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3/07/2024 by Barbara Huebner

What is Atlanta Track Club’s Impact on Youth? Ask James' Mom

After spending his first 18 months in an orphanage in China, James joined his new family in America unable to walk or even crawl. He began catching up on his skills after his adoptive parents got him involved in gymnastics through Alpharetta's Recreation, Parks & Cultural Services, but last year he told them he wanted to try something new.

That's when they discovered Atlanta Track Club's Kilometer Kids program. The 8-year-old - who has auditory and visual processing issues - puts a child's smiling face on the Club's recently released 2023 Youth Impact Report.

"He could not be happier," his mom said. "He loves it."

Almost 60 years after the newly founded Club hosted a high school awards banquet as its first event, young people remain a focus of the Club's mission to make Atlanta healthier through running and walking. According to the report, the Club last year served more than 19,000 young runners across its youth programs, including a Youth Team, Atlanta Public Schools Partnership, Wingfoot Night of Champions, Wingfoot XC Classic, Wingfoot Running Camp and All-Metro Awards Banquets, and events highlighted by the Microsoft Peachtree Junior, Publix Atlanta Kids Marathon, and free Midweek Mile & Dash series.

"Atlanta Track Club wants to have programming for everyone, and we don't mean this as a platitude," said Eric Heintz, the Club's director of performance programming. "Whether you're an 8-year-old like James taking your first steps into the sport or the best in state of Georgia trying to get to the next level, we want to have the teams, events and experiences to support every young athlete on their journey. If we didn't, we wouldn't be inspiring the next generation, and we certainly wouldn't be serving our mission."

Tommy Latham winning the 2023 Wingfoot XC Classic presented by Publix

Among the best in the state of Georgia is Tommy Latham, a junior at Marist School and a two-time GHSA 6A state cross country champion. Latham also won last fall's Wingfoot XC Classic, and in December was named the boys' All-Metro Cross Country Runner of the Year for the second time.

"I've seen a bunch of runners come through and I watched this banquet all the time I was in middle school," he said after accepting the award, citing it as a goal he set for himself early on. In the report itself, he is quoted as saying the Wingfoot XC Classic was one of his first races, which "showed me what the sport of running could be and how fun it was to compete."

Among the Club's youth programs, the largest is Kilometer Kids, which in 2023 served 4,661 children - up from 1,538 in 2021, a three-fold increase. A free, game-based program, Kilometer Kids is designed to teach children in grades K-5 about goal setting, healthy habits, respect and community building. Over the course of the 10-week season, the kids chase their goal of running either 13.1 or 26.2 miles, the latter the equivalent of a marathon.

Last season, James chose 13.1.

"He'd be so proud every time he got his QR code scanned" to record his distance for the day, said Lindsey Ann Burnett. "He couldn't wait for Wednesday afternoon to roll around."

James running at a Kilometer Kids practice.

By Thanksgiving, said Burnett, her son even asked to do a 1-Mile kids' turkey trot. He won.

"It's such a positive environment for him," she said of Kilometer Kids. "They teach him the skills, but they also really wanted to invest in him and his confidence. It really helped James to have someone cheering for him besides us." Among those cheering was Katira Abdolrazagh, who served as the main coach of the three-year-old Alpharetta program last year while Angel Cornista was on maternity leave.

"He never missed a class, and was always eager to learn," said Abdolrazagh, the City of Alpharetta's health, wellness and aquatics supervisor. "By the end of the season, he was one of the top runners. Plus, he found some friends."

He has also motivated his parents and two older siblings. "The program has been phenomenal for the entire family," said Burnett. "I've gotten back to running more; I told James 'If you're running this fast, I've got to be able to keep up with you.'"

Burnett said she has been able to use James' success in running to boost his confidence in tackling other challenges. When James thinks he won't be able to do something, she said, she'll remind him that he didn't think he'd be able to run 13.1 miles, either.

This season, James has doubled his goal distance, to 26.2 miles.

His mother reported: "He already ran plenty of extra laps in the first practice."