On track

The first time I went to a Little League baseball game, I swore I would never let my kids know that organized children’s sports even existed. A college student, I was glad I’d brought my knitting. The family I grew up in wasn’t sporty, and as a mother, I saw no reason to spend every Saturday at some field or gym. Since then, however, my children have taught me the error of my thinking, and I’m now a total convert to the benefits of sports, especially for girls.

My daughter’s success at the hurdles has led me into the rarefied world of the Asheville High Women’s Track Team. When Sophia first arrived, the team seemed uninspired. There was little talk of winning meets, and few girls showed up on Fridays. Talking to parents and coaches and hanging out at practices, however, I’ve come to appreciate how hard it is to coach girls’ track at a school like Asheville High.

Track is unusual: There are no tryouts, and there is no limit to the number of athletes on the team. Many girls come out who’ve never competed in track before (and perhaps not in any sport). Unlike other high-school sports such as softball or soccer, there is no expectation that an athlete has already been trained. Except for those who’ve competed with the Asheville Lightning (the Junior Olympics summer club), few have been trained in field events such as the high jump, pole vault or discus. A track coach needs to be prepared to teach 18 different events to a very diverse group.

At our school, track is one of three fully racially integrated teams (the others are basketball and cheerleading). Overall, the student body is approximately 58 percent white and 31 percent black; the girls’ track team is roughly 50/50, making it one of the most integrated opportunities of any kind for AHS students. A racial mix makes for a strong track team, but no one can remember Asheville High ever having a successful girls’ team. Coaching a team with this degree of diversity of background and ability is a daunting task.

Then there’s the issue of coaching girls. In my experience as a mom on the sidelines, boys tend to line themselves up in a neat hierarchy with the most capable boy at the top. They strive to look good without letting the pain and exhaustion show. Girls, however, structure themselves in a much more complex social geometry that disdains a top and a bottom. Girls will work very hard, but they will also whine, complain and, worst of all, cry without shame. If you can’t handle crying, you shouldn’t coach girls. And if no one is crying, it means they’re not invested in their performance. A hard-working team where the real lessons of sports are being learned will always do some crying.

Little wonder, then, that few dare to coach these girls for the small stipend the public schools offer. Asheville High is loaded with talented female athletes. No one doubts that the potential for a strong team, built on hard work and accountability, has always been there. But for many years the team has drifted, lacking consistent leadership.

This year, however, there is hope. Randy Ashley has taken on the team with the help of his assistant, Amanda Chase. A two-time qualifier for the Olympic Trials in the marathon, Ashley also coaches marathon competitors. And while this is his first experience as head coach of a high-school team, he has an excellent role model in the boys’ track coach, Chris Stroup. In 11 years as coach, Stroup has clearly shown his dedication to helping each athlete fulfill his potential, both on and off the field. And having experienced firsthand the benefits of a focused, hard-working team, Ashley means to give the girls of Asheville High this same opportunity.

Recently, after only half a season, Randy Ashley’s team hit a milestone: For the first time in anyone’s memory (some say at least 17 years), the Asheville High Women’s Track Team beat A.C. Reynolds High. The girls’ spirit and enthusiasm have soared, and there’s much more consistency and energy at practices. The opportunity to experience success is at hand; the benefits of hard work are paying off. For some girls this is a brand-new experience, made available to them for the first time through track.

Keep your eye on the Asheville Women’s Track Team: This underdog just might build itself into a powerhouse. And if you know something about the hurdles or the pole vault, come on down to the track.

[Marijo Simpson has lived in Asheville for 20 years with her husband, Kevin Treakle, and children Jordan and Sophia. She volunteers with the Asheville High track teams and the Asheville Lightning.

The Women’s Track Team competes in the Buncombe County Championship Wednesday, April 18, at A.C. Reynolds and in the Mountain Athletic Conference Monday, April 23, at North Buncombe High School. For the complete schedule, go to www.cougarsportsnet.com

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