LANCASTER, Pa.– It started five years ago with a few kids that wanted to continue their track & field practice after the spring season. Now, the Lancaster City Track Club has 40 members ranging in age from 8 to 18.
“I tell anybody that listens, track & field saved my life,” confessed the club’s head coach Derek Jennings. “I wasn’t the greatest student but the times I got the best grades were when I was in track & field or cross country season. I was my most motivated through that so it is my passion and I see what it can do for kids because I saw what it did for me.”
That passion led to a partnership with the Lancaster Police Athletic League (PAL). Officer Josiah King helps coach the kids not just in sports but in life as well.
"The media shows a lot of things nowadays that the cops are the bad guys, there's a lot of things happening and a lot of people have a lot of distrust for the police," he admitted. "So to spend this much time with the kids and them understanding, hey, they're not out to get us, they want us to succeed, we're in their corner and that relationship builds up."
Over the summer, the ultimate goal is to qualify for the Junior Olympic Nationals. Last year, the team flew to California for the meet. This year, it's a road trip. 20 athletes plus coaches and chaperones, piling into two vans and driving to Kansas.
"A few kids that I've talked to, they're like we don't even go on vacations in the summer. So if they make it to nationals, it ends up being their vacation for the year, which is pretty cool," said Jennings. "We tell the kids we're there to compete first and have fun second and they know that."
While many kids would rather just kick back and relax over the summer, these athletes are learning valuable lessons.
"To never give up," stated Rachelle Tejeda who will be a junior this year at JP McCaskey High School. "When workouts are really hard sometimes and you have still to keep striving and push for the best."
"I like getting out and running, even though some of the practices are like killer and I feel like quitting track sometimes," laughed Nicte Machado Aco. Just like Tejeda, she will be a junior at McCaskey this year. "The races, when I do well in them, it makes me feel really good so it makes it all worth it."
Just making it to nationals is an accomplishment for these young athletes. Another rising junior at McCaskey, Tony Tirado qualified in two events, the 2000 meter steeplechase and the 3000 meter run.
"My first year, I only did the 3000, and I got second to last," said Tirado. "So it's very difficult and you have to put in a lot of effort and hard work to get there."
And the hard work is paying off.
At nationals, a competitor becomes an All-American by finishing in the top eight of an event. Before this year, two members of the Lancaster team had earned that distinction: Cain Resch last year (5th in javelin) and Tony's older sister Lianna Tirado two years ago (3rd in 3000m and 7th in 1500m).
Now the list has grown, as Lancaster athletes achieved All-American status in three events during the 2017 Nationals in Kansas.
In the 15-16 age group, Tony Tirado placed 2nd in the steeplechase, and the girls 4x800 relay team (Nicte Machado Aco, Elili Ayana, Stenid Manning, Rachelle Tejeda) finished 6th. In the 11-12 age group, the girls 4x800 relay team (Isabella Shertzer, Kamiah Wright, Tiyya Geiger, Kamyah Wright) came in 8th.
After nationals, the seniors will be heading off to college, continuing a proud tradition for the club.
"Every kid that's graduated from the club has gone on to college, and at least were recruited and tried the sport in college," said Jennings. "I firmly believe that a few of the kids that have gone on to college might not have if it wasn't for the club."
By stressing that success in the classroom is just as important as success in sports, the Lancaster team is putting kids on track for a brighter future.