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A lesson for father, big brother and baby girl

Innocence suffered a major blow on Saturday.

Sportsmanship took one in the gut.

And I never saw it coming.

I took my 4-year-old daughter, Madelyn, to the Jr. Gasparilla Distance Classic at the University of Tampa's Art and Polly Pepin Stadium, and the day began with all the warm and fuzzy feelings you would expect.

The event, which focused on participation and education, rather than competition, issued the No. 1 to every registrant. Everyone who ran would get a medal. There would be no losers on this day.

Ahhhhh.

As we prepared for the races to begin, Madelyn greeted various mascots like Tony the Tiger and the Chick-Fil-A cow with a hug while her older brothers followed. Matthew, 13, paid close attention, and Ethan, 12, took pictures.

The Mendez Foundation also had its mascots on hand to remind kids they're too good for drugs.

Later, Madelyn would get a free cereal bar and a bottle of water. While her brothers watched older kids run, she got her face painted. That familiar Florida sun warmed the track and I even got a chance to sit and read the paper while the boys chased her around the infield. What a nice family event.

Then it happened.

As time wound down to the start of the 30-yard dash for the 4-year-olds, Matthew turned coach.

"Madelyn, you need to warm up. Let's start stretching," he suddenly barked.

She wasn't particularly interested in limbering up, but Coach Matthew wasn't having it.

"Do you want to be a winner or a baby? Let's go."

Later, I learned that Matthew had spent the week training her by filling her backpack with books and making her run around the house. He also had her do push ups.

"The key was yelling at her and telling her she couldn't do it," said Matthew, an apparent graduate of the Bobby Knight Coaching School.

For the record, I never cajoled the boys like that when they started out. I always offered those standard lines like, "Just go out and do your best."

It's apparent, however, that my kids are developing their own personalities and are not necessarily interested in emulating my approach. Translation: They think I'm too soft.

Finally, I intervened and said, "Son, she's only 4. Cut it out."

He politely asked that I go stand by the finish line with the camera.

The best was yet to come. As Madelyn waited in the staging area, she looked at another bright-eyed 4-year-old girl who just wanted to have fun. Was this just a casual glance?

No, this was a furtive look. She was sizing her up. Then she shouted, "I'm going to win, you're going to lose."

Great, Madelyn the trash talker. Where's the Barney tape on manners when you need it?

The 4-year-olds ran heats based on birth month. Madelyn, born in October, had to wait, and nearly every heat was won by a boy.

I started planning on how best to console her. I figured I would tell her it's hard to beat boys when it comes to sports, that boys are really evil, and you shouldn't talk to them until after you marry one.

None of that was necessary, however. She bolted from the starting line and outraced all the 4-year-olds who were born in September and October. She was a star.

It all made sense as she crossed the finish line. Matthew wasn't a crazed coach, he was a caring brother. Madelyn wasn't trash talking, she was simply motivating herself.

Sportsmanship, schmortsmanship.

I don't know if she can run a mile, but we're going to find out. The 2006 Hare Racing Experience will be held April 15 on the Courtney Campbell Parkway. The 14th annual event, which benefits the Epilepsy Services Foundation, includes a 1-mile fun run and the top three kids 5-and-under get awards.

Lace 'em up, Madelyn. Matthew, where's that backpack? We've got work to do.

CORRECTION: The last name of Sheff Crowder was incorrect in a recent column. Apologies to Crowder, who presented David Kennedy with the Tampa Metro Civitan Club's Citizen of the year Award last week.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper can be reached at (813) 226-3406 or Hooper@sppimes.com.

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