The four young hurdlers took their places at the starting block, all business, eyes trained ahead. Set in motion by a pop of the starting gun, the girls turned into a blur of arms and legs pumping furiously — and came back into focus for only a few milliseconds at a time as they sailed over a white rail.
They were among more than 600 children from across the region who gathered Saturday at Spingarn High School in Northeast to compete in the fifth annual Tommie Smith Youth Track Meet, sponsored by the 100 Black Men of Greater Washington, DC, a volunteer organization devoted to improving the quality of life for African Americans.
The event, which is meant for children ages 5 to 18, is aimed at fighting childhood obesity, which in recent decades has led to soaring rates of childhood diabetes and other serious health problems.
“Anybody can throw a track meet,” said Eric Evans, vice president of operations for 100 Black Men. “It’s about family wellness. The important thing is teaching the value of healthy eating and exercise.”
Evans said the meet, named after Olympic track-and-field gold medalist Tommie Smith, is part of a year-long effort to educate children about making healthy choices. The group also works with students at Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science twice a week during lunchtime.
For adults at the meet, a health fair provided pointers about good nutrition. The fair also offered testing for diabetes, cholesterol levels and HIV.
The meet and the health fair have become so popular, drawing bigger crowds each year, that they may be spread over two days next year, Evans said.
On Saturday, more than 1,000 people filled the bleachers at Spingarn, which hosted the meet for the third and possibly final time. The school, long famous as a basketball powerhouse, is slated to close later this year. D.C. school officials have said it may be converted into a vocational school with a focus on transportation careers. The city plans to build a maintenance facility there for the long-delayed H Street/Benning Road streetcar line. The tracks were laid in 2011, but the first three cars arrived just last week for testing.
Organizers said that it was unclear whether they would be allowed to return. There are two other schools near Spingarn — Phelps Architecture, Construction, and Engineering High School and Browne Education Center — that are not closing.
Spingarn, the meet’s organizers said, is one of the few tracks in the District large enough to accommodate such a large event. It has double long-jump pits and nine lanes that came in handy when staging the 100-meter dash with 500 kids.
If the Tommie Smith Youth Track Meet does not return to Spingarn, it will be the second time the event has been displaced. It was held at Dunbar Senior High School until that school was closed for renovations.
“Our goal is to find an open D.C. school,” Evans said.
Finding facilities to train in has also become a challenge for the area’s track-and-field clubs, which must make arrangements with individual schools.
“More and more, they refuse us access,” said Charles Young, a coach for the five-year-old club D.C. Speed, in part because the group is competing with other club sports.
D.C. Speed had been training at Coolidge and Eastern Senior high schools, but both have become crowded, Young said. When weather prevents outdoor practice, they trek to Prince George’s County for the nearest indoor facilities.
The shortage of facilities comes as track and field is having something of a renaissance among youths in the District, Young said.
D.C. Speed is the city’s first track-and-field club in many years, Young said. It has about 120 kids ages 6 to 18 and draws from all across the District and through recreation centers. The club has won support from the likes of Nike, Modell’s Sporting Goods and Powerade.
The Department of Parks and Recreation began promoting track and field more aggressively after seeing athletic programs disappearing at city schools. It recently hired Kristin Hart, a former high school coach from Florida, to boost participation.
Hart was there Saturday to cheer on the kids and drum up interest in the David Oliver Track Classic, another youth track-and-field meet scheduled to take place in June at H.D. Woodson High School.
But the D.C. Speed kids were not thinking about that meet Saturday. The Tommie Smith meet marked the start of their summer season. The team is not up to full strength. With middle school and high school still in session, the older athletes were still competing with their school teams. Spingarn’s own team was not at the meet, having run the Penn Relays a week earlier. The citywide championships are also scheduled for next week.
So the stage was left open for the younger competitors, some as young as 3 who took to the track for a “fun run.” The D.C. Speed parents in the bleachers got on their feet as 4-year-old Nathan crossed the finish line. And kept going, all the way into the health fair tent.
“Look at Nathan! Look at him!” Young yelled. “Yeah! He kept running.”