One of the most extraordinary moments from this summer's Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro was when two runners – Abbey D'Agostino and Nikki Hamblin encouraged each other to finish a race that neither could win. It was a moment that seemed to capture the Olypmic spirit in motion. Now this is behavior we teach and expect of young children, but don't seem to practice enough as adults – that we should pick each other up when we fall down.
It's not really surprising that these moments of humanity during the Olympics often occur on the track. Running is a character-building exercise. It's a sport that boils down to simply putting one foot in front of the other – even when it's hard. That's why it's a perfect vehicle for teaching young girls to love themselves, and each other.
Ashley Hafer, a coach for Girls on the Run, discovered running as a young adult.
“It was a feeling for me that was very empowering,” she said. “It helped raise my spirits at a time that was full of a lot of change as a young woman. I felt like it would be really fun to get involved with this program that empowers young woman to support each other and to just learn that they have spirit and energy that needs to be valued. I really love that these girls are being introduced the power that their bodies have and how positive they can make one another feel while achieving a physical goal.”
Ashley Hafer and her daughter Chelsea co-coach a team at Bennion Elementary School in Salt Lake City. It's just one of about one hundred teams across the state that train third through sixth grade girls to run a 5k. But over the course of the 12 week program, these young runners are learning much more than physical conditioning.
Girls on the Run is a character building program for girls. Running just happens to be the vehicle through which they teach and develop critical life skills. Like how to deal with peer pressure and bullying and learning to celebrate their own uniqueness.
“I think it's really important to learn the lessons they're teaching us because you can use them throughout life, and sometimes I can forget them so I come back every year,” said Emma, a sixth grader at Dilworth Elementary.
And what are the most important lessons?
“I think it's just what to do when someone is bullying you or what to do when you don't have anymore self confidence,” she said. “It can boost yourself and your confidence and what you see in the mirror.”
Emma has participated in Girls on the Run for the last four years and she's sold on the program.
“I got a lot of friends here that I will always remember and I can always call them or text them if something is wrong,” she said. “And I also have coaches that I can tell anything to and that will support me whichever side I am on. They've really changed my life.”
The weekly practices are where the girls can come and just be themselves. The coaches work hard to foster an environment where the girls actively support each other and can escape from the everyday dramas that occur at school or at home.
“I think it's where everybody can come and run, have fun, and be [themselves], they act like their own personality” said Selena, a sixth grader at Bennion Elementary. “It's basically taking something out of you and putting in new stuff – good, positive things instead of negative.”
Susan Veetch recently retired after teaching for 30 years. Fifth grade was her domain. And this spring she volunteered as an assistant coach for Girls on the Run because she doesn't see programs like it as just nice to have – she sees them as necessary for the healthy development of young girls.
“By this age they're already [saying] 'I'm dumb, I'm not fit, I don't look good, I have to lose weight,” Veetch said. “Boys have a lot more outlets athletically. It's more acceptable for them – although it's changing for girls – it's more acceptable for them to be on the soccer team, to be on the basketball team, to go on to football, whereas transitioning from sixth grade to junior high, the girls will be doing a lot of things and then when they get to junior high they'll stop because that's not what the guys are looking for.”
Veetch is on to something. Even though more girls are playing sports than ever before, thanks to the passage of Title IX, girls are still less physically active than boys. This is unfortunate. Consider that girls who play sports in high school are less likely to become pregnant as teens, less likely to be depressed or engage in risky sexual behavior. They are also more likely to have positive body image and achieve academic success.
And while Girls on the Run isn't just a running program, I did ask them how running made them feel. And this is what they said:
My heart is like really happy and it's pounding a lot.
Strong. It makes me feel strong because it makes me feel like every part of my body feel like I'm doing something good for myself. [When I finish the 5k] I'm going to feel good that I was able to run it and I was able to push myself to do that whole thing.”
The run this year in Sugar House Park was held one bitter cold and raining morning in May and it would have been understandable for teams to have just skipped it entirely. Instead, the park was a sea of umbrellas and every runner had the same bib number pinned to her chest: a big number one. Because this race is not about coming in first or last; it's about finishing. And when ever runner crossed the finish line, she was smiling.
***This segment is part of an ongoing original Utah Public Radio series "Objectified: More Than A Body." Support for the program comes from the Utah Women's Giving Circle, a grassroots community with everyday philanthropists raising the questions and raising the funds to empower Utah women and girls. Information here. To learn more about the Objectified radio series, visit here.