Encouraging Health and Happiness

Kids find their fit in sports, not competition

It used to be that kids accustomed to playing video games or hanging out on street corners after school had few enticements to get involved in physical activities. But that is changing around Seattle as a number of programs concentrate on sports that are more inclusive and less competitive.

AT 14 YEARS old, Nik Vasquez had never hiked up a mountain, strapped on a pair of skis or scaled a climbing wall.

He spent his afternoons bumming around with friends in his Seattle neighborhood and paid scant attention in classes at Cleveland High School. That all changed when a leader from the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department’s Outdoor Opportunities program showed up at his school. If Vasquez joined, they told him, he could learn how to snowboard, camp and explore the Northwest outdoors — all for free.

Vasquez’s family, who were from Los Angeles and had never stepped foot into the wilderness, had their doubts. They were, as Vasquez says, “in love with the pavement.” His mother worried about him heading off to the mountains with a bunch of strangers.

But after an initial snowshoe trip to Mount Rainier, Vasquez wasn’t turning back. He’d never seen so much snow in his life. He felt elated.

“It was a whole new world,” Vasquez says. “I loved the feeling of being out there with no walls. The freedom.”

Today, at age 19, Vasquez works building trails for the U.S. Forest Service in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. It’s the hardest work he’s ever done, and he’s never been happier. When not on the job, Vasquez snowboards, backpacks and climbs mountains. He says it’s all because of Outdoor Opportunities, called O2 for short.

“O2 completely changed my life,” Vasquez says. “When I first joined, I was getting into a lot of trouble. O2 made me want to do well in school, so I could earn the privilege of going outdoors.”

It used to be that kids like Vasquez — kids accustomed to playing video games or hanging out on street corners after school — had few enticements to get involved in physical activities. But that is changing around here as a number of programs have begun concentrating on sports that are more inclusive and less competitive.

So instead of stepping up to home plate, kids are rowing pint-size kinder shells through the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

Rather than tossing a football, they’re playing Saturday-morning bike polo on bicycles they’ve fixed up with their own hands.

And lots of girls are simply running all over town.

These kids can row, run, climb, hike and ride without concern for traditional sports-team rules or pecking orders. Even if they’ve been picked last for every P.E.-class game and can’t catch a fly ball to save their lives, they can excel in these novel environments.

In this anybody-can-play spirit, the kids are coming from all over to find their fit. They are Latinos from White Center, upper-middle-class white kids from Queen Anne, and newly arrived immigrants from Somalia and Sierra Leone.

The programs are as diverse as the kids who frequent them. Near the Ballard Bridge, the brand new Seattle Rowing Center puts elementary-school kids in special-sized sculls from Germany. All around the Puget Sound area, Girls on the Run groups practice twice a week and prepare elementary-school girls to complete a Seward Park 5K. In Columbia City, Bike Works teaches young people how to build and repair bicycles, takes them for group rides, and holds regular bike polo games.

The citywide O2 program, financed with taxpayer dollars and grants, has been at it the longest, having started two decades ago.

“Our goal is to serve populations who don’t have these opportunities otherwise,” says Matt Axling, an O2 coordinator. Of the 300 kids who participate in O2’s programs each year, 85 percent are minorities. Many can’t afford to pay for outdoor recreation.

No surprise, then, that a number of O2’s members are experiencing outdoor recreation for the very first time. Iliana Alfaro, a Ballard High School 10th-grader, recalled that before O2, she’d typically spend her afternoons sitting at home eating chips. She never imagined that she could rock climb or hike up a mountain.

Ditto for Ale Rivera, a 16-year-old Ballard High School student. “I’m usually not the type to do something outside, and I’m scared of heights,” Rivera says. “But here I am, about to go rock climbing.”

Kids can also choose to join in regularly scheduled service projects, such as building a ropes course at Camp Long, volunteering at Seattle Center’s Children’s Festival and rehabilitating local trails and beaches. The time spent on such projects can be used to fulfill Seattle Public Schools’ requirement to do 60 hours of service in the community.

Many of O2’s veterans say the program shaped who they are today. Ingraham High School student Abdigani Mohamud, who spent his early years in Kenya, had never slept in a tent or paddled a kayak. After three years with O2, he hopes to teach his outdoor skills to his friends, parents and young siblings. He’s already been passing on his veteran’s wisdom to O2 newcomers.

O2, he says, “made me a leader.”

WHEN CAROL Nagy takes her young rowers out on the water, the Seattle Rowing Center co-owner and coach doesn’t line them up for race pieces or endurance rows.

Instead, Nagy and her small fleet of single sculls take on creative challenges. One afternoon, they might row to the Ballard Locks and watch the ships going in and out. Another day, they’ll count the windows on the waterway’s houseboats.

When teaching kids as young as 7 years old, traditional rowing drills don’t suffice. Nagy must adapt to short attention spans, incessant curiosity and the desire to turn sport into a game. Above all, Nagy tries to make rowing enjoyable.

“They want to go out and play,” Nagy says. “It’s supposed to be fun.”

Seattle Rowing Center, which opened last fall, is the first boathouse in the city to teach elementary-school-age children how to scull in small boats. In most of the U.S. — and the Puget Sound area as well — kids don’t learn how to row until middle school. When they do step into a shell, it’s typically a large eight- or four-man sweep boat, where each rower holds one oar.

Nagy and Seattle Rowing Center co-founder Conal Groom wanted to create a new approach. They looked to Europe, where children take up rowing early on and do so in technical, tippy single sculls. As a result, young Europeans typically dominate in competitive small-boat sculling events. American rowers scramble to play catchup.

As a solution, Nagy and Groom created Seattle Rowing Center. Nagy teaches elementary-school children, and Groom coaches high-school and elite-level rowers. The program purchased special “kinder” shells and oars from Germany, enabling even a 70-pound child to row in a boat built for his or her stature.

Nagy and Groom have been discovering both the challenges and advantages of taking on young children as their pupils. While an 8-year-old lacks the attention span of a high-school student or adult rower, the youngsters also are at an age where they can pick up new skills and body movements rapidly. And while an older novice might fear flipping a tippy single, kids have no qualms about going for a dip in the lake.

“Kids don’t over-think it,” Groom says. “They aren’t afraid of limits. They don’t believe in limits.”

Seattle Rowing Center is just beginning to build its youth programs, but Nagy and Groom are confident that numbers will grow. Days are gradually becoming warmer and lighter, and the center will offer youth camps this summer.

Nagy figures a good 1,500 third- to fifth-graders live within a 10-minute drive of the boathouse, and many of these Queen Anne, Magnolia and Ballard parents are willing to spend money on an activity like rowing. Right now, Nagy’s 10 young students come from elementary schools as far away as Mill Creek, Tacoma and Bellevue.

Groom and Nagy hope that the kids fall in love with rowing much in the way they did years ago. On one windy day not long ago, Nagy showed her kids a video of a 2,000-meter Olympic rowing race. One 11-year-old asked, “How far is that?” Nagy told him it was about as far as the span between the Ballard Bridge and Fremont Bridge. “How often do they get to stop?” he asked in awe.

Nagy told him that they kept rowing the entire time. One day, she said, he’d be able to do the same.

ON A DRIZZLY Seattle afternoon, 10 girls are running, jogging, skipping and walking around a concrete pathway bordering the Loyal Heights Elementary School playfield.

After each lap, they select a bead from a plastic bag. Then, the girls add a comment to a notebook with the header question, “What Makes You Unique?” The answers: “I am healthy.” “I help others.” “I am creative.” “I am energetic.” After writing in the book, they take off again to run another lap.

This is Girls on the Run, where girls in third through fifth grade build both their endurance and their self-esteem. The nationwide program, which can now be found in 171 cities, has more than 80,000 participants.

In the Puget Sound area, 400 girls at 60 school sites are participating in the 10-week spring session. Twice a week after school, the students meet with their coaches to tackle topics such as bullying, nutrition, gratitude and friendship. After the lesson, they run laps.

At the end of the 10 weeks, all of the girls complete a 5K at Seward Park. The running event features no clocks or competitions. At Girls on the Run, all that matters is crossing the finish line, and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Girls can hop, skip or walk the 3.1 miles — just so long as they keep moving. Each finisher receives a medal. Some laugh, some cheer, and some are so happy they cry.

Girls on the Run aims to introduce young girls to exercise in a nonthreatening, noncompetitive environment. Hopeless in P.E. class? Doesn’t matter here. Unable to jog for more than a minute? Also OK. Girls on the Run wants girls to learn how to love exercise, regardless of what condition they’re in. And while the 10-week session costs $150, the program offers scholarships.

“We never turn a girl away,” says Kerin Brasch, executive director of Girls on the Run of Puget Sound.

At the end of running practice at Loyal Heights, some girls had jogged more than a mile. Others walked just a few laps. Regardless of the number of beads in their pockets, they all headed together to the gym for final cheers. They chanted with glee: “Girls on the Run is so much fun!”

IN A FORMER cobbler shop in Columbia City, self-proclaimed misfits tinker with bicycles.

They’ve shown up at the Bike Works shop to learn how to fix aging bicycles, attend group bike rides, play rousing matches of bike polo, and together explore the streets and paths of Seattle.

Bike Works introduces young people ages 9 to 17 to the freedom that comes on a bike. Some show up at the nonprofit never having pedaled a bicycle in their lives. Others know how to ride but sign up for Earn a Bike Class, where they spend 18 hours learning about and fixing up bikes in order to earn their own recycled cycle.

During after-school drop-in shop sessions, about 15 or 20 kids typically show up. They check out a blackboard where the day’s tasks are written. “Trek: air, fix tires, lube chain, adjust brakes and gears.” “Specialized Hotrock: air, fix tires, lube chain, hub, shifting.” Each kid claims a job and sets out to work on a used bike.

“We give them as much leadership as possible,” says Tina Bechler, Bike Works program director. “They can own it.”

Unlike a traditional classroom, the Bike Works shop doesn’t separate kids by age. A 12-year-old with a couple of years of repair expertise might be mentoring a 17-year-old novice. Similarly, rankings and achievements that matter at school hold little weight at Bike Works. The same students who finish last on the high-school track and struggle in algebra class can often find their niche at Bike Works.

“People who are successful here are often the misfits,” Bechler says. “They don’t do sports, don’t feel comfortable at Boy Scouts, but find this place filled with weirdos totally fits them.”

Bike Works also welcomes those with no mechanical aptitude. Kids who don’t take to tinkering can join Bike Works’ rides instead, which include local after-school jaunts and summertime bike tours around Washington. Many of the urban kids who show up at Bike Works are discovering the joy of two wheels for the first time. On a recent ride with 10 fourth-graders, three had never sat on a bike.

Bike Works gives out scholarships for both the mechanic programs and the group rides and tours. Most of the kids come from Columbia City, the Central District and the Rainier Valley, and many can’t afford traditional after-school sports. Bike Works doesn’t discriminate.

Bechler hopes that Bike Works can show kids how the bicycle can become a vehicle for exploring the world. Many of her students have never biked to Seward Park, let alone spent a week cycling the San Juan Islands and camping out.

Once a Bike Works kid discovers the joy of the bicycle, they’re apt to pass it on. At a recent drop-in shop session, a 10-year-old boy named Max led his 4-year-old sister, Eva, to a small pink bicycle. Having just completed his 18 hours of bike repair, Max could pick out a bike of his own. Instead, he’d decided to earn one for Eva.

“It’s right before her birthday,” Max explained. “And I already have a bike.”

With help from her brother, Eva climbed on the pink bicycle and rang its bell with glee. “Thank you, Max!” she said, grinning ear to ear.

“You’re welcome,” Max replied, his own smile just as big.

Heidi Dietrich is a writer and editor of Edmonds Patch.

To learn more about the programs featured in today’s story:

Girls on the Run

http://www.girlsrun.org/

Kerin Brasch, executive director

kerin@girlsrun.org; 206-528-2118

8757 15th Ave. N.W., Seattle

Outdoor Opportunities (O2)

http://www.seattle.gov/parks/teens/o2/

Matt Axling, O2 coordinator

matt.axling@seattle.gov; 206-390-1018

Seattle Rowing Center

http://seattlerowingcenter.com/

Carol Nagy, co-owner and coach

info@seattlerowingcenter.com; 206-216-2255

1116 West Ewing St., Seattle

Bike Works

http://www.bikeworks.org/Tina Bechler, program director

programs@bikeworks.org; 206-725-9408

3709 S. Ferdinand St., Seattle

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