It is a hot September afternoon, the sun ducking behind an occasional, welcome cloud that erases the shadows on the ground and the squints from everyone’s eyes. Bethany’s orange-and-white-checked water tower shines above Eldon Lyon Park, where about two dozen kids are wearing black shorts and tank tops with Edmond Central emblazoned across the chest in yellow and white. They’re walking, jogging, laughing, glad to be out of school and with their friends.
The park is full of tank tops: Heartland, in green, is the other Edmond contingent, blending like the paint aisle at Home Depot with kids from Kingfisher in royal blue, Carl Albert in red, Heritage Hall in navy, and a dozen others. This is what a middle school cross country meet looks like in Oklahoma; it’s a bunch of seventh- and eighth-graders warming themselves up to run 1,500 or 2,000 kilometers, about a mile-and-a-half for the girls, two miles for the boys. They run on grass and dirt, through the trees and up or down an occasional hill.
Here’s the secret about cross country: It’s the sport that every other youth sport claims to be but isn’t.
They stand in a line, the gun fires, they run. In Oklahoma, they run through a city park or a mowed pasture some school has yet to put a building on. After the first mile, they’re no longer in a group; the fastest are at the front of the line, where they’ll probably stay, the rest running single file in a pattern that looks like a very tall snake or a very weird conga line. After that first mile, they’re sweaty and breathing hard. Some are grimacing and grabbing their sides. Some have stopped to walk a bit.
On this hot September afternoon, there’s a man in a Warrior Pride T-shirt yelling at the runners.
“You got this,” he hollers. “C’mon, almost there! You can do it! Dig! Dig!”
The girls from his school pick up their pace. A moment later, another string of girls, ponytails wagging to their own beats, comes by and Warrior Pride shouts more encouragement.
“C’mon girls! You’re almost there! Keep going!”
But these girls are all wearing different colors and I realize that I don’t know who the Warriors are. I realize it doesn’t matter. Warrior Pride isn’t shouting at any one team, he’s encouraging all the runners from all the schools.
That’s cross country culture. The slowest congratulate the fastest for winning and the fastest congratulate the slowest for a great run with equal enthusiasm. The top 25 in each division get medals, but there’s a scoring system unlike other sports: The top five finishers from each school are counted by where they placed and the team with the lowest score wins. It doesn’t matter how many runners the team has; those who finish after the first five don’t hurt the team score.
This is a world where parents encourage kids from every team, not just their own. It’s a world where kids encourage other kids, whether they’re fast or slow, on their own team or a competitor’s. It’s a world where no one yells at a referee, no one argues with the coach, no one is berated for being the weak link.
It’s a world where every student who wants to can be on the team, wear the uniform, take pride in the school, and run with their friends. Maybe they finish high enough to get a medal, maybe they don’t.
That’s the culture every youth sport tries to create. Cross country succeeds.
You can tell because when the event is over, everyone is smiling.
© Ted Streuli 2019