At IAAF World U20 Championships, Ayden Owens honored to represent Puerto Rico in a time of need

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Friday, July 6, 2018 | 5:18 PM


Ayden Owens has traveled to Puerto Rico a handful of times, most recently last month for the island's national track championships.

His maternal grandparents were born there and his extended family welcomes him into their home to stay when he visits. So, as Owens celebrates his international track debut in Finland next week, he'll also celebrate his Puerto Rican heritage.

“There's so much pride in my grandparents being born there, my mom's side of the family all being from Puerto Rico,” said Owens, a recent North Allegheny graduate who will compete July 10-15 at the IAAF World U20 Championships in Finland as a representative of the Puerto Rican Athletics Federation. “It's truly an honor to be able to represent them and wear their colors in an international meet. It's really nice.”

Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory but fields its own teams for international athletics events. High school graduation and a wedding conflicted with the USATF Junior Championships in mid-June, but Owens' heritage allowed him to qualify for the Puerto Rican team instead.

He's often asked: “Why aren't you competing for the United States?”

“I'm competing for who I want,” he said, “so I'm happy where I am.”

Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria last fall, but Owens said his extended family emerged from the Category 4 storm better than many others. They were without electricity for weeks, but otherwise OK.

“There are horrible conditions,” he said. “If you drive down there, there are traffic lights that just aren't working. You just drive through intersections. The situation is really bad. And obviously financially they're not in the greatest place. They're recovering, so it's kind of cool to be able to represent them in a time of need.”

The Southern Cal recruit will compete in the decathlon, a 10-event competition that includes runs of 100, 400 and 1,500 meters, the 110 hurdles, long jump, high jump, pole vault, discus, javelin and shot put. The decathlon schedule is divided in half over two days, July 10-11.

Event entries list 15 decathletes in the field from 10 different nations. Owens is seeded 10th in the field. Russia's Kekin Stepan is first. American Kyle Garland, a rival for Owens, is sixth.

“My expectations are to go there and enjoy my first international competition,” Owens said Thursday before flying to Europe with his teammates. “But with every competition I go to, no matter how big or how small, my coaches have always engrained in my head that I can go out there and I can win. No matter the rankings, I've been trained well enough that I think I can go out there and place. That's my goal.”

Owens won WPIAL titles this spring in the 110 hurdles, 300 hurdles and long jump. He then swept the PIAA titles in the hurdles at Shippensburg while bettering his state record in the 110. At the Puerto Rico national championship, he won the 110 hurdles and the long jump in the 18-19 age category.

To qualify for the World U20 in the decathlon, his specialty, Owens needed a score of 7,200 or better. He gave himself one chance and reached the mark June 22-23 at the Vertical Adventures Decathlon & Heptathlon Meet in Medford, N.J.

But it wasn't easy. Owens sprained his ankle long jumping and had to finish the final eight events injured.

“It was kind of brutal, but I got through it,” he said. “It was sore as heck. I took some Advil, I taped it up really well and we were good to go. … I thought that might set me back because mentally it really took me off my game. My coaches and my family were really able to get me back on track so I could get that standard.

“(My coach) said: ‘This is what happens in the (decathlon). You've got to be able to handle adversity and move on.' It was kind of nice to be able to push through. It really tested my character.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at charlan@tribweb.com or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.

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