By Amanda Ruehlen
UNC Web Editor
the Durham VOICE
When Frank Davis created the Durham Striders in 1975, it was a team of 15 runners with mismatched uniforms and served as a track club for his daughters and their friends.
Thirty-six years later, it has grown into an organization with more than 300 athletes and 20 volunteer staff members, and boasts alumni who have become Olympic medalists, NFL players and a finalist for the Miss America pageant.
“When we first started it, we thought it was just going to be a little track club, and we would just go out there and try to beat people,” said Striders head coach Davis.
The Durham Striders is a track and field training program for children ages 5 to 18 years old and attracts members from all parts of Durham. The season begins in March, but the team has already started conditioning practices.
Once the program started growing, Davis said he realized he had not only a captive audience, but also the opportunity to make a difference.
Davis, who ran track while in the Air Force in the late 1960s, said his program is different than other track clubs. It teaches much more than running, he said.
“We concentrate on academics, conduct and wellness,” he said.
One of the first things Davis did when he started the Striders was recruit another volunteer, Dr. Brenda Armstrong, a pediatric cardiologist at Duke University Medical Center.
Armstrong conducted free physicals for the Striders, and started keeping data on the athletes’ health. She said many were in the 97th percentile for blood pressure, and she soon realized that some families did not know much about a healthy diet.
Known as “Coach Doc,” Armstrong started requiring that Striders and their families start eating right – less salt, sugar and fast food – and even took the parents’ blood pressure. She made sample menus for parents to learn how to prepare easy and inexpensive healthy meals. By the end of the season, Armstrong said, almost everyone’s blood pressure has normalized.
Over the years, she has seen the parents and entire families adapt to the lifestyle change. During practice, a group of parents walk or run together on a trail outside Southern High School.
She encourages the kids to go to the grocery store with their parents and pick out the foods they know they can eat.
“It’s a form of empowering kids to have them take over their nutritional health,” she said.
Many parents said the Striders has taught their kids how to set and reach a goal.
Takashia Penny said she has seen a difference in her daughters, 5-year-old Alexa and 8-year-old Akoya, who both run for the club.
Penny credited some of Akoya’s recent courage to running with the Striders, saying that although her daughter was usually shy, she was not scared to try out for choir or to participate in a talent show.
“She changed her focus because she was a Strider,” Penny said.
Armstrong said that the wide age range in the club helps the older members to develop leadership skills and self-esteem. The older members often lead warm-ups for the younger kids, and the younger ones strive to have the same success as the older ones, she said.
No matter how good, an athlete cannot get a scholarship without having the grades, Davis said.
The students are required to show the coaches their report cards each grading quarter. Armstrong said 98 percent of the team is on the A/B honor roll. She said the kids know that if they make a C or lower, they would have to miss out on practice.
The club also helps tutor for the SAT or other subjects when students need it. Davis, a retired electrical engineer for IBM, does some of the math tutoring himself.
In addition to the athletic achievements many Striders have accomplished after high school, there is a comparable list for academic scholarships and achievements. Striders alumni have become a physics professor, a mechanical engineering professor and even a space shuttle engineer.
“A lot of these kids wouldn’t have been able to go to college,” Davis said. “Some of the neighborhoods they come from, they wouldn’t be prepared properly to go [to college]. I look back on stories of kids that probably wouldn’t have made it if it hadn’t been for this program.”
The program asks for a $50 tuition for each season, but Davis said no one is turned away and scholarships are provided for the roughly 25 percent who can’t afford it.
The Striders have fundraisers, apply to grants and host an international meet each summer to help fund things like equipment and travel expenses for competitions.
But the exposure is about more than a potential athletic scholarship to college, she said.
“Kids see a life outside Durham, and that there are things outside Durham,” Armstrong said, adding that all but one on the trip to Sacramento had never been on an airplane.
Kellee Dillard Watkins, who ran with the Striders from age 7 to 18 in the 1980s, said she sees the impact the Striders have had on the entire community.
“We knew college was an opportunity for all of us,” she said. “We learned skills outside of track, how to communicate with people and how to reach back and help people.”
“It’s been 30 years of watching kids reach their potential,” Armstrong said. “There is nothing better than to have kids come back and say, ‘You believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.’”