Wings of America has won 20 Junior USA Cross Country titles in 24 years, yet their director will tell you that it doesn’t matter to his team if they win or lose, and unlike other coaches who may utter the same phrase, he actually means it.
Program Director Shawn Martin is a product of Wings of America. He started as an athlete, then a summer camp counselor, a coach and now an administrator who oversees the program. Wings exists to better the lives of Native American youth through distance running. He explains that while the Wings program has been successful, the tally of trophies and individual accolades isn’t the program’s top priority.
|Wings athletes training on the beaches of San Diego
Martin explains, “You have to understand that in Native American culture, distance running is not about winning or losing, but a celebration of life and a prayer to Mother Earth and Father Sky.”
The Wings Program selects a team of the best Native American distance runners across numerous tribes to travel annually to the USA Cross Country Championships to compete in the junior division. Those teammates are then given the opportunity to be employed by Wings to serve as camp counselors who spend their summers traveling by van to 14 different reservations to host free 2-day running and fitness camps.The team members receive training to lead hundreds of Native American youth in running exercises, nutrition education, diabetes prevention, leadership skills and drug and alcohol awareness. As much knowledge as the team members impart in their communities, the young athletes gain even more from the experience.
|Wings athlete Julia Foster running at the NACAC Championships
“The facilitators are looked at as gods of the running world, heroes, and big-time role models,” said Martin, “When they travel to USA nationals, their eyes are opened and then they come home and share that knowledge with others.”
At this year’s USA Cross Country Championships in San Diego, many of the team members had their eyes opened to something they had never seen before - the Pacific Ocean. The team went on a tour in an amphibious vehicle where not only were they able to take in the endless body of water, but also exposed to animals like seals for the first time. Traveling to the championships has given the team members the opportunity to meet running celebrities like Kara Goucher and Dathan Ritzenhein, whom they had only idolized before in copies of Runners World
or on TV broadcasts of the Visa Championship series.
With a program that boasts near 100 percent high school graduation rates among participants and sees those individuals going on to live lives with higher levels of education and lower incidences of arrests, alcohol and drug use, the general population has begun to take notice. In 2008, an article ran in The New York Times
and shortly after more than one request to film a
documentary came into the Wings headquarters in Santa Fe, N.M. Ultimately, Moxie Pictures was selected to follow the lives of three Wings athletes through the challenges and choices of their senior years, and the film is now touring on the film festival circuit.
“The documentary is a tool to teach people what we’re about,” said Martin. “It allows us to reach more youth both on and off the reservations.”
“Wings of America isn’t about trying to get kids off the reservation, but finding doors of opportunity. Native American culture doesn’t believe in closed doors; anytime there is a door, it is always open.”
For more information on the Wings of America programs, or for information on how to provide support, visit www.WingsOfAmerica.org