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12-year-old athlete striving for the top

JoAnne Neeley's life-support system is better than most. When the young track athlete seeks guidance or assurance, she doesn't have far to look.

The 12-year-old can always count on her grandmother, Eula Kirkland, with whom she has lived the past seven years; friends Marie and Rick Gerg, and running coach Ignacio Mella.

"My grandma wants me to run," said Neeley, an honor student at Madeira Beach Middle. "She told me I can make it to the top if I want and to never, ever give up."

Marie Gerg said Neeley has developed from a skeptical person wary of strangers to a positive, outgoing and confident individual. She also has developed into one of the area's top young runners. Last year she won the National Junior Olympics 1,500-meter race in 4:58 and was second in the nation in the 800.

"I always tell JoAnne I'm with her when she runs, even when I can't be there," said Kirkland. "And I tell her I'll love her whether she comes in first or fourth or wherever."

Kirkland raised seven daughters and currently has 10 other grandchildren besides Neeley living with her. They range in age from 15-5 years. And although Neeley is a standout athlete, Kirkland sees to it that her childhood is not taken away from her.

"Eula really deserves a gold medal," said the Gergs. "JoAnne doesn't receive any special treatment. After winning a recent race, for example, Eula congratulated JoAnne for winning and then grounded her for not following a family rule."

Neeley started running when she was about 10 at the suggestion of a teacher. After trying track, she was hooked.

"We can see some raw talent in JoAnne that can be developed in time," said Mella. "Our ambition for JoAnne is for her to go to the Olympics in 1996 or, definitely, in the year 2,000."

Neeley is a member of the recently formed Sunshine Running Team that practices at Azalea Middle School. Rick Gerg, Mella and Anthony Sullivan direct the training for both youths and adults.

Earlier this month, Neeley won the 800 and 1,600 events at the local Hershey Track and Field Meet. The district meet is Saturday. Last Saturday at Countryside High School, she won the 1,500 (4:50.1) and 800 (2:19.7) in a qualifying meet for the Sunshine State Games, which could lead to Neeley's participation in the National Junior Olympics for the third consecutive year.