Shippensburg University junior Neely Spence goes the distance in everything she does, and now she is imparting her experience as a consummate student-athlete to elementary school children as the leader of the RUN Club.

The RUN Club, which stands for “Running Under Neely”, at Grace B. Luhrs Elementary School is a 12-week track and field after school program that Neely developed and coordinates with the goal of teaching children about the sport, and instilling healthy habits they will use in life.

The life lessons and athletic training Spence has to offer has been gleaned from a career that has collected a total of four NCAA titles in cross country, indoor and outdoor track, and garnered the 2010 NCAA Student-Athlete Sportsmanship Award.

Spence, a native of Shippensburg, is studying human communications with a minor in coaching and carries a 3.84 GPA. Last spring, she had to develop an 18-week training program for sport as a class project, and created one for school-aged children.

“I thought if I’m going to put the time into this, then I’m going to do something that could possibly work at some point,” Spence said.

Spence, who is the daughter of head cross country coach Steve Spence, participated in a track club as a seventh-grader, and had a blast.

“I felt like it was such a great way to learn, not only about the sport, but also about yourself,” Spence said.

With the guidance of her academic advisor Kara Laskowski, Spence began researching putting her plan into action at the lab school on Shippensburg’s campus.

“We approached the lab school about a year ago and found out what it would take in terms of parent organization and commitment,” Laskowski said. “It was really Neely who initiated the conversation that moved it from something she had done on paper as an assignment to something that she is doing as a good reflection to the kind of person she is.”

Over the winter, the program came to fruition, and the response by parents and students was overwhelming for Spence.
“I thought if I could just touch a few kids that would be great,” Spence said. “I actually had over 60 kids sign up, and that was quite a lot more than I anticipated. It’s been so much fun.”

Spence coordinates the program, but when the club meets every Tuesday after school for 90 minutes, she has the help of five to 10 parent volunteers and four college freshmen work with her as a part of their service learning project at Shippensburg.

Since several of the children have never seen a track meet or participated in the sport, Spence concentrates on teaching them the most basic concepts from stretching and strength training to skills like long jumping, hurdles and throwing.

“My goal is to provide them with a greater understanding of what it is to be an athlete, but I want to make sure it is in a fun and safe environment,” Spence said.

Laskowski, who also has two children that attend the school and the program, is impressed how Spence relates to the participants.

“She wants to get kids inspired and increase their awareness of track and field as a sport, and help them develop some skills and healthy habits that will hopefully get them on the road to becoming successful athletes,” Laskowski said. “She’s phenomenal with the kids. They follow her around, they flock to her, they come in and hug her, and want to have her directly see what they are doing. There are six to 10 parent volunteers and we all play a very secondary role. She’s absolutely in charge and the kids just gravitate to her.”

Spence has benefited educationally as well, having to go through lots of steps and clearances to make the program a reality. In addition, coaching the children has reminded her of why she loves the sport.

“I think there are times when I take growing up in a running family for granted,” Spence said. “It’s been really neat for me to take it back to the very beginning. This is why we stretch, this is why we run in a circle making left turns around a track. To go back and have to explain everything has helped me appreciate my background and it excites me to share something so important to me.”

A few weeks ago, the group was practicing the relay and passing the baton. They stopped to take a water break, and a little girl approached Spence to help her with the technique.

“She said, ‘I don’t have time to take a break right now…I really need to get this down,’” Spence said. “We practiced back and forth until she got it just right and that was really neat to see.”

Spence has aspirations of becoming a collegiate coach like her father, but first wants to try her hand at professional running after graduation.

“My dad was a professional runner, and I was pretty much born into that culture,” Spence said. “I’m looking forward to pursuing my own running and looking for endorsements upon graduation, and see where that can take me. I would love to compete internationally. I’ve had the chance to represent the U.S. once already, and would love to have the opportunity to do so again.”

Spence has another year remaining until that time, but she hopes the RUN Club can continue with student-athletes like herself, who are interested in sharing their talents and experiences.

“I think this would be really great if this is something that could continue and be a part of the coaching minor as a slot for athletes to use,” Spence said.