Samantha Kirks is pictured on the left taking the baton

LOS ANGELES (CNS) — A sprinter raised in the San Fernando Valley who received a berth in a heat of the women’s 400 meters in the Tokyo Olympics thanks to an International Olympic Committee program ran her season-best time.

Running in a heat won by Allyson Felix in 50.84 seconds on Monday, Samantha Dirks finished seventh in a field of eight in 54.16.

Dirks competed for her parents’ homeland of Belize, whose government awarded her an Olympic Solidarity Scholarship in 2018 to help her train for the Tokyo Games.

The 28-year-old was awarded a spot in the Olympics by the IOC on July 5 under its policy of inviting one man and one woman to the Olympics from a country that did not directly qualify an athlete for the games.

“Because this has been a rocky season, I am just thankful to be here to represent,” Dirks said before the race at Olympic Stadium.

“I focused on training and competed overseas for my Belize and showed fitness to be the best candidate to represent here in Tokyo. I am grateful for another opportunity to keep chipping away to reveal my best self just like I did in college.”

Dirks carried Belize’s flag during the opening ceremony along with fellow sprinter Shaun Gill.

“Being the flag bearer was honestly such a huge honor,” Dirks said. “This year has been tough for me, but it shows that with dedication and hard work it can pay off.

“This is an experience like no other and I have been waking up every single day here in the village with gratitude and excitement to compete in such an exciting time.”

Like many athletes at the Tokyo Games, Dirks has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

The 2020 outbreak left no facilities in Orlando, Florida, accessible for Dirks and her training group. Initially, they were forced to train on grass at random fields, she said.

Dirks also contracted the coronavirus, which slowed her training at the beginning of 2021. Since recovering from the virus and an injury, “training has been going extremely well,” Dirks said.

“I was able to train down to times I have never seen in training before,” Dirks said. “I am now the fittest and fastest I have ever been. Now I must put it all together in competition at the track.”

Dirks began her track career as a senior at Granada Hills Charter High School in 2010 after playing on its girls’ basketball team. She sought to be a walk-on at Cal State Northridge but was initially rejected by then-assistant coach Justin Johnson.

“Sam came into my office her freshman year asking to walk on the team. I told her no the first time we spoke,” said Johnson, who remained as a Matadors’ assistant coach through 2014, had a similar position at Louisville through 2019, then returned to CSUN to become its coach.

“She came back a few days later. I told her that it wasn’t going to be easy and that I was going to challenge her on and off the track. I told her one of two things would happen — she would either quit or get good.

“She stepped up to the challenge and made an immediate impact on our team. Her presence and work ethic spread throughout the women’s sprints group.”

In a college career that stretched from 2012 through 2015, Dirks had the second-fastest indoor 200 time (24.07), the fourth-fastest indoor 60 (7.52) and 400 times (54.04), the fifth-fastest outdoor 400 time (53:19) and was a member of three relay teams that won Big West Conference championships.

“I don’t remember too much the types of honors I received,” Dirks said. “However, I remember working hard to chip away at my goals in the 400 meters every single year. I know that chasing my best self would overall help the team and our titles.”