By Kit Strief
University of South Dakota senior Alexa Duling is no stranger to hard work, determination and daring to dream. During this past summer, Duling turned her dream of creating the first “Girls on the Run” event for 13 pre-teen girls, their families and the community of the Rosebud Indian Reservation into a reality.
A 4.0 pre-med student-athlete at South Dakota, a national qualifier in the 400-meter hurdles last year and the 2010-11 Great West Conference Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year, Duling’s athletics expertise and strong work ethic fit nicely with the mission and vision of the
Girls on the Run organization, which focuses on creating “self-respect and healthy lifestyles through running” among 8- to 13-year-olds.
Duling first encountered Girls on the Run in 2009 when Coyote women’s track and field coach Lucky Huber asked for volunteer coaches for the first such event to be held in Vermillion, S.D. Duling was one of six student-athletes to sign on. She said she was impressed with the positive message and changes that she saw among the participants as they studied and trained for 12 weeks, leading up to a culminating 5K event.
With that positive experience behind her, a light came on for Duling when she was job-shadowing at the nearby Rosebud Reservation. When Duling asked one of the young girls there what she did for fun in the summer on the reservation, the child’s response implied she was generally bored. That was all Duling needed.
“My friends will tell you that I’m always lecturing against boredom,” Duling said. “I really don’t like boredom because I see it as a precursor to bad habits, so I wanted to do something to change that.”
Duling thought that a Girls on the Run event at the Rosebud Reservation would be perfect, and she presented her idea to Stacy Stahl, a director at one of the nonprofit organization’s 150 local branches. While Stahl acknowledged that she would like to do something on a reservation, she didn’t think it would work at that point since Girls on the Run events were usually in the fall and spring, not summer.
“But I’ve never been one to take ‘no’ for an answer,” Duling said. “So I continued to contact Stacy until I finally convinced her to support my idea.”
Stahl pushed the concept to the organization’s national office in Charlotte, N.C., but received little support. Duling took it upon herself to call but was given a list of concerns, including the ability to find volunteers, funding issues and getting the girls to participate, among others.
“I decided that I would find solutions for each of those concerns and then went back to them once I had it all figured out,” Duling said. “After a lot of persuading, they agreed to let me go ahead with the project.”
Due to the distance involved, the Charlotte office was not able to send staff support. They did, however, provide Duling with ample materials, including goodie bags of Girls on the Run shoelaces, stickers, hair bands and other things. In addition, one of the organization’s sponsors, New Balance, provided shoes for each of the 13 participants.
Duling stresses that she would not have been able to put the event together without the help and support of others, including her mother and her sister, Abby Duling (Coyote cross country runner), as well as former Coyote hurdler Haley Juhnke. Duling also had help from Stahl and several other volunteers, along with many of the people in the Rosebud Reservation community who were supportive and excited about the event.
“The school principal and teacher let me come and talk to the class about the program,” Duling said. “I was able to contact several people on the reservation and they gave me ideas of those who would volunteer. Everyone on the reservation was so willing to help, which was really nice. After that we worked on finding the girls, and the teachers did a great job of sending the forms to me. It really did take a lot of effort from a lot of people to make it work.”
On June 21, Duling’s dream became a reality. Thirteen girls from the Rosebud Reservation began the first Girls on the Run classes in Mission, S.D. The girls met for an hour and 15 minutes twice a week for 10 weeks. Their experience included discussing topics ranging from cooperation and values to education about drug and alcohol abuse – all aimed at fostering an environment of physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual well-being.
The 10-week Girls on the Run experience also gave participants an opportunity to create their own community project. The girls came up with the idea, planned it and executed the project together. Each session ended with stretching and running to train for the 5K.
“It’s so wonderful to see the changes in every single girl as the program progresses,” said Duling. “It’s amazing how they develop and how girls who may only be able to run around the track a couple of laps are able to complete the 5K. It’s great to see how happy they feel when they’ve earned their medals. The results were even better than I had anticipated.”
The 5K was held on Aug. 6. Duling was grateful that so many of the participants’ parents and relatives showed up to cheer them on, making it a real occasion. The community and family of the girls surrounded the run path to cheer the girls as they ran past. The Diabetes organization in the area partnered with Duling in the 5K, which added to the festivities surrounding the 5K event.
“I learned so much about myself and from the girls,” Duling said. “It taught me that all the hard work you put into something will pay off.”
Duling hopes it will have long-term benefits, as well. She said there were several people at the Rosebud Reservation who were interested in bringing a Girls on the Run event back for other participants.
As she enters her senior year at South Dakota and prepares for medical school after graduating this coming spring, Duling said she brings with her the many positive lessons from the Girls on the Run experience. She said she feels like this event inspired people on the reservation to continue what she started.
Kit Strief is the sports information director at the University of South Dakota.