Long Run

T he word “family” is repeated every time I talk to a member of the New Haven Age Group Track Club. Coach Sasha Benjamin’s claim that “once you’re a part of this family, you’re always a part of the family” is underscored by stories of kids who have grown up running together. “We’ve had kids who actually graduated from college that are still friends,” she says. “They started out here… and they ended up going to different high schools. Summertime they’ll come back to us, and they’re… still competing, still friends up to this day.”

Elena Brennan is one of those kids. She started running with the track club at the age of four—officially too young, but her four older sisters were already on the team. Now she runs for her high school, but she showed up at a recent NHAGTC practice to check in anyway. “It’s such a family atmosphere, and I feel like with a lot of other sports and a lot of other… teams, there’s usually kind of an inner circle,” Brennan says. “But that’s not really the case here. Everyone becomes family so quickly… I really feel like I grew up with everyone on the team.”

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The New Haven Age Group Track Club has been around since 1975, when then-Southern Connecticut State University track coach James Barber and others were “kind of looking at things in New Haven for kids to do,” Barber says. “Everybody was playing basketball,” he notes, but there was no opportunity for kids to try track and field. He saw his opening.

It rained on the first-ever day of practice, but eight kids showed up anyway. The next day, the weather was “beautiful,” Barber recalls, and there were 30 kids. “By the end of that summer, I think we had close to 100,” he says, and the number doubled the following year. Today, he figures about 6,000 kids have come through the program.

One thing Barber knew from the beginning was that in order for a track program to work, parents had to be invested. So he gave them something to do. He talked with them about their own fitness. He invited them to stretch with the kids, and they started walking or jogging while the kids ran. He trained them to coach specific events or to officiate. Those who couldn’t be involved at that level were tapped to chaperone trips. “I just gave them as many options as possible,” Barber says. A few of the parents rose to compete themselves. One ended up officiating for the 1984 Summer Olympics.

26 years later, when Barber told parents he had too much on his plate and had to step down from leading the club, some of them were ready to step up. “I think the parents supported it because they knew our hearts and heads were in the right place,” Barber says. He’s obviously left a legacy. Benjamin calls him an “awesome man” and says, “We still try to do what he taught us to do.”

In addition to the commitment of the club’s coaches and parents, there’s the commitment of the runners themselves, who show up three days a week to practice. On a rainy Wednesday evening in the Floyd Little Athletic Center gym at Hillhouse High School, sprinters dashed from one set of cones to the next, hurdlers practiced their jumps and distance runners rounded the track over and over again with occasional water breaks. At the far end of the gym, some kids were practicing their throws with plastic javelins.

“We really want to create all-around athletes,” coach Shauntaye Williams-Monroe says. Benjamin was her coach at Southern, and she herself has been coaching with NHAGTC for five years. “We don’t want to just create, you know, distance runners or sprinters or throwers. We want someone that’s athletic, and when you can do multiple events, you’re a true athlete.”

Standing out from the crowd in the gym was Cheshire Academy senior Alexis Holmes, who’s been with NHAGTC since she was nine years old. Next year, she’ll be running for Penn State. She praises the mentorship of the coaches, which “has definitely helped me off the track as well.” And she uses that word “family” again. “Starting out as a ‘baby’ and now being one of the older kids,” she says, has helped her learn “how to be a good teammate.”

Holmes isn’t the club’s only winning runner. The club has another alumna already running for Penn State, and a third runs for the University of New Haven. Scrolling through the club’s social media accounts reveals meet after meet with NHAGTC runners on the podium. But competition isn’t the team’s focus. In fact, it’s optional. Other posts on social media highlight “Feel Good Friday,” “Report Card Night” (“When we say we care, we mean it #educationcomesfirst”), a holiday toy drive organized by one of the club’s athletes and a photo of basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holding the hand of his elderly coach as they walk through a stadium together (“#wecoach4areason #lifetimecoaches”).

Both Benjamin and Williams-Monroe, who have children in the club, light up when they talk about coaching. “We’re committed,” Williams-Monroe says. “We just love what we do.” Apparently, so do other parents. They bring their kids from up and down the shoreline to run with NHAGTC. “People hear about our club, and they hear about our history, and they want [to be] a part of it,” Williams-Monroe says.

At the end of practice, kids collect their backpacks and water bottles and move toward the exit, but there’s one last event. Williams-Monroe gathers the athletes in a circle, where they offer shoutouts to other kids for pushing them to work harder or doing a great job in practice that day. Senior Alexis stands between two little boys only as tall as her waist. The kids in the circle reach their arms around one another.

Like a family.

New Haven Age Group Track Club
nhagtc1@gmail.com
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Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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