It was not your normal Friday morning in Pflugerville, Texas.
A group of children and their families, teachers and coaches had gathered at Pflugerville Elementary School, just north of Austin, to run laps around the track—but that wasn’t the unusual part. These community walks are a regular monthly event at the school, as part of Coach Lydia Salaiz’s school-wide Marathon Kids running club. Coach Salaiz plays music at these gatherings—familiar Kidz Bop tunes that boom out over the track—and uses a megaphone to call out encouragement to the kids.
“My principal supports me one-hundred-percent wholeheartedly,” she says. “She lets us have these community walks during class time once a month, and we love to invite all the community, so we get parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles—everyone’s out here! It’s just wonderful.”
It was wonderful, but that wasn’t the unusual part, either. The unusual part was the fact that reporters from local news station KXAN had also gathered to cover the event, as—even more unusual still—Olympic champion Sanya Richards-Ross had come to run with the kids.
It was International Women’s Day, and Ms. Richards-Ross—gold medalist in the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics, member of the Marathon Kids board, and new mom to an 18-month-old baby boy—had come to support and inspire the children. The first group she ran with was girls only.
“I want to inspire girls to fall in love with running,” Richards-Ross says, “because of how they drop out of sports by age eleven to fourteen. No one really knows why that is, but I want to encourage girls to stay in sports.” She points out that girls are two times less likely than boys to be active. “From being part of Marathon Kids, and from my own experience, I’ve learned that being active makes you a better person. It makes you a better student; it gets your brain working. I think most people can attest to that—you don’t want to go to the gym, but after you go, you feel so good about yourself. Kids who experience that at a young age are much more likely to continue that active lifestyle throughout their lives. And as a female athlete, I want to inspire girls to stay active.”
One 10-year-old Pflugerville Elementary student, Aubrey, made it her New Year’s resolution to be the first girl in the school to finish a complete marathon. When the students finish their first marathon, they get to enter their names on the Finishers Chart posted in the gym. Instead of being the first girl to enter her name on the chart, Aubrey was the first finisher overall, among both boys and girls—an accomplishment that inspired her to keep going and aiming high. “I love filling in all the bubbles,” she said, referring to the mileage logs that every student at the school fills out themselves, “and I like to be first!” About having Ms. Richards-Ross visit the school, she said, “It’s really encouraging and exciting!”
Another little girl, Izzy, also 10 years old, shared that she loves Marathon Kids “because you can be free, and it’s really fun to run!”
Either of these girls might be a future Olympic champion one day, judging by their ambition and sentiments that match those of Ms. Richards-Ross, who began running at age seven. “I felt like I was born to run,” Richards-Ross says, “and I always felt like I was most free when I was on the track. It was my place of peace and meditation, so I think there is something very freeing about running.”
Along with inspiring girls to stay active, she also has a special passion for inspiring minority children to run. She points out that many minority kids “never think about running a marathon. To be able to say, ‘Hey, with this program, you can run 400 meters a day’—which is my specialty—and it can add up to a full marathon, I think we will have a lot more young people and minorities who will think about tackling a marathon. I hope to inspire young people who might not have thought about running as a potential route to finding their best selves.”
Coach Salaiz agrees that running and staying active help children become their best selves. Along with Assistant Coach Cindy Lucero, she leads her students in group pushups and sit-ups as part of their Marathon Kids training. This regimen gets a thumbs-up from Sanya Richards-Ross, who also engaged in stretching and strength-training drills as a child in order to run with good form.
Pflugerville Elementary has just over 530 students in Kindergarten through 5th grade, and the entire school participates in Marathon Kids. Coach Salaiz says the school was labeled Title I this year; many students come from lower-SES backgrounds, and plenty have working parents with limited time for shuttling their children to sports events or play dates. This is part of the reason behind the monthly community walks; Coach Salaiz started them in hopes that parents would join their children in developing fun, healthy habits together.
Family support is also an essential component to success for Richards-Ross, who credits her father with being her biggest supporter and inspiration. Both Richards-Ross and Coach Salaiz recognize the struggles that modern families must work against. “We’re fighting against so many things,” says Richards-Ross, “like social media, gaming, all these things that keep us sedentary—so I just want kids to know that running can be a vital part of their lives, and it’s fun, and they should all want to do it!”
Buy-in does not seem to be an issue among the students at Pflugerville Elementary. Emily, seven, says she loves Marathon Kids because she loves to run and also loves to catch up and play with her friends. Watching the students run, walk and skip around the track, it’s clear that many must share Emily’s feelings. The students are laughing, talking and even singing as they move their bodies, and the adults by their side are listening, smiling and talking as well.
During this particular community walk, Ms. Richards-Ross ran with the kindergarteners. They did a mini relay race together, and Richards-Ross chanted “We’re gonna kill it!” in a silly singsong voice with the children, smiling ear to ear as she tapped her brightly colored plastic relay stick against theirs. Tall and rangy, she towered over the kindergarteners, so she crouched down to meet them at their level as she gave out encouragement and tips. One little girl ran in cheetah-print leggings and a black tutu, and could not stop bouncing on her toes and grinning excitedly up at the Olympic champion in their midst.
“What I really love about running,” says Richards-Ross, “is that there is no barrier to it. If you have a body, you can go out and run. You don’t have to have money or special gear or anything; you can just grab a pair of sneakers and go. So I love that about this sport, and track and field in particular.”
She says she is transitioning out of sports, and serving on the board of Marathon Kids is one way of staying connected with that world and making sure children carry on the torch, so to speak. “I feel like I have a different perspective on the importance of being active and participating in sports,” she says. “If it weren’t for sports, I wouldn’t have traveled the world; I wouldn’t have had all these amazing experiences. So I am excited to be able to share that with other young people.”
Coach Salaiz has the same hope for her Marathon Kids running club at Pflugerville Elementary. She’s been involved with Marathon Kids for 24 years; “My own children grew up doing it,” she says. “Now they’re all in college, and it’s just been a phenomenal thing. And I just hope I instill that love of healthy living in these children as they get older.”