The Post-Journal

Chautauqua Striders – Two Men’s Dream Celebrates 25 Years

It wasn’t exactly like running in the Olympics – by Nolan Swanson’s estimate there were maybe 10 people in the stands at James G. Pressly Stadium at the University of Florida – but that didn’t matter to David Reinhardt.

Reinhardt, the Chautauqua Striders Track Club coach, was one of the handful of people watching the 2,000-meter steeplechase at the 1994 Junior Olympics Nationals. He was also the only one going positively crazy.

“He’s absolutely flipping out that I won it,” Swanson recalled more than 10 years

The Sherman native is one of nine individuals and one relay team who have been crowned national champions at least once since the club was formed in 1979.

Melody Prunty was a three-time national champion in the 400-meters (1982, 1983, 1984), while Ray Hodnett (1981, 1982) and Blake Eaton (2003) won two titles. Hodnett in the 100-meters and Eaton in the shot and discus.

The 3,200-meter relay team of Jay Reinhardt, Ken Ellis, Jackson Rohm and Matt Regan were national champs in 1986. The other national champions were Eric Healy (1980) 1,500 walk; Alicia Hodnett (1981) long jump; Karen Bakewell (1986) 800; Swanson (1994); and Val Walden (1996) 1,500.

Not bad for an organization which was the brainchild of two men, Ron Graham and the late Dan Feather, who cared enough about kids to dream.

“I’m just pleased that it was something that I had a part in and it’s still there and the kids are benefiting from it,” said Graham, who will join about 150 people tonight at the Striders’ 25th anniversary celebration at Darrah Hall at Camp Onyahsa in Dewittville. “I’ve been blessed a thousand times over.”

Rich Carlson’s first exposure to the Striders was an an eighth grader when Reinhardt pulled him aside following a middle-school meet at Strider Field.

“I didn’t so particularly well, and he came up to me and made sure that I kept my head up,” Carlson said.
Reinhardt knew talent when he saw it.

By the time he graduated from Jamestown High School in 1995 Carlson was one of the premier high jumpers in New York state as he recorded a personal-best 6-foot, 10-inch leap.

But it was the summer of 1994 where he had one of his fondest memories.

“The best was when we went down to Gainesville, Fla., for the Junior Olympic Nationals,” said Carlson, now an account executive for a Philadelphia-based mortgage company. “We had to take a bus down there and it was a fun trip overall. My friends from the Striders could make a fun situation out of anything. I had a really good meet, my parents came down and I ended up getting second place.”

Carlson’s performance – he cleared 6- foot-9 – was surpassed only by a 6-11 jump turned in by a teenager who would later end up as a scholarship athlete at the University of Arkansas.

After graduating from JHS, Carlson went on to the University of Pennsylvania, attended the Wharton Business School there and was a member of the track and field team (his best high jump was 6-11).

Carlson maintains that the Striders played a significant role in his success off the track, too.

“I wasn’t the best student in the world,’ he said, “but it showed me you could be good at both things, that there is a happy medium.”

He reached that “happy medium” thanks to some tutoring he received for geometry at the Striders office at the Jamestown YMCA.

“It wasn’t making any sense to me and I got a 66 on the Regents exam,” Carlson recalled. “My parents said that I had to get tutoring and retake it over the summer. I ended up getting tutoring every week for an hour and a half.”

By the time he took the geometry Regents again in August, Carlson scored a 96.

“This guy was great with tutoring and it’s really a reflection of the Striders,” Carlson said. “I ended up going from a 66 to a 96.”
That may have been his best jump of them all.

Swanson has traveled the world the past five years as an elite distance runner and is now the Fredonia State cross country coach.

Ironically, for most of his high school career, he spent each spring playing basketball because Sherman Central School didn’t have a track.

So when an opportunity to join the Striders presented itself, Swanson jumped at the chance and eventually earned trips to the Junior Olympic Nationals in Louisiana and Florida and the Empire State Games.

“Without the Striders I just wouldn’t have been going to any of those things,” Swanson said. “It would have been Babe Ruth (baseball) games and that would have been it.”

Along the way, Swanson gained confidence, very much aware that he was more than holding his own against his peers throughout the nation.

“It made me feel a little bit better about going into such a big program like Wake Forest and the Atlantic Coast Conference,” he said.

By the time he graduated from Wake Forest, he had earned All-American honors in track and cross country, and was well on his way to a productive professional running career which took him to all corners of the globe.

“It’s awesome for Jamestown that Striders exists there,” Swanson said. “There are so many good things about it. It’s the best thing that could have happened to me for track, especially since Sherman didn’t have a track or a team. It allowed me to run those two summers and try to run against good competition.”

“To me the Striders is one of a kind. I don’t know if there’s anything like it. Just the fact that it bases itself around track and field and no other sports, obviously makes me a big fan of it.”

Sheldon Battle is preparing for the indoor track and field season for the University of Kansas, but it is clear from talking to him that his days with the Striders are never far from his mind.

“I think without the Striders all of this wouldn’t have been possible with all the experience I gained,” said Battle. “I don’t think just being a high school athlete would have done the job. I needed those other experiences to grow as an athlete and personally.”

Battle, a state champion in the shot and the discus as a senior at Jamestown High School, also earned All-American honors in the discus at the Adidas Foot Locker Classic in Raleigh, N. C. A multi-medal winner at Junior Olympic Nationals during his teens, transferred this fall to the Lawrence, Kan., campus after an All-American career at Mesa (Ariz.) Community College.

A junior, Battle will be competing in the shot, discus and hammer. His hopes are high.

“My strength levels have improved,” he said. “I think I’ll challenge for the Big 12 title in all three events.”

Battle’s fondest Striders memories were the trips the club took each year and the athletes he met along the way. He also credited Reinhardt and Chuck Boggs for their efforts in making those trips possible.

“Dave and Chuck were good coaches,” Battle said. “They knew what they wanted out of us and how to get it out of us. You want people you are comfortable with and they brought out the best in you.”

Academically Battle took advantage of the SAT preparation the Striders provided.

“It was just a lot easier having someone sit across from you and spend time with you,” he said. “The SAT program was very important to me.”

Melody Prunty is one of the torch bearers for the Striders having earned three national championships in the 400-meters during the 1980s.

But the national titles aren’t what Prunty, now a Jamestown police officer and a mother of two, remembers most.

“The thing I remember most about the Striders is not so much the national championships but working hard and attending a lot of practices. It always seemed to be me, Ronnie (Graham), Karen Bakewell, Alicia and Ray Hodnett and Arrick Davis. We
were always together all the time. Whenever we had national meets to train for we were up early in the morning before high school to run at JCC on that little track.”

Practice makes perfect.

For by virtue of her association with the Striders and her personal success on the track, Prunty was able to land a scholarship to Michigan State University.

“If I would not have been a member of the Chautauqua Striders track team, I probably would have gone to a local college, But not to Michigan State,” Prunty said. “Nancy Carlson helped me tremendously studying for the SAT, the PSAT and she went with me on college visits. She was a very important person to me and still is. Ronnie was always by my side and he actually drove me to Michigan State. That was really cool.”

After graduating from Michigan State in 1990, Prunty returned to Jamestown and then enlisted in the U. S. Army. After one year of active duty and seven years of reserves, she worked for nine years at the Resource Center. But needing a change, she successfully passed the Civil Service exam and eventually became a member of the Jamestown Police Department. She’ll start her fifth year on the force on Feb. 21.

At every stop, Prunty needed to show discipline, something she first learned as a Strider.

“It carried over to the Army and it helps in all facets of my life,” she said.

Prunty also learned from Graham the importance of spending time with children.

“If you take time with children and have time to dedicate to them, nothing but good things will come from that,” she said.

Mackenzie Shults, a senior at Southwestern Central High School, has been a member of the Striders for four years.

The time she spends on the track – her specialties are the 200 and 400 meters – is considerable.

But she wouldn’t want it any other way.

“Time management is a big thing,” she said. “It takes a lot of time but it’s well worth it. When I’m busy I do better than when I have a lot of free time.

“The whole organization has become a really big part of my life. Through the Striders I’ve become an athlete and a volunteer with the summer youth developmental program. I’ve also met some really great friends from other schools and that’s been very important.”

She also credited Reinhardt with lending his coaching expertise virtually year round.

My one-on-one time with Dave is really important to me,” Shults said. “I train with him all year. I just look up to him for everything he takes on.”

Every time Graham has driven west on Third Street in Jamestown in recent weeks, he sees the banner that advertises the Striders 25th anniversary celebration.

He smiles.

“Man, think of everything that has transpired the last 25 years,” he said. “I’ve raised a family and now I’m a grandfather.”

And the Striders program he and Feather started is going as strong as ever offering athletic, educational, mentoring, family outreach and after school activities to about 1,600 youngsters each year.

“I think the only real vision I ever had, first of all, was what Nancy Carlson accomplished with the Lighted Schoolhouse program,” Graham said. “Any credit that I get, Nancy Carlson deserves a lion’s share of it. I envisioned that more than the growth of track and field.”

Yer by the late 1980s Graham’s second vision – the construction of an all-weather track – began to come together. And when that was completed in 1990 behind Jefferson School on Martin Road, his mission with the Striders was complete.

With plenty of able people to continue all the good things the club was doing, Graham stepped down as executive director/coach to pursue other opportunities.

“I don’t regret a minute of it,” he said. “I’ve got friends all over the place. I know these kids. I see their parents. It was a pretty good use of my time.”

The additional financial assistance of the community is critical to the success of the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame.
We gratefully acknowledge these individuals and organizations for their generous support.