June 12, 2014: Nestlé Kids’ Athletics, Long before she became an Olympic champion or set 14 national records, Jenn Suhr remembers the first time she was asked to pole vault.
“I was like, ‘Oh no way. I’m not doing that. You’ve got to be crazy to do that,”” laughed the 32-year-old London 2012 Olympic Games winner. “I was scared of it.”
The American and some of her peers – 2008 Beijing Olympic teammate April Steiner Bennett, former New York state high school champion Janice Keppler, 2013 US junior champion Meghan Clark and Greece’s former World Youth champion Ekaterini Stefanidi – took to Herald Square, in front of the famous Macy’s flagship store and in the shadow of the Empire State Building in the heart of bustling Manhattan, to demystify the highest-soaring discipline in athletics on Wednesday (11).
They then teamed with some champion sprinters to also expose the next generation to elements of the sport and the benefits that could be gained from living a healthy lifestyle.
All five women, as well as Jamaica’s Yohan Blake, the 2011 IAAF World Championships 100m gold medallist, as well as the USA’s Maurice Greene, a four-time Olympic medalist and five-time World champion, took time to serve as coaches and mentors during a demonstration of IAAF / Nestlé Kids’ Athletics.
“Nestlé is proud to partner with the IAAF to put on an event that can help empower children to lead healthier lives, right here in New York City,” said Chavanne Hanson, Wellness Champion for Nestlé USA. “We were delighted to have with us world-renowned athletes who have encouraged and motivated our children to embrace an active lifestyle.”
The kids, from local schools in New York, were split into six teams and took part in a competition of about 50 minutes.
This series of activities – knee throwing, overhead throwing, sprint/shuttle hurdles relay, ladder running, forward squat jump , cross hop, and an eight-minute endurance run – covered the core skills of athletics, ‘run, jump, throw.’
“I think we should have more programs like we are doing today to show the kids a good time and teach them about what it takes to be in this sport because I believe they are the future,” commented an enthusiastic Blake. “To tell you the truth, we didn’t have anything like this when I was growing up. Right now, I am 24 and I started my own program in Jamaica to help kids get started and to develop them.”
For many of the children, it was an opportunity to participate in a sport that might not always be the popular choice, particularly in the US where team sports such as American football, basketball, soccer and baseball are the prime attractions.
“I encourage kids to just try it (athletics),” said Suhr. “It might not even be pole vault. It could be long jump. It could be another event. But you never know until you try so you’ve got to go out there and try new things.
Getting to interact with the kids, mostly aged 9 and 10, struck a particular chord with Stefanidi, who was herself standing in those same shoes not long ago and could see contrasts in how children are exposed to the sport in Europe, as opposed to the US.
“Every country is different,” said the 24-year-old Stefanidi, who is now based in the US.
“Europe is a lot more focused. I started vaulting when I was 10. I went to World Youths when I was 14 and to World Juniors when I was 17. I think what the US needs is something more like what Europe has, more focused coaches, specializing earlier. But then again, the US has something that Europe does not have in kids being able to try all of the events and figuring out what they are really good at.”
The beauty of athletics, according to Steiner Bennett, is that it can afford opportunities to children of all abilities and walks of life.
“You have all different shapes, sizes and talents in track and field,” she said. “Being such a diverse sport, it is a lot of fun for us to share it with people.”
Steiner Bennett, who is a physical education teacher and coach when not competing, was thrilled to see so many kids outside and moving, the opposite of which has contributed to the global childhood obesity epidemic.
“There is a very sedentary lifestyle right now,” the 34-year-old said.
“Kids are growing up in cement villages, literally in New York, but even in suburbia. Things are all fenced in and kids don’t go out in the streets to play because parents fear their kids are going to be kidnapped or something bad is going to happen. Letting the kids participate in something like this lights their fire. It’s fun. I love seeing them try all of these different activities. “
Blake agreed. “It is important to start them at a tender age and get them outside. Obesity is a problem and keeping their cholesterol down and them in shape is important. This will also help them grow, not only in track and field but in different sports as well.”
According to Greene, perhaps the most crucial message of the day was that physical activity is enjoyable.
“Of course it is important to get kids moving, but it was also a lot of fun,” said Greene. “The kids got introduced to the sport by some of its stars so it is a great thing to be involved with. The whole thing is that you want the kids to have fun doing it so that they can continue on with it.”
Universally, it seemed the children most enjoyed running the shuttle hurdles.
“The hurdles were what I was looking forward to most,” Zoe Maidemen, a 9-year-old from Brooklyn said. “I have a 7-year-old brother that I hurdle over all the time.”
Isaiah Thompson and his teammate Michael Alves both chose the hurdles as their favourite event because of the barriers themselves.
“We get to jump over them,” each said.
For Michael Rodriguez-King, a 9-year-old from Westchester, the hurdles were a welcomed change of pace.
“I normally run the 800m and 1500m,” he said. “The hurdles were new for me since I haven’t done them before. Maybe I will become a hurdler one day.”
According to Blake, that was the whole purpose of the day.
“I enjoyed encouraging the kids so when they left today, they are okay in thinking, ‘I want to do track and field. I want to do some kind of sport. I want to make it big,'” he said. “Coach (Glen) Mills taught me that when you put your first foot forward and you believe, anything is possible.”
IAAF / Nestlé Kids’ Athletics demonstration is one of the lead-in promotions to the adidas Grand Prix, the sixth leg of the 2014 IAAF Diamond League which takes place on Saturday 14 June in Icahn Stadium, Randall’s Island, New York.
IAAF Kids’ Athletics | Nestlé Healthy Kids, the flagship development project of the IAAF’s School / Youth program, is one of the biggest grassroots development programs in the world of sports.
The Nestlé Healthy Kids program aims to raise nutrition, health and wellness awareness and promote physical activity among school-aged children around the world. The program reached more than 6.9 million children in 68 countries in 2013.
Nestlé, which is the world’s leading nutrition, health and wellness company with 339,000 employees worldwide, became the main sponsor of Kids’ Athletics in January 2012 agreeing a five-year sponsorship with the IAAF.
The IAAF’s objectives for Kids’ Athletics, which has so far been activated in more than 130 of the IAAF’s 212 national Member Federations worldwide, are to make athletics the number one participation sport in schools, promoting a balanced and healthy lifestyle, and attracting the potential sports stars of tomorrow. —- By: Joe Battaglia for the IAAF
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