They ran in the hot afternoon, they ran under the lights in the dead of night, they ran in the morning sunstep after step, lap after lap. Some jogged with family members. Others ran with teacher colleagues. Still others ran or walked alone at their own unique pace, step after step, lap after lap.
While Olympic Track star Gail Devers was bravely trying for another gold medal in Greece, an Olympic-style torch relay was underway at her alma mater Sweetwater High to raise funds for a new state-of-the-art synthetic track and all-purpose field.
Students, teachers, parents and community members form-ed teams to collect pledges and took turns running a torch around the old track an hour at a time at SuHi’s Gail Devers Stadium. The event took place over 24 hours and was timed to support Devers’ attempt for Olympic gold in the 100 meter hurdles competition. While the attempt ended in disappointment, with Devers going down to a calf injury at the first hurdle, the new track and field project gained momentum.
“When Gail had her injury, the students had great empathy for her,” said Laura Charles, one of the event organizers. “They said, ‘If she can’t run, we’ll run for her.’ At Sweetwater High, it’s not how many times you fall down, it’s how many times you get back up. Gail embodies that spirit. And that is how the kids are here.”
The event built a stronger sense of community and connection, reaching old and young alike. More than 180 people turned out to run during the 24 hours that began at 3 p.m. Friday, Aug. 20. Countless more cheered from the field or the stands. Alumni and other supporters who heard news reports drove to Sweetwater from as far as Fallbrook to personally drop off donations, bring food for the runners or pick up pledge cards.
One of the runners included a blind special education student.
“The first lap she walked with her dad holding her arm. The second lap, they jogged. By the third time around, she was running by herselfshe had memorized the track,” Charles said. “Other students who had heard about her, about what she was doing, started cheering as she came around. It was just an amazing thing. It was extraordinary.”
Devers, who owns two gold medals from winning the 100 meters in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, has long dreamed of helping build a new track at her old school. She graduated from Sweetwater High in 1984. She now lives in Georgia but has regularly visited Sweetwater High, noting the strong and vibrant character of her hometown of National City. Devers was in the inaugural class inducted into the district Alumni Hall of Fame in 2001.
Last May, Sweetwater High students took up Devers’ challenge to raise the first $50,000 toward the cost of the new track. Once that is raised, corporate donors have pledged additional matching funds. The total project is estimated at $1.2 million.
“Gail is always thinking about what’s best for kids, about ways she can help her Sweetwater family and the community of National City,” said Board President Pearl Quiñones. “She has taken on this project with the students and alumni. The torch relay is a fantastic start. But they will need the community’s help to get it done.”
Those wishing to make donations to the project can mail a check or money order to: The Gail Devers Foundation, GDSP-Fastrak, 1626 G Sweetwater Road #170, National City, CA 91950.