Spring is the season of renewal and new commitments. It’s the time when high school student-athletes make their choices for the colleges and universities they will attend.  Many fortunate young men and women receive full-ride scholarships because of their skills. Athletics is a bridge to opportunities, and students must make the most of what they are offered and given, despite their records and achievements. In May, the Colorado Flyers Track Club will have its 50th reunion at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library, and budding stars will take to the track at the 11th Annual Freddie Houston Meet of Champions track meet at the Evie Dennis complex in Green Valley Ranch.

The Flyers have been presenting and coaching track stars since 1966 with the aim of helping young people get college scholarships. Yvonne Braxton received the first full-ride scholarship to Jackson State University in 1976. According to Robert Smith, the founder and president, some 280 athletes have been Colorado Flyers. Many notable stars have passed through the ranks including Pam Greene, who connected with the Flyers after running in the 1972 Munich Olympics.  Greene began her career with the Denver All-Stars under the coaching of Al Durst.  Dr. Evie Dennis and Pam Greene’s mother used to transport the young women, who were track and field aspirants, across the country by car. 

“My daughter came home one day from elementary school and said she wanted to run track. The coach had been going around looking at kids competing on field day, and he wanted to start a little girls track club,” says Dennis. Al Durst met with Dennis, and the Denver All-Stars began.  Dennis says that she and Pam Greene’s mother, Bernice used to sew uniforms together. “We sold Jolly Rancher candy to get funds to take them to the meets around the country with the Denver All-Stars.”

The Denver All-Stars provided a precedent for other teams like the Colorado Flyers.  When the Flyers was founded in 1966, the aim was to provide a venue for competition for young women wanting to participate in track and field, and to foster scholarships for them. The Colorado Flyers eventually merged with many similar youth track organizations including the All-Stars. The Team Achievements page of the Colorado Flyers alumni lists 80 young women and 11 young men who have graduated and received scholarships to colleges and universities across the country. These include large NCAA Division I schools, HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities), and schools like Syracuse and Stanford. 

Colorado Flyers have set world records in amateur meets. Five Colorado High School records still stand that were set by young women who passed though the Flyers ranks. Their beloved, legendary longtime coach, Tony Wells passed in 2012.  But whatever he taught and passed on to so many young women stuck, as they entered colleges and universities and continued to set records. Paula McClain, now the Marketing, Diversity Director for Colorado United States Tennis Association, ran with the Flyers in the 1960s and 1970s and was a forerunner of numerous champion achievers. She competed at the USATF Nationals in 1969 in Dayton, Ohio, and again in 1971 in Bakersfield, Calif.  McClain was the Rocky Mountain Region Junior Olympics Championships gold medal winner in the 100, 220, and 440 yd. runs in 1970, Colorado High School State Champion in the 100 in 1972, and was on the University of Colorado, Boulder Women’s Track Team 1973-1976.

Elite athletes like Pam Greene are hard to come by, but McClain and other runners achieved their own levels of success. “At that time, sports for girls was not readily available, especially on a competitive level,” says McClain. However, the opportunity to participate in track provided discipline, goal-setting, confidence, team camaraderie, travel and exposure at an early age, which transformed to independence, a “can do” attitude and the ability to compete in corporate America. There are studies now that speak to the benefits of sports participation for women.”

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance”-Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act of 1972.

Title IX changed the outlook of opportunities for female athletes.  Scholarships could get them into college, and from there the world was much more open to them.  Eboni (Crosby) Lewis was a Flyer in the late 1990s; she was coached by Wells, Chris Turner, Caryl Smith and Freddie Houston. “Being a Flyer helped me to take my talent to the next level. I became a junior All-American, national USATF champion, state champion, and was able to participate in many high profile meets.  I secured countless scholarship offers from Division I universities across the country and ended up accepting a full athletic scholarship to Georgia Tech,” says Lewis.

Caryl Smith Gilbert is a Flyer alumni and is the current director of track and field at the University of Southern California and coaches a Dior Hall, a recent former Colorado Flyer. Hall is a national junior and world-record holder in the 100-meter hurdles. Hall is the daughter of another Flyer alumni, Yolanda Johnson. The Flyers are a close-knit family of stellar athletes, and it is ingrained in them, success on and off the track is theirs. 

Ashley Cruder is a current graduate student at Auburn University. In the early 2000s she was coached by Tony Wells after joining the Flyers in the 8th grade. Cruder is not your typical runner. At 4’11” she barely reaches the shoulders of some of her competitors. “Tony always enforced it’s not the size of the dog but the fight in the dog. Throughout my tenure as a Flyer, I was a four-time High School All-American, 2006 Nike Indoor National 60M champion, 2007 Colorado State Champion (100M, 4x100M, and 4x200M), Eaglecrest record holder (100M, 4x100M, and 4x200M). I still currently hold the Colorado School of Mines Steinhauser Fieldhouse 60M record and am ranked #13 on the US All-time list for girls high school 60M,” says Cruder.  When Cruder ran a 7.30 60M in her junior year Division I schools showed overwhelming interest in the Tony Wells prodigy.

First choosing Florida State University, she transferred to Auburn after her freshmen year. At Auburn, Cruder was NCAA Indoor All-American (2012), Southeastern Conference Bronze Medalist 60M, and currently holds the 10th fastest 60M performance in the school’s history. 

She earned two bachelor degrees from Auburn in communications and political science. 

Cruder misses coach Wells who was her biggest supporter on and off the field.  “Knowing he was no longer around definitely took away some of my interest in competing in the sport. One thing he would always say, no matter the situation is ‘Have some pride Bubba’, and that has always stuck with me on and off the track.”  Cruder, while working on her master’s degree, serves as a student graduate assistant in Student-Athlete Support Services at Auburn. She works with both the men’s and women’s cross country and track and field teams. Cruder supports and motivates at-risk student athletes in their day-to-day academic activities. She invokes Tony Wells daily. “Tony was not only great at developing athletes but he was phenomenal at getting young ladies to realize their self-worth and true potential in life outside of the sport; and I am honored to implement his theory in my current job every day.”

Like Ashley Cruder, Eboni (Crosby) Lewis sees great value in her Flyers experience and in sharing it with others and giving back to the community. “My experience gave me the desire to give back to my local community. I helped coach a youth team locally for a short time. I was a mentor to disadvantaged youth while at Tech, and in my career, I have chosen leadership positions that enable me to work on teams cross functionally with people similar and different from myself.” Lewis has earned her MBA and works as a business process manager-global margin management in Atlanta for JM Huber Corporation, a chemical company. 

Unless you are a Serena Williams, even today there seems to be little focus on female athletes. For them it is not always the pinnacle that is their motivator. There are only so many levels where women can participate, and even those who compete at the highest levels will soon have to say goodbye to the field. Nevertheless the Women’s Sports Foundation points out some universal truths about the value of sports.

Girls and women who play sports have higher levels of confidence and self-esteem and lower levels of depression.

Females who participate in high school sports are more likely to complete college than those who did not participate in sports.

Through sports, girls learn important life skills such as teamwork, leadership and confidence.

It’s been a long time since Paula McClain has been on the competitive track, but the experience and lessons there have led her to where she is today.  After a successful corporate career in marketing at Apple Computer, BET Movies and Starz, she directs diversity programs for Colorado USTA, and she is adamant about the Flyers teaching and coaching young women in life skills that will make them successful. “There is a unique Denver perspective that’s amazing! These young girls exposed to track, represented Denver, Colorado all over the world through competitive club track offered here. The individual stories from world travel, college education to very well-rounded, successful, contributing group of women in America,” says McClain.  “Personally, I’m so grateful to have participated and developed in track during that time of my life and the early years of the Flyers. Although there are various track clubs in Colorado, then and now, it’s a community that surrounds all of the participants encouraging, supporting, and inspiring each athlete. Whenever our “home-girl” or “home-boy” is on the world stage representing USA, we celebrate each other. And, Denver has a lot to be proud of.”

More than half a century ago, Evie Dennis started the Denver All-Stars, and perhaps she did not realize the potential impacts track might have on Denver’s young African American women. Known later for being the superintendent for Denver Public Schools, she also served as a vice president on the United States Olympic Committee. When you view the Flyers’ exhibit at Blair-Caldwell, which displays memorabilia from 1966-2016, be aware of the challenges to field a team, coach young women and men, and sustain a club for so long.  And if you attend the Freddie Houston Meet of Champions held at the facility named in Dennis’ honor, know that the Flyers and other clubs continue to produce outstanding able athletes ready to take on the world who will contribute and make it better.

Editor’s note: The Colorado Flyers Track Club reunion celebration and exhibit will be at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library Thursday May 26, from 5 to 7p.m.  The 11th Annual Freddie Houston Meet of Champions track meet will be held at the Evie Dennis Stadium and Campus in Green Valley Ranch, from 7:30 a.m. to 5p.m. For more information on these events, …