When 12-year-old Lansing native TJ Robinson was 4, he attended his second-grade sister's AAU track practice.
Eager to run with older athletes, Robinson was given permission to practice with the team — as long as he could finish the workout.
Eight years later, Robinson has qualified for his fifth AAU Junior Olympics Track Meet — pitting him against the top runners in his age-group from around the nation — set for July 28-Aug. 2 at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
To earn a qualifying spot, Robinson finished first in all three of his events — the 800-meter run, 1,500-meter run and 3,000-meter run — at the AAU national qualifier meet in Joplin, Mo., against runners from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri.
As a member of the Kansas City Track Stars, Robinson's best result at the Junior Olympics was an 11th-place finish, one place off All-American status. This year, he said he's shooting for a top 10 finish to claim a spot as an All-American.
Robinson will begin seventh grade at Lansing Middle School in the fall, the first year students are eligible for school athletics.
His mother, Lansing High School girls basketball coach Christine Robinson, said starting a running career as a 4-year-old has given him a leg up on other athletes his age.
"The thing that he'll have ahead of all those kids that just do school track will be that experience," Christine said. "That's one of the reasons why he's doing so well, because he's ran for so many years."
Though he's yet to hit his teens, TJ said he's gained a runner's wisdom well beyond his age.
As a distance runner, TJ's races require more strategy than short races, and he said learning how to approach a distance race brought big improvements on the track.
"You have to learn how to run because the more experience you get, the better you get," TJ said. "The first time I ran, I went out really fast and I died. But every year I get better and better, and now I've figured out how to run my race."
In addition to AAU track and field, TJ runs cross-country in the fall with a traveling team, plays football and basketball, and wrestles. Now that he'll begin playing school athletics, TJ said he's planning on sticking with his multi-sport career, beginning with football in the fall.
Christine said she and her husband have tried to make sure TJ's running career doesn't ruin the sport for him later in life by urging him to participate in many sports.
"We try to not run him out, because if you just have one sport at a young age, especially running, they get burned out," Robinson said. "We try to give him some variety and he likes that."