The Road to Confidence: Dartmouth Women’s Track Athletes Commit to Girls on the Run

Published: 8/22/2016 11:36:36 AM
Modified: 4/30/2013 12:00:00 AM
White River Junction — The evidence suggests Abbey D’Agostino — NCAA outdoor 5,000-meter champion, NCAA indoor 3K and 5K champ, national women’s indoor athlete of the year — is a sponge when it comes to running. Yet twice a week, on the athletic fields behind Hartford High School, the record-setting Dartmouth College junior is absorbing more and more.

It’s a sunny Thursday, and D’Agostino is lining up with one of the five Hartford Middle School students who have shown up for Girls on the Run, a twice-a-week after-school gathering. In between preparing for a five-kilometer run next month and talking about various topics, D’Agostino and two Dartmouth peers, Kelly Wood and Jill Corcoran, run games that alternately build teamwork, confidence and fitness.

On this occasion, D’Agostino casts about for a game, settling on one involving screaming. The group will line up on one side of the Hartford football field, then run toward the other, yelling at the top of their lungs until they run out of breath and stop.

“Let’s do something that doesn’t involve my wrists,” one participant suggests.

“Good thing we’ll be using our legs,” D’Agostino responds.

A national iniative now encompassing 47 states, GOTR uses running to help elementary- and middle-school girls in areas of self-confidence, leadership and getting exercise. The culminating event of each class cycle is a 5K road race, often the first for the young participants.

The Dartmouth women’s track and field team has taken to the program. Vermont’s GOTR chapter supports nearly a dozen Upper Valley councils; Big Green students oversee groups at the Dothan Brook School and Thetford Elementary School, with about a dozen current and former Big Green track team members taking part.

“The lessons sort of change every week, and we’re building more toward them thinking of themselves as leaders among their peers, among their siblings,” said Dartmouth junior Kelly Wood, a second-time GOTR mentor who ran track and cross country at Hanover High School. “In terms of just practice structure, we’re going to start doing more running and change from a focus on the games and the getting-to-know-you stuff, our relationship with them, and gearing up more toward running three miles and the fitness it takes to do that.”

The HMS group meets twice a week, after school on Thursdays and on Sunday afternoons. In any 90-minute session, the college students and their charges will talk — Thursday’s class veered from confidence to gratitude to gossiping to Internet safety to bullying and back again — before breaking up occasionally for laps.

At this stage, it doesn’t matter how the girls cover the Hartford turf. D’Agostino and sophomore teammate Jill Corcoran lead some in a jog; Wood accompanies others as they skip or walk. The girls earn a wristband for every lap, sometimes gathering enough to cover their forearms.

“I learn new perspectives from them,” said Corcoran, a Weymouth, Mass., native who runs distance and cross country at Dartmouth. “They’re not all part of soccer teams or softball teams or the track team, so I think it’s a great thing (for them). Some of them have been doing it since the third grade, so they get really excited about it every year.

“They love hanging out with us. And we love hanging out with them.”

Based in Brattleboro, GOTR Vermont sent an instructor to Dartmouth for a two-hour class to introduce its curriculum to its collegiate volunteers. Covering more than 30 meetings, Wood said she and her two partners pick the ones they find most applicable to their group.

Given the age of her group, Wood’s message often involves getting away from what GOTR calls “the girl box.” “It’s that place girls go around middle school when they turn in on themselves and morph into what they think others want them to be instead of who they really are,” she explained in an email. “The idea is that we are trying to be outside the girl box – to do things we want to, not because of what others think.”

The running will stimulate their bodies, but the Dartmouth mentors engage brains as well. One discussion touches on bullying, the forms it takes and the need to bringing it to a teacher’s attention if required.

“Their self-confidence has been huge, but they’re also interacting with each other,” said Corcoran, who — like D’Agostino — is mentoring a GOTR group for the first time. “The first couple of weeks, we were very worried about the cliques and different things like that, because there are the different grades. But each of them brings something different to the table. Even when one person is gone, someone else steps up.”

Given the depth of the program’s involvement, Dartmouth coach Mark Coogan has altered the team’s practice schedule to make GOTR participation easier, noted Wood, who “retired” from collegiate running last year. The group is working toward a 5K race in Brattleboro on May 25, in which each young runner will get a T-shirt for participating, a medal for finishing and a bib bearing the number 1.

What pleases D’Agostino is, in a GOTR setting, she’s never Abbey the high-level runner, Abbey the five-time All-American or Abbey the potential Olympian. She’s Abbey the Dartmouth student-athlete, and that suits her just fine.

“I like focusing on them,” D’Agostino said. “This is the time when they’re forming their identity. It doesn’t take a lot to build them up right now and make friendships with girls from other grades.

“I think we’re somewhat of idols for them. We probably seem a lot older than we are, and we don’t feel that much older, but they look up to us. We try to take that role seriously and try to make a difference for them.”

They aren’t kicking, not yet. But they’re certainly screaming.

Greg Fennell can be reached at or 603-727-3226.

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