By Emily Sortor
The last six months have been some of the most eventful in the history of Above Xpectations, a statewide track program run by West End Neighborhood House.
AX won the gold medal in the Amateur Athletic Union’s National Club Championship (AAU) in Orlando, Fla., last July, which propelled the program onto the national stage. Interest from college track programs around the country followed, bringing with it 28 scholarships for team members.
Winning the gold medal was something of a surprise, according to Above Xpectations alumna Anaeja Ferrell. While AX had been in the top five teams for the previous few years, the coaches weren’t preoccupied with counting points. Team members were there to have fun and create positive experiences.
Ferrell recalls that the championship came down to the final event — the men’s 4×4 relay. Right before the race started, head coach and program founder Antwain Flowers got a call informing him that Above Xpectations was close to securing the top spot, and winning the men’s 4×4 could give the team the championship. Right before the relay started, Ferrell says she and her teammates “ran to various points around the track to cheer the runners on. We wanted to make sure they could hear us at every moment during their race.”
The men won the race, thus securing the gold medal.
The victory was a turning point in the club’s history. It not only affirmed Above Xpectations’ standing as an international-caliber team, but it also prompted its leaders to accelerate crucial components of the program — mentorship and career preparation. Like all West End Neighborhood House programs, AX has always been about more than athletics. More important is the supportive environment that enables economically disadvantaged young people to develop new skills and prepare for their future.
From its inception in 2010, AX has offered mentorship and college preparation. Says Program Administrator Shamekia Martin, whose own son is an Above Xpectations athlete, “The program has always taken a long-range view of the student,” shaping “well-rounded student-athletes.”
Maximizing Limited Resources
Like many scrappy nonprofits, the track program has a limited budget and relies on the creativity of its staff and the generosity of its community to get by.
The program now has around 100 participants, and the majority of them go on every trip. That makes plane travel financially prohibitive, so they travel by chartered buses.
Flowers has turned those long rides into teaching lessons while also giving the team members a quick look at college life. On the bus, students are mentored in life skills like sexual health and the dangers of drugs, and Flowers arranges for stops at various colleges and universities en route to track competitions.
“For some of our athletes, these track meets might be their first time out of Delaware,” Flowers says. “We wanted to take the opportunity to introduce them to schools and opportunities around the country.”
Responding to the ramped-up interest from colleges, AX coaches have increased the number of student athletes traveling to meets and making college visits. Also, the program has begun emphasizing college-readiness skills, reaching down to even their youngest participants, some as young as eight years old.
In the spirit of making the most out of limited resources, AX’s programs benefit both the younger and older students at the same time. For instance, younger students get reading assessments and receive tutoring from older students if needed. In turn, the older students gain mentorship and leadership experience.
Coach Shemar Parker has seen the impact of this wholistic program not only as a coach, but as a former participant and by watching his siblings run for AX. “The coaches never complain, and never use a challenge as an excuse,” Parker says. “They just keep moving forward.”
Parker says he was struck by how the staff and coaches “go further than anyone I’ve ever dealt with” to support its members. He decided to give back to the program by coaching while he was an undergraduate at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and now, as an MBA candidate at Wilmington University.
‘Building National-Caliber Athletes’
Parker says that AX is remarkable because, despite facing significant challenges, it is able to provide high-quality programming both on and off the track. For instance, Above Xpectations doesn’t have its own track facility, so coaches get creative. In the summer, the team partners with high schools who donate or rent their outdoor tracks. Delaware does not have an indoor track, so in the winter, AX athletes run in the hallways of West End Neighborhood House.
Despite limited resources, Parker says, the program is able to “build national-caliber athletes” who are competitive on an International level and are strong contenders for places on collegiate track teams.
Young people who join AX must be ready to embrace an ethos of welcoming challenges that comes with being a member the Amateur Athletic Union. It offers better competition than high school sports.
Ferrell explains: “In AAU, we get to run against students from warmer states who can train outside longer, or against people who can train on indoor tracks. These experiences let us see where we are against not just Delaware runners, but against runners from around the world.”
When Ferrell was choosing a high school, AX coaches encouraged her to challenge herself and join a team with someone faster than she. When she became the fastest runner on AX’s girls’ team, her coaches urged her to train with the boys to get even better.
Parker says this is standard procedure — nurturing the talents of every team member, “from the strongest to the weakest athlete.”
“I love seeing people go from the bottom of the pyramid to the top,” he says.
This approach to fostering a student’s strengths is paying off. To date, more than 100 Above Xpectations participants have been offered college scholarships or have been recruited to run for college track teams.
Staying in Touch
Involvement with AX doesn’t stop when a student goes off to college, trade school, or another path. Ferrell, now a freshman studying biology and running track at Lincoln University, chats regularly with AX mentors who, she says, are “like second parents.”
“The program made me the person I am today,” she says, adding that it prepared her for challenges on and off the track.
According to Flowers, staying in touch with alumni just makes sense. “Above Xpectations is like a family,” he says. “You don’t stop talking to your family when you go off to college.”
While gaining interest from colleges and the athletic community outside of Delaware, the program is expanding within the state. A branch opened in Sussex County last year, offering training to students in an area with limited track programming.
Administrators are ready to meet the growing demand and hope that Delawareans can join them in supporting young athletes.
“Community support and connections can make all the difference,” Martin says. “For example, if we could have support with transportation funds, we can use that money to sponsor more students.”
She sees this moment as a critical juncture in the evolution of Above Xpectations. “There is a sense of excitement over what we have achieved,” she says, “and an unwavering focus on what can still be done to prepare students for their futures.”