The Elizabethton third-grader recently finished sixth in the AAU cross country national championships, earning All-America honors for her age group.
“It was a surprise,” said her dad, Derek Nave, a former Elizabethton High School football player. “Her first real race was this past summer. She ran the Johnson City Downtown Mile and won the kids’ race. We thought she might have a natural gift.”
Nave got Vella in the West Side Elementary running club under coach John Wright, who said Vella indeed had natural talent.
Vella competed in the Tennessee Elementary School state championship meet in October, where the top 100 qualified for the AAU national meet. Vella finished 52nd overall, competing against third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. She was second among the third-graders.
The strong finish convinced Nave to give Vella a shot at the national race, which was held earlier this month at Victor Ashe Park in Knoxville.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” said Nave. “We didn’t know what kind of competition there would be. But when she got off the starting line, she was in the lead.”
Vella has athletic genes. Her dad played collegiate football at Maryville College, and later transferred to King College, where he competed in throwing events in track and field. Her sister, Liahna, plays soccer and also runs track.
As for the future, Nave wants to push Vella — gently.
“I’ve talked to some of my former coaches about what to do with girls at this young age,” said Nave. “You don’t want to push so hard they get burned out. You want them to understand it takes hard work, but you don’t want them to get tired of it.
“But she is competitive and likes to win. We will see how she responds.”