Here they come down the track, six abreast, each straining to the very end before crossing the finish line and breaking into a short jog. Stopping to catch their breath, hands on knees or hips, some look elated — others exhausted — most seem somewhere in-between.
“It really is something to watch,” says Jolaine Rodriguez of Freeport, whose 8-year-old daughter Jaylah Boswell took first in her heat of the 55-meter dash and second overall in the event for her age group at the USA Track and Field’s (USATF) Long Island Youth Indoor Championships held Jan. 13 at Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood. Her teammate, Harper Lollo, 9, of West Babylon, took first overall. Both run for the Bellmore PAL Track Club.
“They keep improving from day to day,” says Rodriguez. “The races are really exciting, but these kids are getting so much more out of this than running. They’re growing throughout the season, building confidence, improving skills and learning about responsibility.”
Jaylah, her 9-year-old sister, Joylin Boswell, and the dozens of other youth competitors who participate in winter track are a special bunch. They brave frigid temperatures and challenging training schedules to keep pace and compete not only with other kids in their own two-year age group but even more so with themselves. Even at these young ages, many can chart their improvement, list their best times and state their running goals.
“Of course they’re competitive,” says Harry Penny, coach of The Foundation Track Club, which is based in East Islip. “But winter track is more than that. It can be a life-changing experience. The meets allow kids to measure performance, but the training builds confidence, tests mental and physical limits, teaches responsibility and helps kids make new friends. It also serves as a terrific springboard for sports like soccer and lacrosse.”
Jaylah’s coach, Sheryl Hall, who also serves as the chairwoman of the youth committee for USATF-Long Island, says her team works hard but also has fun. “We encourage young runners to compete against themselves rather than worry about winning,” she explains. “We stress basics like correct running form, breathing properly, eating right, getting enough sleep and improving their work ethic. Focus on those and the wins will come.”
There are some challenges to competing during the winter months as compared to summer. Finding a place for teams to practice is one of the biggest. The Foundation Track Club, for example, runs at East Islip High School and St. Joseph’s College, while Hall’s Bellmore squad practices in the fellowship hall of a local church and a middle school gym. Since there are fewer teams in the winter than in the summer, finding a club that’s close to home can sometimes be an issue. Actual track meets last several hours and are usually held at indoor facilities.
“One of the things I love about this sport is its inclusiveness,” says Harper’s father, Michael Lollo, a New York City detective. “You’ve got girls and boys of all ages on the teams and there’s great diversity. It’s also an inexpensive sport to join. Pay for a uniform, buy a pair of running shoes and your kid is set to go.”
It was that feeling of inclusion that Nicole Gianelli, a stay-at-home mom from Commack, was searching for when her kids Vincent, 9, Dominic, 7, and Samantha, 5, joined the Rolling Thunder Track Club, which operates in several locations across Long Island. All three partake in sprinting events ranging from the 55-meter dash to the 400-meter run.
Rolling Thunder coach Steve Cuomo notes that his team includes a number of special-needs kids with physical and learning challenges.
“They run here, they learn here, they grow here,” he says. “That’s what this is all about.”
FINDING A TEAM
Winter track runs through March, at which point athletes transition into the spring track season. It can take a little searching to find a winter track program near you, but there’s still time to join if your kids would like to give it a try. If your kids are interested in running but are not quite ready to join up now, bear in mind that spring track kicks off in April. For a more complete list of Long Island Track teams and running clubs, visit long-island.usatf.org.
Bellmore Track Club
PAL registration and USATF membership is required for indoor track. Practice 3 times a week in the Bellmore area.
The Foundation Track Club
Free to join, all runners welcome. Practice 3 to 4 times per week at East Islip High School and St. Joseph’s College
INFO email email@example.com; 631-965-3175.
Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program
Free to join, open to everyone. Practice 4 days per week at locations across Long Island.
TIPS FROM COACHES
“Parents, don’t live though your children. You may have been a great runner in college and high school, but these kids are just starting out. They need time to learn, grow and improve at their own rate. Patience is the key.”
-Sheryl Hall, Belmore Track Club
Kids should try different events rather than concentrate on one or two. Try sprinting, distance and the field events, too. You never know what you might have a special talent for, and the dynamic training at practice will make you stronger and faster while improving your balance for other sports as well.
-Harry Perry, Foundation Track Club
Anybody can run, and all are welcome on most teams. Track is an inclusive, diverse sport that not only improves physical performance; it improves confidence and builds self-esteem.
-Steve Cuomo, Rolling Thunder Track Club