At age 5, Westley Polston outran the other kids at the playground. Today, at 12, he's a Junior Olympic gold medalist in the 400-meter race and working to defend his title as first in the state for the 55-meter, 100-meter and 200-meter dashes.
Westley, a sixth-grader at Mount Royal Elementary/Middle School, is one of the current success stories of the Baltimore City Track & Field Club, which for more than 30 years has produced top-notch runners.
Every year, about 150 kids ages 7 through 18 participate, improving their track-and-field skills through training four afternoons a week with some of the city's top coaches. They travel to regional and national competitions, winning medals and breaking records.
And approximately 75 percent of students who stick with the program through high school earn full academic or athletic scholarships to college, according to program coordinator Ali Danois.
The club, run by the Department of Recreation and Parks and subsidized by the city, offers training year-round, though summer is the biggest draw, Danois said.
The workouts are intense. Students warm up and run drills together, Danois explained, and then split up for specific training in sprinting and distance running.
"It's not what I would call recreational," Danois said. "We want to have fun, but we also want to win."
For years, the club has maintained a simple coaching philosophy: "The attention that you pay to details and form really helps kids develop into good runners," said Freddie Hendricks, who coached with the club for 19 years and at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School for 32 years before retiring last year.
At a recent practice at Carver High School, volunteer coach Ramon Durant stressed the basics while students ran 100-meter trials: "Do not forget how you run - remember to swing your arms and lift your feet. ... Stay in your lane. ... Keep your head up so you can hear the starter cue."
Some participants "come from some pretty rough economic circumstances," Danois said. "Some kids, their parents are there every day. Some kids, we never see the parents, and later we might hear they're on the streets."
So, Durant and other coaches help the children apply the same skills they learn in track - such as concentration and working hard - to their lives. Coaches visit the kids at school to check on them, or periodically review report cards.
The results are impressive. Last summer, 85 students in the club traveled to the Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympic Games in Des Moines, Iowa. They returned with 35 medals, including a gold in the young men's 4-by-800 relay, a silver in the women's 4-by-800 relay for 15- and 16-year-olds, and a bronze in the women's 4-by-100 relay for 15- and 16-year-olds.
Individual medalists, besides Westley, were Mervo High School senior Julius Coleman, who took gold in the young men's 800 meters and a bronze in the 1,500 meters; and Western High School junior Theresa Lewis, who won a silver and broke the national record in the women's 100-meter hurdles for 15- and 16-year-olds. Lewis is considered one of the premier hurdlers in the country, and plans to train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs this summer.
The club's beginnings
The late Ralph Durant, Ramon's father and a longtime employee of the parks department, started the Edward L. Waters Track and Field Alliance Club in 1970, named for a former coach and mentor at the Easterwood Recreation Center. The organization was later renamed the Baltimore City Track & Field Club.
The Ed Waters club started with about 25 to 30 children. One of its early participants was Cliff Wiley, a Douglass High School graduate who qualified for the 200-meter race with the 1980 Olympic team. But the American boycott of the Moscow games prevented him from competing. Today, he's an attorney with a practice in Lawrence, Kan.
In the early days, Wiley said, club members would pile into Durant's Toyota Corolla to travel to competitions: "He'd dump as many kids as would fit in there. I look back now and it's pretty hilarious, but it got us to the meets."
Durant expanded the program and recruited coaches with winning records, like Hendricks, Gene Hoffman of Archbishop Curley High School and Jerry Molyneaux of Western High School.
When Durant asked him to participate, Hoffman was already coaching at Archbishop Curley and Essex Community College and didn't want to get involved. But Durant kept pushing, and finally Hoffman agreed to come to a practice.
"So I get there, and it's 102 degrees that day," he recalled, "and I look down and there are 120 kids in sweats on the track ready to go. That right off the bat sold me on the program. These kids really want to do this."
Having a city-run track club that competed regularly at a national level was unusual.