Weeks ago, back when Julie Culley agreed to be the keynote speaker at Saturday’s “Run for the Future” kickoff, she was a good distance runner from New Jersey.
Since then, she has become an Olympian.
“I stand before you today still an ordinary girl who has set out to do extraordinary things,” Culley told the girls, among the 20 rising high school seniors from across the city chosen to participate in the New York Road Runners program. On June 28, the 30-year-old Culley won the 5000 meters at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials to qualify for her first Olympic team.
The girls, few of whom have any experience in running or other sports, will gather today at Columbus Circle for their first practice. At the end of the eight-week program, which will meet three times each week, they will compete in the Percy Sutton Harlem 5K Run. Every girl who attends at least 80 percent of the training sessions and completes the race will be receive a $1,000 scholarship.
But the program is about more than just running. Participants will also volunteer for a day at Safaris, a program based in East Harlem that offers workshops to children ages 7–11, and throughout the summer they’ll hear speakers on various community-service topics aimed at healthier living.
“We want to help them think of ways they can bring healthier habits to their communities and to recognize the barriers in those communities that make that a challenge,” said Chrissy Odalen, the program and administration director of NYRR Youth and Community Services.
“Run for the Future,” now in its second year, was developed when a donor approached NYRR with the idea of creating a running program for girls with little or no athletic background. Chosen on the basis of an application and an essay, the girls will be coached by Patricia Alcivar, a road and adventure racer and a professional boxer, and will be mentored by two alumnae from last summer’s program.
At orientation on Saturday, the new athletes participated in team-building exercises led by Shreya Malena-Sannon of the Sadie Nash Leadership Project, and were addressed by a nutritionist, Pauline Newman, and NYRR president and CEO Mary Wittenberg.
From Culley (in white at center of photo), they heard a story of perseverance. While competing for Annandale (NJ) High School and then Rutgers University, Culley was never a star. In college, she was often injured; after college, she thought she was finished with running and pursued a coaching career. After returning to the sport, with the help of supportive coaches, she was able to work her way to the top. In telling of how she navigated the long road to reaching her Olympic dream, she advised the girls to believe in themselves, to surround themselves with people who lift them, and to use the adversity they encounter as a steppingstone to success.
“I kept on believing, and I kept on believing in myself,” said Culley . “I pass the torch on to you guys. It’s your turn to do something extraordinary.”