You Can Fly Without Wings - The Washington Tech Story

Washington Tech is a public school in the St. Paul Public School district. Our school represents a very diverse part of Saint Paul, where kids from all around the world are looking to make this place their home. Formerly known as Arlington, this school had a reputation for having the worst kids - the ones who are violent, troubled, and had rough pasts. This school was the one that parents didn't want to send their kids, because nothing special came out of here. Arlington fielded its last track team in the spring of 2010 before the school was closed down in 2011. From there, Washington Tech reopened in the same building, with a new principal and many new teachers. What was St. Paul Arlington High School became Washington Technology Magnet School. However, varsity sports, including track and field, did not return to Washington Tech until 2013.

Despite these changes, Washington continued to have that same reputation. However, our school is different from what we've been known to be. Washington has become a safe haven for students who are new to the country and are looking to make something with their new opportunities. Many students here face challenges most other kids don't have to deal with - watching over siblings, working to make ends meet, fighting cultural norms, and more; track and field is something that just isn't possible for many kids to do. Because of these outside challenges that so many people don't understand, or even comprehend, the effort it takes to just be at practice and on the team can be just as demanding as the practices themselves, and our coaches did not go easy on us.

The 2016 team on a bus ride to a meet          

The challenges in building a track team in our neighborhoods was very evident during the 2016 season, as the team had fewer than ten people the whole season. Between 2013 and 2016, our boys and girls teams placed 6th place at conference five times combined (out of seven teams) and placed seventh twice.  

Change needed to happen, and luckily it happened prior to the 2017 season, starting from the top with a new group of encouraging and enthusiastic coaches. New Head Coach Michael Nawrocki, along with Coach Michael Krech, Coach Zach Easty, and Coach Sarah Netzer, brought an expectation that we would field a legitimate track and field program, with no excuses allowed.

Their focus in 2017 was simple: get kids to join the team.

The 2017 team during a DQ run          

Through their hard work and dedication, they promoted track and field throughout the building, and caught the attention of many kids who wanted to try something new. This was the spark that Washington needed, with about 50 kids joining and participating in practices, as well as meets, in that first year alone. From the beginning, our coaches emphasized hard work, dedication, and especially family. This mentality rubbed off on us, as everyone who joined seemed like they were having a good time. The track team became a light in people's day, and the future of the team looked bright.

Despite the new life of the track team, the problems didn't magically go away. The "track" was (and still is) in deplorable conditions due to the lack of maintenance after the closing of Arlington. The surface had been torn up, with pieces of the track laying all over the place, and rough asphalt filling in the gaps. Weeds were growing through the cracks, and you could always find a coach weeding a part of the track at the start of every practice. As a result, it was an injury machine.

However, the kids who remained were tough, relentless workers who were determined to get better. The results began to show, not just because everyone was dropping time, but most importantly because we were coming together as a family. You could see it on every bus ride, every meet, and every practice. There wasn't anyone who felt excluded, and everyone supported each other through every success and every rough day. The hard work paid off, as Washington made a big splash at the conference meet, with several athletes placing high and making the finals, something that hadn't happened in a long time.

After that first season of revitalization, the team was looking to build on the success of that team. A big reason we were able to improve so quickly was through donations by supporters across the country, who saw what we did in a short amount of time and wanted to help our cause. From these donations, we were able to get new uniforms and equipment to make us look more like a serious team, as well as give us more options when it comes to workouts and working different muscle groups.

The next thing that was done was rip up whatever "track" remained so that it was no longer a serious tripping hazard. An asphalt oval remained. Now before every practice, you couldn't see a coach weeding the track, but you could see a coach marking different exchange zones and hurdle markings with chalk.

Washington's asphalt track and the 392-meter "lane 0" on it's grassy interior          

But with the added support and cleared space on the track, the team saw a healthy mix of determined veterans from the season before and enthusiastic newbies who had a common goal of improving both themselves and the team. We started to see that we could take this program to a new level; we were looking to gain respect and make a name for ourselves in the city and in the track community. To do this, the standards for everyone was set higher, with harder sets, better attendance, and most importantly, how we carried ourselves both on and off the  track. At Washington we respect everyone, even if we don't get it back. Last year we participated in way more meets than the year before, and this helped everyone get in the flow of racing and learn how to compete. This was very beneficial for helping boost everyone's confidence, as every week it seemed as though someone was setting a new personal record.

However, with all the meets, we became acutely aware of how others would talk about us, how we're different from everyone, and even other teams asking out loud in front of us why we were even there. It wasn't always bad; but when it was, it was hard to ignore. But we always remembered to hold ourselves to a higher standard and look past it all. That was what made us stronger, and united us as a team. It made us a family. That strength helped drive us, and it could be seen at bigger meets where our athletes were placing high and running fast times.

Injuries are still a big thing on our team, as we run on an asphalt oval. No matter how much our coaches made us run on the grass or restricted the number of reps we can do on the track, many athletes still see the trainer daily due to injuries caused by the impact on the asphalt. Despite this, many athletes continue to fight through the injuries as they are passionate and strong enough to keep on going.

As the 2018 season was reaching the "playoffs" (as Coach Nawrocki calls Conference and Sections) the hard work truly began to pay off. At our conference meet, both the boys and girls teams placed third, with one of our boys, Suleyman Jafer, winning the conference title in the 800, and one of our girls, Janice Cole, winning the 100, 200, and 400. While at Sections, athletes on the boys and girls side were placing high and earning medals in both individual events and relays. We even sent an athlete, Isaiah Evans, to State in the high jump. The big jump that we made last year was something that didn't seem possible a just short while ago.

The 2018 team on the bus ride to a meet          

This current season, we've continued to raise our standards and set high goals for ourselves as individuals and for this team. You may wonder what these goals are, but as Coach Nawrocki would say, that is "family business."

But most importantly, we want everyone to improve themselves and enjoy their track experience. For many returning athletes, they know that, with the right mentality, this team can do special things. The work that is being done by everyone is incredible, as many athletes were already performing at the same level as they were at the end of last season in only the first few meets. As this season progressed, the work that was done showed - we were placing even higher at meets that we ran in the past, and across the board, we were dropping times every week.

People have begun to notice us, and respect us for how we go about our business as well as for how fast we're running, how high and far we jump, and how far we can throw.  For example, a highlight of the season of the season so far is when the boys team placed 5th at the Section 3AA True Team Meet, and earned a wild card consideration for the state meet.  Two years ago, our coaches did not even consider sending us to this meet. These are things that didn't seem possible a only couple of years ago. It's amazing that this type of change can happen to a team like ours. There's still a lot that needs to be done, but right now we are focused on getting better, reaching our goals, and showing everyone what we're made of. And we will do it as we always do: as a hard working, relentless family.

The 4x800m relay team at the 2019 True Team Section 3AA Meet