Atalanta at Lehman High School
Jess was the very first runner to show up to our mentorship session last July. We could tell immediately that she was incredibly driven; she was hungry to learn and to apply her newfound knowledge to the track and just as eager to share everything she’d learned with her teammates. The very next session, she brought along her teammates Krystell and Anthony.
Four months and many sessions later, Jess shared how stressed she was at that initial session; it was difficult to juggle high school, sports, college applications, and a job. She really wanted to attend Sunday sessions, but she was overworked and overwhelmed. “Well, maybe we could come to you?” I said. “We could go to your high school once a week and run the same programming we do here!” Her eyes widened. “Are you serious?” I nodded. She beamed and exclaimed “Okay! I think our coach would love that!”
Two weeks and a few logistical hoops later, I was on the 6 train going to the second to last stop in the Bronx. When I walked into the school, the first thing I saw was a line to go through the metal detectors. I waited for a second until they asked if I was a coach and waved me through. I went to the basement and found a sea of kids in athletic clothes. The women's coach, Andronico, walked up to me and introduced himself. I was shocked when I found out they were having practice inside the basement. They had no gym access and it was too dark outside. They had to run and do drills in the tight hallways.
Andronico and I walked to the coaches office so I could lock up my belongings. He told me a lot of the kids weren't at practice. I asked why and he replied that there wasn’t really a reason, they just wouldn’t attend consistently, and a lot of them didn’t show up to races. When we returned to the team, the kids had formed two long lines to do drills. The hallway wouldn’t allow more than two people side by side.
Halfway through drills Krystell showed up. When she saw me her eyes widened like she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. “I knew you were talking about coming to the school, but I never thought we would see the day!”
I remember the first time I ran with Krystell, when she was huffing and puffing after five minutes. She told me she was a 200m runner. I joked with her that she would end up becoming a distance runner, to which she responded with a dubious look. A month later we got a text from her saying that she had just run two miles on her own. She said she was so proud of herself she was crying. We were so proud of her. Next thing we knew, she was on the cross country team! At the last race of the cross season Krystell won a medal. She was so shocked that when they went to hand it to her she thought they had the wrong girl. More proud tears from her (as well as from us). Now she talks about running a marathon one day.
In the high school basement the kids began to assemble into groups for the workout. As they lined up Andronico told me more about the program. He was very open about not knowing much about distance training, and that the kids had never had a female coach. He told me that I could run Wednesday practices to help make up for these gaps in knowledge.
Before the workout started I offered to help anyone if they had questions. A couple kids walked over to me, asking about this or that ache or pain: how to make it better, how to get better. When I spoke to them they were respectful and eager to learn. If chatter stirred while I was speaking they would shush each other. It was clear they were passionate about becoming better athletes. They just needed the information and attention to get there.
The workout was three then two then one “lap.” A lap was a loop through the hallways. After the first set, I approached the girls group. “Okay, I’m going to run this one too,” I announced. One of the girls looked at me shocked as I toed the line with them, “You’re actually going to run with us??”
“If I'm going to ask you to run, I’m going to run too,” I said with a smile. She smiled and nodded back, and we all ran together, dodging doorways and bouncing off the hallway walls.
As practice ended and people began to disperse Anthony walked up to me with a concerned look on his face. “Are you okay? You didn’t say much," he asked. “I just want to see what your coach has you do before I implement any new training.” I replied.
Anthony was another early Atalanta mentee. He came to the Atalanta sessions consistently and always brought fun and positive energy. One Sunday after a cold fall session, I took the kids to a bodega near the track for a hot sandwich. Anthony had been attending the practices for a couple months at that point. They were a group of four kids, all of us chatting, and I said something that made Anthony pause and look at me with surprise. “Oh, you actually care!” he exclaimed. I laughed. I was glad they noticed we cared, and that they realized we weren't just here to do a song and dance then twirl away forever. We’re here to stay.
A month after that first high school practice, Jess, Krystell, and Anthony came to our usual Sunday session with two new Lehman kids, Kadeem and Malik. Every time I saw Kadeem he gave me a big grin and called me “Miss”. Malik was a bit shy when I saw him at Lehman. I honestly never expected him to show up to a Sunday practice because every time I corrected his form he didn’t take it well. I was surprised to see him there, but I was even more surprised when he approached me after practice. “Miss, I just wanted to say thank you for everything you're doing. I really want to get better, and I really appreciate it.”
That day we all took the 1 train to get back home. When Jess and Krystell got off they pressed their hands against the train before it left, crying goodbye, then walked arm and arm as the train carried me onwards.
All of Atalanta’s summer sessions and high school practices have fueled our desire to further our mission. These athletes want to become better runners and to learn to get the best out of themselves. But they need access to information, resources, and attention from people who care. That is exactly who we are. That is what Atalanta is here to do: We lift up and support the young athletes of tomorrow and help guide them through the twists and turns the sport will show them. Whether they want to become the best athlete they can or just enjoy the camaraderie of the sport, we are here for them. That’s the Atalanta mission.