Richards meets track legends, competes at Hershey

17 years ago

Five youngsters from Aroostook County represented the State of Maine at the North American Finals of the Hershey Youth Track and Field Games held in Hershey, Pennsylvania Aug. 2-5. Due to the fact that this year was the 30th anniversary of the largest and longest running youth program in North America, there were many track and field stars and legends who mingled with the young athletes over the four days and demonstrated their talents as well.

    Track and field legends, Rafer Johnson, Bruce Jenner, Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson were there encouraging the young athletes and providing motivational talks during special meetings. Johnson has been spokesperson for the Hershey program since its inception. In addition to the four legendary stars youngsters met with elite athletes in the track and field world including USA’s representatives, Mikele Barber, Derek Brew, Hazel Clark, Monique Henderson, Bershawn Jackson, Dwight Phillips, Moushaumi Robinson, Terrence Trammell and Tiffany Williams as well as Canadian gold medalist Bruny Surin.
Hershey’s Track and Field Games were created in 1975 by Dr. Donald P. Cohen who also founded the US National Track and Field Hall of Fame. Cohen presented his proposal to the seven major organizations of track and field in 1975, stating that he had read a number of reports prepared by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports which painted a bleak picture of physical fitness in the nine to fourteen year old age group in North America.
To combat this situation, he proposed the creation of a program which would introduce children to physical fitness through basic track and field events like running, jumping and throwing.
Cohen believed the program should be accessible to all young people, so no special equipment was necessary. He envisioned a program where children could go to their local community playgrounds and park and participate in tennis shoes, shorts and a T-shirt.
The inaugural program was conducted on 36 playgrounds in the city of Charleston, W. Va. in 1976. As a pilot program, Cohen convinced the then Hershey Company to underwrite an expanded program and it was expanded to 10 additional states in 1977.
With an extremely successful pilot project in 1977, the Hershey Company and Cohen expanded the program nation wide in 1978 which is when it was introduced to northern Maine.
Today, the program is conducted on both a recreational and educational level, teaching basic running, jumping and throwing skills through local park and recreation programs and/or school physical education programs. In cooperation with United States Track and Field, the National Recreation and Park Association and Athletics Canada, the program draws 550,000 participants from across North America annually. The programs begins in parks or physical education classes then moves on to local meets.
Winners from local meets move onto regional meets of which there are five hosted in Maine, with the Northern Regional Meet being held in Caribou since 1979. Regional winners move onto state meets and then winners in the state meets are pooled in with winners from other state and/or provinces in their region. Eventually 550 athletes travel to Hershey, Pa. to compete in the North American Finals with every athlete and chaperone being transported, housed and entertained by the Hershey Foods Corporation. The trip includes travel, lodging at Elizabethtown College, a tour of the Hershey Chocolate Factory, a day at Hershey Park and of course, the North American Final Track and Field Meet.
This year Olivia Sleeper of Caribou and Issac Cone of Houlton earned the right to return a second time to the Finals. Sleeper placed sixth in North America in the 11-12 girls standing long jump while Cone finished 10th in the 11-12 boys standing long jump.
Also competing at the Finals were Cameron J. Clark of Houlton, who finished eightth in the 9-10 boys 100 meters, Kayla Richards of Presque Isle who finished eighth in the 13-14 girls softball throw and Mitchell Thompson of Connor, who placed 10th in the 13-14 boys softball throw. Thompson won the right to carry the State of Maine flag during the opening ceremonies of the games. Also competing from Maine was Carla Tripp of Lovell, who placed seventh in the 11-12 girls softball throw.
Northern Regional Director Kathy Mazzuchelli of Caribou, who accompanied the Maine delegation, said that the whole experience is truly more than just a track meet.
“I believe the message the kids receive at the event is best expressed by legend Rafer Johnson,” Mazzuchelli said, “who tells the youngsters that what matters is becoming the best you can be at whatever you’re doing.”