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Striding Into Life - and College

Track team aims to give disadvantaged youths role models, discipline, and scholarships

By Kirsten A. ConoverStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 21, 1991



DURHAM, N.C.

'C'MON! Drop your hands some. C'mon. C'mon!" a coach shouts to a teenage girl sprinting around a red, rubberized track. On a warm weekday evening here at North Carolina Central University, the Durham Striders track club is practicing - for competition, for college, and for life.

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The large group of athletes seems to be doing ordinary things - stretching, warming up, running hard, working with coaches.

But the Durham Striders are doing something extraordinary, too. Not just because the club has produced more than 50 national champions, 60 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) All-Americans, a world-record holder, and four Olympic hopefuls, but because Striders are strivers. The team gives "at risk" youths a running start for the future.

The organization was begun in 1975 by three IBM employees who had a love for athletics and a desire to share it with children. They saw the need for inner-city children to compete in the athletic as well as academic and corporate worlds.

Today, "It's the most beautifully organized large group of young athletes I've ever seen," says Jane Puckett, a longtime AAU regional director for the southeastern United States. "The leadership, the approach, is for the athlete to excel not only competitively in athletics, but in life."

Discipline, positive peer pressure, competition, sportsmanship, and a sense of belonging help bring out the best in the youngsters, say the coaches - all of them volunteers. From April to August, about 200 Striders aged 5 to 18 practice and compete three evenings a week and on many weekends. Competitions take them everywhere from Florida to California.

Printed on their T-shirts is the slogan "A winning tradition." (The smaller sizes read: "The tradition continues.") But winning isn't so much a goal for the Striders as it is an end result. "We stress to do better and do your best," says Frank Davis, head coach, president, and one of the founders of the program.

Doing one's best is a goal the Striders also stress off the field. Many live in the inner city. Some are from group homes.

"There are kids who have been coming here for years and we've never seen their parents," Davis says. Here, the aim is to provide the children with discipline, acceptance, a sense of self-worth, and success - lures that keep them out of trouble and away from drugs.

"It's much easier to train a kid than rehabilitate one. It's a lot cheaper," says James Dillard, age-group coach and hurdle coordinator.

"They want that discipline," Coach Davis says about the athletes. "We work hard in practice and that carries over. We find that grades get better." Coaches stress that academics are as important as athletics. Parents are told that their children shouldn't come to practice until they have done their homework. Striders bring their report cards to practice. "They know that's important to us," says Davis.

One 13-year-old boy, Davis recalls, was in trouble with the law. When a judge recommended he join the Striders, he did. That youth later graduated from high school with a 3.5 grade-point average and received a scholarship to a major university.

Such success stories are not uncommon. More than 80 Striders have gone to college on athletic scholarships.