Victory Lap

Nov. 19, 2010

By Jon Cooper
Sting Daily

There will be some tremendous female athletes at Alexander Memorial Coliseum Sunday afternoon. Young ladies who, by pushing themselves through athletics, have learned life lessons about confidence, self-esteem and themselves.

The Georgia Tech and Connecticut women’s basketball teams are going to be at AMC on Sunday as well!

Sunday’s guests of honor are approximately 150 members of the Atlanta Chapter of Girls on the Run.

Girls on the Run is a non-profit organization, which began in 1996 (it’s had a chapter in Atlanta since 2000), with the mission of teaching girls age eight to 13, the importance of things like character development, self-esteem, and positive self-image. The group holds two 5K races a year and, with the assistance of Georgia Tech student-athletes, recently held their fall event (they’ll hold another race in the spring).

Georgia Tech is hosting the group and throwing a party to celebrate completion of the race.

Tech had been involved with Girls on the Run races the last few years, but this summer decided to step up its role.

Associate Director of Athletics Theresa Wenzel recalled that Tech pretty much had them at ‘Hello.’

“Girls on the Run has an organizational meeting at the end of the year with the volunteer coaches. So, we had a representative from every team that wasn’t competing that day there and they introduced themselves,” she said. “It just happened that the first one was an Aerospace Engineering major, the next one was a Mechanical Science Engineer, and it went down the line. The ladies in the crowd were like, ‘Wow, obviously they’re very intelligent young ladies as well as competitive.'”

“Theresa and I have been trying to make an effort specifically for our female population, to get them involved in things in the community and with each other,” said Leah Thomas, Georgia Tech’s Director of Total Person Support Services, who knew of the group through her involvement with the Atlanta Track Club. “This seemed like a good opportunity. So she and I brainstormed this summer and got together with the director of the Atlanta Girls on the Run and made plans to be involved the whole semester, including the end-of-the-season race.”

Getting the athletes on board was easy.

“We try to tell our student-athletes that two of the things that are very important to me, and I hope they are equally important to them are to give back and to pay forward,” said Wenzel. “Understanding that even if it’s just taking the time to do a sight visit, that that impact they may have in doing that may give somebody the desire to want to go to college that maybe never thought about going to college before.”

“They really could relate to the program and understood the importance that sports played in their lives at that age and really were very happy to give back and be involved with these girls,” said Sue Payne, Atlanta Council Director, Girls on the Run.

The athletes mentored the girls twice a week for the 10 to 12 weeks, leading up to the race. Many of the girls were in awe of being around college athletes.

“Just wearing the Georgia Tech apparel to the event, they were like, ‘Wow, I want to be like that,'” said softball outfielder Christy Jones. “It was so easy for us to go out there and inspire the girls. I know the softball team actually ran with the girls on the Wednesdays, showing them that we actually put in the work, that we run as well and so that was a lot of fun.

“The girls remembered our names,” she added. “We only sent two or three girls out at a time, but I know that when Kristen Adkins and I went the first week, then the second week two other girls went, the little girls asked, ‘How’s Christy? How’s Kristen?’ It was fun.”

Once the groups bonded, it was easy to make the experience about more than just physical fitness.

“These girls aren’t just training for a 5K,” said sprinter Kayla McKeirnan, a representative of the track team. “They also get educated through some tough stuff that they’re going to have to face later on in life. One day at practice we talked about peer pressure, for example. It’s neat to be able to share our stories with these young girls and they know that they’re not going through everything alone, that other people have faced some of that tough stuff, too.”

With the program in its 10th year in Atlanta, the possibility exists that soon, a participant in the race could become a student at Georgia Tech and become a mentor in the program, completing and perpetuating the cycle.

“What would make me so happy is knowing that I was part of building a program to be a great thing and encouraging these girls to do great things with sports and with themselves,” said swimmer Heidi Hatteberg. “Coming to Georgia Tech is not just a great athletic school but a great academic school and if they can excel in both of those that would make anyone proud.”

“I’m not sure if there are Georgia Tech students but we definitely have had girls that have gone through the program that are now coaches for the program,” added Payne, who noted that the 2010 Fall 5K was the largest to date, with approximately 1,600 runners.

“There was a wonderful partnership with the Georgia Tech athletes,” she added. “We are very excited and we hope it will be the first season of many because the girls really related well to having them come out to their sights and then being there at the race and cheering them on. It was really wonderful.”

On Sunday afternoon, the mentors and the students will get together to watch Georgia Tech battle UConn, the two-time defending National Champions, winners of 80 consecutive basketball games. It’s a backdrop that couldn’t have been planned any better.

“It was definitely thought out that way,” said Thomas. “That seemed like the perfect end-of-the-season reward for the Girls on the Run girls, to get to come and see kind of the epitome of women’s athletics, then watch them play and then us be able to celebrate them and make them feel pretty special for finishing their season.”

For more information on Girls on the Run, visit http://girlsontherunatlanta.org/

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