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Junque Miles:

By Mark Roberts

The SWAN Track Club: Making a Difference

I found out about the SWAN Track Club a few weeks ago when I decided to run at the University of Rochester track on a Monday night instead Tuesday as usual. I arrived just after 5:00 p.m. and had only been running for a few minutes when the place started to fill up with kids. Before long there was a full-fledged track workout in progress with what looked like over a hundred kids between the ages of 4 and 16. After they graciously allowed me to run my own workout, dodging and weaving between grinning kids and wearing an equally large grin myself much of the way, I decided to ask around about what was happening. Finding anyone who could answer my questions in the barely restrained anarchy of such a large group performing so many activities at once was difficult, but with each person I met in my quest for a spokesperson, I became aware of a sense of community effort that went beyond the pursuit of fast race times that is typically the focus of track events.

SWAN Track Club runners
A charge down the back straight!

The SouthWest Area Neighborhood track club has been in existence since 1987, founded by Tony Thompson of S.W.A.N. and County Legislator Willie Lightfoot. The idea was to provide an activity for the kids of this city neighborhood that would promote a healthy lifestyle, teach the importance of working hard to achieve goals and, in the cliched but nonetheless accurate phrase, help keep these kids off the street and away from the drugs and violence so prevalent in the inner city. And make no mistake: this is a neighborhood where kids need all the help they can get and what they can get usually amounts to little or none. The SWAN track club is one of the ways that a few people are trying to change that.

The head coach is Jerome Davis, who's been involved from the very beginning when he was still in High School. He is assisted by Ben Nix from Franklin High School, Garfield Ellenwood (a former Seton Hall 100-400m runner), Zilia Higgs (a former University of Miami 100/200m runner) and a variety of neighborhood volunteers who just want to help. There are about 183 official members ranging in age from, yes, about four years old up to 18. A typical track workout draws about 120 participants as well as a few family members who come and watch.

Coach Davis rounds up the troops
Coach Davis rounds up the troops

Some of the volunteers who help run the workouts are experienced coaches and some are just people from the Neighborhood Association who want to help out. It's definitely an "everyone pitch in as best they can" kind of operation. They have to rely on neighborhood help for just about everything because they have no sponsorship of any kind. Right now they don't even have a bus for transporting kids to workouts or track meets. (Anyone who has a spare bus they're not using please let me know!) Promotion is mostly by word of mouth with occasional door-to-door campaigns and notices at the Arnett YMCA. Coach Davis tells me that the reaction is generally very favorable and that the community support is good. I can attest that on the evenings I attended, there were more than a few parents sitting on the sidelines watching the fun.

Coming around the corner
This is fun!

Ah yes, fun. No matter how wholesome the goals of the program and how tasty the post-run treats, kids aren't going to come more than once if they aren't having fun. You need only glance at the accompanying pictures to see what the kids think about the twice-weekly gatherings but the photos are no substitute for seeing it first hand. The youngest kids are the most fun to watch. They are usually limited to sprints of about 20 yards and often have trouble just staying in the correct lane, but they run with a kind of sheer abandon and obvious joy that's irresistible.

The runners are divided into groups based on age and, as you watch the track workout, you can see how every age group is a little bit more serious than the one before it. There are definitely some very talented athletes here and, although I may be influenced by my marathoner's perspective here, many of the sprinters are truly awesome to watch. Seeing a good high school level sprinter blasting through 100 or 200 meters up close seemed to me much more impressive than seeing Michael Johnson setting a world record on TV.

Among the SWAN Track Club success stories is Javunt Pratt, a Marshall High School student who's going to the University of Buffalo on a football scholarship. Although there is little doubt that they will continue to produce success stories like this, that is probably the wrong way to judge success of an organization like this. The proper measure is more likely in the kids who find something they're good at, or just something they enjoy, that they can carry with them for the rest of their lives. Something that, just possibly, might make they difference in some of those lives by providing the will and the determination to succeed and the belief that success is possible when so many forces are trying to tell them just the opposite.

Members of the team
Future Olympians

For more information on the SWAN Track Club contact:

SouthWest Area Neighborhood Association
614 Jefferson Ave
Rochester NY 14611

Copyright © 1998 Mark Roberts

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