game a lot with what we're doing this summer."
Much like many of their fellow high school students, both girls left Clayton before there were any signs that the school board might regain accreditation in time for their senior year.
"Once we found out that we lost our accreditation I knew we had to move," said Wright about her family's decision to leave Clayton. "We just had to figure out which school I would go to."
According to Wright, she was attracted to Westlake, because she already knew a few students at the school through the Running Panthers.
Both ended up enrolled in Westlake and quickly became standouts for the Lady Lions on the track.
This season, Westlake won the state championship at the girls state meet.
The Lady Lions won with 65 overall points, just 17 points ahead of second-place Collins Hill, which had 48.
Wright repeated her 2008 performance, earning a gold medal in the 800-meter run. She also scored a gold medal as a part of Westlake's 1600-meter relay team, along with Chandler who was also a part of Westlake's gold-medal winning 400-meter relay team.
Aside from relay wins, Chandler earned gold for the 300-meter low hurdles and a bronze in the 100-meter hurdles. Between team and individual efforts, both girls contributed a total of 46 points, making it a fairly safe assumption that Westlake could not have won the state title without Chandler and Wright.
Nevertheless, the two girls are back competing on behalf of Clayton County as members of the Running Panthers.
Nichols is well-aware that his starts of tomorrow can often be found at the Clayton County Middle School track meet, which is where he discovered both Chandler and Wright years ago.
Wright remembers meeting Nichols while she was in eighth grade after her middle school encouraged her to try out summer track.
Nichols, meanwhile remember trying to recruit Chandler for years before he brought her own before her sophomore year of high school.
"I've been trying to get her since the 7th grade," he remembered. "She always had the hunger and love for track since I first saw her. She came out because the girls that were beating her in the county were all Running Panthers."
Nichols was happy to have the two girls return, especially since their success was great enough to attract the attention of rival clubs.
"I think it's great because a lot of clubs have petitioned them and promised them the sky, the stars, the moon, the sun and the heavens," he said.
According to Nichols, some clubs offered to waive their registration fees on the two athletes and even pay to allow their families to come along with out of state meets.
"They came back because of their loyalty," said Nichols.