“That skort is a miracle worker,” said Phillips, who will be wearing one when the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association outdoor championships conclude Thursday.
Dunbar Coach Marvin Parker came up with the idea for the skorts after a meet last winter. While sitting near the starting line for the 55-meter dash at Prince George’s Sports & Learning Complex in Landover, he watched a girl false start and then walk away in tears. A few boys had been standing behind her while waiting for their race and they had been pointing and making crude remarks.
“The young lady got down in the blocks, the starter said ‘set’ and she intentionally stepped off. It wasn’t even close,” said Parker, who has led the Crimson Tide to a combined 28 cross-country and track titles in his half-dozen years as coach at the Northwest school.
“I started paying attention for the rest of the meet and a lot of the girls were uncomfortable with bending over. I decided that we’ve got to do something different for girls.”
Meets can last eight hours or more and most runners only see a few minutes of time on the track. A girl false starting on purpose after waiting all day, Parker says, illustrates how exposed uniforms can leave high school-aged girls who often are already feeling insecure about the bodies they are still growing into.
“I feel self-conscious a lot,” junior Imani Reeves says. “The skort uniform is great because it actually covers everything up.”
Most track uniforms for girls — which can range from loose-fitting shorts to briefs (or spankies) to spandex of various length — leave little to the imagination. Girls are often tugging at clingy tops and bottoms. Parker could have had his athletes wear a pair of biking spandex with loose shorts over top, but he wanted something different.
He turned on the television days after the incident in Landover and watched a special on tennis great Althea Gibson. He enjoyed watching the old footage of the first black woman to compete on the world tennis tour putting away shots in her white skirt. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, Parker thought, if the girls from the country’s first black high school could compete in track in that skirt? He’d already seen plenty of women jogging in skorts, but running and racing are two different things.
“When our girls are racing, they are shaking and pounding that body and everything’s on blast,” says Dunbar team administrator Samantha Hayes, herself a former coach and athlete. “We’re coming out there with a different body. It’s like the Serena and Venus Williams of track out there.”
Parker asked Buddy Crutchfield, the owner of Rockville-based LightningFitnessWear who has made many of Dunbar’s uniforms, to design the skort. He wanted something long enough to provide a modest cover, but short enough not to constrict movement. The Crimson Tide Alumni Federation paid most of the $1,500 price tag for 30 uniforms. Parents also helped raise funds and the girls on the team sold snacks during school lunch periods and hand-made teddy bear and heart baskets for Valentine’s Day. Parker, the 47-year-old dean of students at Dunbar, says he’s seen only one other athlete from another school, a hammer thrower, in a skort. When Dunbar went to Philadelphia in April for Penn Relays, the largest track meet in the world, he didn’t see another team wearing skorts.
“I told the girls it’s great to be first,” Parker said. “Everywhere we’ve worn them we’ve gotten nothing but compliments. The girls thought it was a little weird at first, but then they thought it was cute, as they say.”
Confidence, like in every sport, is an important quality for success on the track. Phillips says it’s spiked for her and her teammates since they started wearing their new uniforms. Not only have they gotten a boost in performance, she says, but also in how they feel about themselves.
“You look good, you run good,” Phillips, a co-captain, said. “It makes you feel different when you’re out on the track, like no one can come get you.”
Added teammate Manaiza Kelley: “I feel classy in it. I feel like a woman.”