Both the state of South Carolina and the sport of athletics (track and field) are going through a particularly trying patch right now, though hardly on a par with one another.
In the Palmetto State the issue at hand has been the status of the Confederate Battle Flag, a polarizing symbol that has come under renewed scrutiny in the wake of the tragic shooting of nine at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church by racist provocateur Dylann Roof.
In athletics the sides-divider it isn’t nearly as important, which is not to say that the allegations of rules bending, substance manipulation, and counter charges that continue to circle the Nike Oregon Project and its coach Alberto Salazar at the USATF Nationals is inconsequential within the realm of its own limits.
Through it all, opposing sides have been divided, opinions cemented, and reputations tarnished. Of course, due to the already significant loss of interest in the sport over the last 25 years, the mainstream press has yet to shine its blinding light beneath our particular little rock. No, there are way too many worms wriggling beneath Tom Brady’s Deflate-gate appeal and analyzing who did well or ill at the recent NBA draft.
As USATF Nationals wrap up today in Eugene, NOP athletes Galen Rupp and Matthew Centrowitz have already put their stamp of defiance on allegations against their coach Alberto Salazar with dominating wins in the 10,000 (Rupp) and yesterday’s 1500 (Centro).
Yet, even as Nationals continue the process of selecting Team USA for the upcoming IAAF World Championships in Beijing, China, let us remember that the Junior Nationals are also being contested in Eugene, and that the youth segment of USATF makes up roughly two-thirds of the governing body’s membership rolls.
And while track and cross country together combine to form the highest participation rates of any sport in the nation’s high schools, even with such a robust feeder system in place, there are many potential track and field participants and potential fans that never hear the word, or hear only the drug word, or are less than effectively introduced to the sport.
One coach trying to do something about that in Spartanburg, South Carolina is Ken Roach. This year Ken was a finalist for the Brooks Inspiring Coaches Award, one of 13 finalists culled from 1500 nominations received nationwide. High school coaches are rarely feted for their work on a national scale, so a program like the Brooks Inspiring Coaches Award is received quite warmly in the coaching ranks.
Unique among the other finalists, though, Ken Roach doesn’t coach at a traditional high school. Instead, the 45 year-old insurance salesman from Spartanburg, S.C. began working with some local home-school parents in 2010 to establish the Carolina Homeschool Cougars, a team made up of home-schooled kids who had no brick-and-mortar institution around which to form.
“We have grown from a handful of young kids in torn up tennis shoes and a bottle of water to a real, competitive high school running team,” wrote one athlete’s parent. While battling the stigma of home school-versus-public-school and winning the opportunity for his team to compete, Ken Roach has been a leader and mentor to his student athletes.
During their five seasons the Cougars have won three Independent Cross Country Championships and a NACA (National Association of Christian Athletes) Cross Country Championship. But the Cougars aren’t Ken’s only charges. Last year he began a cross country Youth Running League for elementary and middle school age children in his community as he extended his reach to provide new opportunities for younger athletes.
“The purpose of the league was simple,” says Coach Ken. “To expose as many kids as possible to the sport of running and foster an early sense of enjoyment for the sport.
“I have found it hard for kids to get established early in running unless their parents had some sort of running background. Other youth leagues, i.e. USATF and AAU, I feel don’t do a good job with attracting mainstream families to the sport. Those leagues are too highly competitive, too long, and an initial turn off for a lot of families. I can’t speak for other areas of the country, but in South Carolina and surrounding states, I feel there are a lot of potential youth runners that are participating in other sports due to lack of better introduction to youth running.”
With only 200 or so kids currently involved, Youth Running League has a ways to go. But that, too, is by design.
“Feedback has been very good,” says Roach. “The kids love it, and hopefully we can get another 150-200 kids to join this year. But we don’t want to grow too fast.”
As the women’s FIFA World Cup continues in Canada with Team USA into the semi-finals against world #1 Germany on Tuesday, we note that AYSO, American Youth Soccer Organization, founded in 1964 in West Torrance, California with nine teams, today has an annual budget of $80 million, is made up of 50,000 teams and over 630,000 participants. Some of America’s best known soccer stars have begun as members of an AYSO team.
“The Youth League is made up of local running teams and individual runners,” explains Ken, who sold his insurance business in January to open time for his running pursuits. “The league coordinates efforts of individuals in the running community by overseeing the safety of the youth and providing consistent running events to ensure a fun experience. Running is our primary focus, not a mix of many sports like most youth leagues.”
A tireless advocate of the sport Ken is also about to enter his first season as head men’s and women’s cross country coach at his alma mater, Spartanburg Methodist College. His motto is simple: “Running has a spot for everyone. Just put on your running shoes and come join our growing community.”
Let’s hope that through men like Ken Roach there continues to be a growing, vibrant sport available when today’s youth make it to the open division.
For more information visit www.youthrunningleague.org.