Striding Into Life - and College

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

'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.

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.

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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.

In fact, one of the club goals is to train its athletes for athletic scholarships. "A track scholarship gives them the chance to go to college. Some could never afford to go to college. Now, they can go to a good college, write their own ticket," Davis says.

"We have some real brains," adds Donald Davis, assistant head coach, pointing out several honor students on the field. One college coach contacted the Striders to say that he would accept any athlete they recommended.

Travel exposes Striders to places they otherwise might not see, including college campuses. "They get used to the idea of going to college..., even the little ones talk about it," says Frank. "They know there's something to look forward to." Davis, a father of three, competed in track in the United States Air Force.

Indeed, youngsters interviewed all nod when asked about college. They are anything but bashful when responding to the question: What do you want to be when you grow up?

'I WANT to be a track star, a football star, and a lawyer," says nine-year-old Juanzo Deshazo, who has been with the Striders for four years. "I might be a million-dollar man," he adds. A group of young girls adorned with braids pipe up: "Veterinarian,Architect,A lawyer, too!"

Self-esteem is an important lace in their shoes, say the coaches. "You can actually see them grow from year to year. You can see them get better and bigger and see their confidence level rise," says Donald Davis, Frank's brother.

Wearing a Chicago Bulls cap, eight-year-old Earl Green announces that "I like the 100 and 200 [meter dash]. I like the relay." His friend, George Chavis, reveals that his brother and three sisters think m great." Does he think he's great? "Yes," he replies.

Competition also teaches sportsmanship. "We repeatedly stress to the children that there are no losers. No superstars, and no losers," says Brenda (Doc) Armstrong, a pediatric cardiologist at Duke University who is also the team physician and an age-group coach. She was named 1990 Female Coach of the Year by the National Women's Sports Foundation.

Positive role models abound: Little kids run on the same track with teens, and camaraderie carries over into schools. Striders meet coaches who are engineers, doctors, ministers, and other professionals it's the most dynamic kind of role modeling you can have," says Dr. Armstrong.

"When everyone else is doing well, you want to do well, too," says Donald. It's positive peer pressure, he says: "You're not out of place if you have good grades on this team."

The 30 or so adult volunteers often serve as substitute parents for the children. Professional counselors talk to the athletes about such things as sex, drugs, nutrition, and training.

The team doesn't hold tryouts, and anyone from 5 to 18 can participate. The $20 tuition is waived if participants can't afford it, and club trips are paid for.

Possibly the highest hurdle for the club is financial. Support comes mainly from fund-raising, private contributions, and tuition. "We struggle from year to year to get financial support," says Doc, "but never people support."

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