On July 7 USATF announced that three groups would be receiving the first Challenge Grants awarded by the federation. See the DtB story on the announcement HERE. The Challenge Grant program provides up to $50,000 to help advance the USATF Strategic Plan by enhancing excellence within the sport.
Team USA MN's Pat Goodwin said that when the program was announced in April of last year, the group had already been thinking of ideas that might fit such a grant program. About the time of the call for proposals for the grants, the group's board was having a regular meeting and part of that meeting became a brainstorming session on what Team USA MN could do that would fit into the Challenge Grant program.
The idea the group came up with--a dual track education program consisting of a web site and a "camp" that would focus on communicating information about how to transition from school sports teams to professional running--was born out of the experiences of Team USA MN personnel. "They have camps for basketball and football players," said Goodwin. "Why don't they have them for runners?"
College athletes, their parents, even their coaches often don't have the information on how to make that jump from high school and college athletics to being a professional runner. The web site will be designed to be an online resource for these athletes, and the camp will be a way to gather experts to impart their knowledge to some of the athletes trying to make the transition.
A lot of athletes who have talent often aren't thinking beyond college athletics, says Goodwin. Their thoughts are more directed toward seeking a career in the field in which they got their degrees or were the focus of their education. "If they aren't at the top of the heap," Goodwin Says. "Many athletes aren't aware of the opportunities that are out there. That it is possible to make a living in the sport."
An athlete, such as Team USA MN's Antonio Vega, for example, had to be convinced to give life as a pro runner a try after graduating from the University of Minnesota. Vega was all set to get an advanced degree and pursue a "real world" career before the Team USA MN people met with him and presented the options. Parents and coaches are similarly unaware of the opportunities with the most common question being: "How can my child/athlete make a living doing this?"
One way, notes Goodwin, is by taking part in programs, such as the one that will be created using this grant. Team USA MN team members with the web skills, experience as professional athletes, and knowledge to convey will be the paid staff who form the backbone of these educational efforts. "It's a win, win situation for us," Goodwin says. It's a way for team members to impart their knowledge and use their skills and make some money doing it, she says.
Putting together the program is not as simple as it may sound. There are NCAA regulations that have to be followed regarding student athletes. The program had to fit in with the strategic goals of USATF, and for it to be successful, it has to be more than a recruiting tool or feel good session on the sport.
What Goodwin and the heads of other US training groups have experienced is that there are a few groups that generally pursue a small group of athletes coming out of college who want to try a running career. The challenge for this program is to increase the number of athletes in that pool. By doing that it will increase the number of US athletes given a chance to develop their talents, and, in so doing, hopefully increase the depth in US distance running.
The concept of the developmental teams, such as Team USA MN, was to do this, and now, ten years into the program the results have been noticeable. Olympic and World Championship medals, wins at major road races, and increased depth in the ranks of US distance runners at or near the top of their events. With the new programs supported by this grant, the hope is that the momentum created with the teams will continue as new talent is infused into a system that is already working to revitalize the sport in the US.