The Inside Track 12

Zootown’s youth runs, jumps and throws with MYTC

If you take a walk at Playfair Park on a Monday or Wednesday in May at 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., you’ll notice a hullabaloo echoing from the direction of the Sentinel High School track. As you walk closer, the racket will get louder and louder and you’ll see a splurge of color—hundreds of kids wearing different hues of the Missoula Youth Track Club t-shirt—running and throwing and jumping inside the oval.

A boy in orange sprints down the runway and launches himself into the sand. Kids in yellow and blue and green take turns jumping onto the deep cushion of the high jump mat. They flop onto their backs and bounce their way off. Six- and seven-year-olds with shirts to their knees are jumping over hurdles that would scarcely reach to your shins (a good obstacle for a Jack Russell Terrier). A multi-colored menagerie of seventh- and eighth-graders play a raucous game of tag in the middle of the field full children screaming and laughing and covered in grass stains.

Everywhere, there are the red shirts of older kids—the high schoolers—who run, jump, and throw along with the smaller kids. If you watch long enough, you’ll notice that the younger kids are listening to the high schoolers—emulating them—and the high schoolers, in turn, are teaching and leading, stretching the bounds of their self-confidence. A horn sounds and everyone rotates, moving to the next station for twenty minutes. This goes on for an hour—an hour of six hundred kids moving and laughing and having a blast.

This is an MYTC practice. It’s exactly what Mary Thane envisioned track to be in Missoula 17 years ago, when her oldest daughter was in kindergarten and the after-school activities for her were limited to soccer, softball and swimming, among a few others to choose from. None of them quite fit what Mary was looking for. She wanted something “that didn’t involve weekends, didn’t need uniforms, and was as low cost and fun as possible.”

Mary knew the activity she wanted her daughter to try—track and field—but Missoula didn’t have a youth team. She considered starting one herself, so she told other parents about the idea and then she convened a meeting. Thirteen enthusiastic volunteers showed up and the Missoula Youth Track Club was born.

Growing up, Mary had participated in a youth track program in Kalispell that was coached by the Flathead Community College women’s track team. By the time she reached high school, the coaching had been passed on to the high schoolers and she had the opportunity to be a coach. She loved the experience enough not to forget it.

When it came time to starting her own track club, Mary knew that she needed passionate parents, volunteering hundreds of hours each year to hold the group together. Karen Umbaugh, a math teacher at Sentinel, volunteered to recruit high schoolers, Wilma Tabaracci said she would run the track meets, and Craig Birgenheier agreed to handle the finances.

“OK, we’ll try bare bones, let’s hope for 50 kids to show up,” Mary recalled. “Well, we had 150 kids and 50 high school coaches that first year!”

The club has only grown and flourished since then.

Building Leaders

From the beginning, MYTC has been about more than just track. Track has been the vehicle used to bring everyone together—to be active, have fun and form relationships.  As Karen acknowledges, MYTC is “more about the relationships than the actual track.”

Mary and Karen agreed that one of the strongest relationships formed, and the one they are most proud of, is the relationship between the participants and high school coaches.

“[MYTC] gives high schoolers a chance to be leaders,” Mary said. “Sometimes it’s the first time that they’ve ever been able to say, ‘Oh, you’re not telling us what to do?’ They have to figure out how to control the little kids. They have to figure out how to teach the hurdles, for example.”

Karen has had the opportunity to see many of the coaches both in her classroom at Sentinel and on the track, and she’s noticed that for many of her students their MYTC experience “makes them grow up.”

She added, “It’s good to see high schoolers shine in something outside the classroom. You see a different side of them.”

Jake Laskin, an MYTC coach for two years before taking on more responsibility with the club, recalled that the biggest skill he learned was adaptability.

“You come in with a plan but you have so many kids, all with different skills. You learn to adapt the practices to the kids’ abilities and make it fun for them,” he said.

MYTC gives high schoolers who have no background in competitive track or competitive sports the opportunity to be coaches. Every year, the Griz track team puts on a clinic for the MYTC coaches.

As Jake explained, “A wider spectrum of high schoolers are able to be coaches. The emphasis is on recreation instead of competition.”

That focus on recreation, on being active, has been one of Mary’s goals from the beginning. As a physical therapist for Community Medical Center, she shared how rewarding it is to “see little kids and high schoolers being active, especially with this childhood obesity problem. Seventh grade is when kids typically drop out of sports, but [with MYTC] now they’re being active again and realizing, ‘Wow, this is fun.’”

At every practice, coaches are encouraged to be inclusive.

“We tell the coaches,” said Mary, “we want every kid to leave with a good feeling that day. It might not be about track but they could notice that ‘Oh, Sarah, you listened well today.’”

It’s this fun, active, inclusive environment that’s helped MYTC to shine for the last 17 years and as the founders hand over the reigns to young, adept parents and volunteers, there’s no doubt that the club will thrive long into the future.