Rich Gelder is the Department Head of Modern Languages at Dundas Valley Secondary School and the president of the Hamilton Olympic Club

On Friday in Guelph, Ont., the Speed River Track and Field club put on its annual Inferno meet, featuring some top Canadian and international Olympians. This year the meet piggybacked on OFSAA, the Ontario high school provincial championships, and both meets featured outstanding performances. The next day, I took part in something quite different: a 5K community run in Hamilton to support the Fab Foundation, set up more than 10 years ago to empower young girls through running.

Few of the girls Fab serves will ever go to OFSAA or be on Team Canada, but they have something significant in common with those more accomplished athletes: the self-confidence, inspiration and ability to dream and live big that running can give.

Photo: Rich Gelder

Fab stands for fit, active and beautiful, and the programs are designed to help young girls develop confidence by training for and running a 5K race. For many of the more than 100 girls from Hamilton’s low-income communities, Saturday’s event was the first race of their lives.

RELATED: FAB 5K empowers young Hamilton, Ont. woman to seek higher education

At these three events in a single weekend, I bore witness to three “generations” of athletes–the accomplished (at the Inferno), the aspiring (OFSAA) and the incomers (Fab).

The Inferno was dominated by high-profile Canadian women including Olympian and Canadian record-holders Genevieve Lalonde of Moncton and Melissa Bishop-Nriagu of Eganville, Ont., who came up through the ranks of high school and university athletics.

Melissa Bishop-Nriagu at Speed River Inferno 2019. Photo: Maxine Gravina

Many of the young women I watched race at OFSAA are on the cusp of becoming Canada’s next Olympians and record-holders, even though on that day in Guelph the goal was simply a coveted OFSAA medal. One of my favourites was Sarah Cushnie of Westdale Secondary School in Hamilton, who ran a personal best time and was 11th in a very competitive senior girls 1,500m race.

Gen Lalonde at ACXC Nationals in 2018. Photo: Maxine Gravina

I became aware of Fab through my running friends (Jinny, Maddy, Kelsie and Alanna) in Hamilton–women who run faster than I can. Many of us came out to support them, so they could support the journey of the Fab girls, who range in age from 11 to 14. Their support makes a huge difference in these girls’ lives.

RELATED: Melissa Bishop-Nriagu wins Inferno 800m in meet record

Fab started out as the idea of Sharon Gallant of Hamilton. Overcoming a childhood marked with family addiction and the cycle of poverty, she set out to make a difference in the lives of the city’s most vulnerable youth–girls from the city’s high-needs areas. Fab provides coaching, snacks, transportation and even shoes for girls in the program. These resources require fundraising efforts, such as the Fab 5k Community Challenge.

FAB 5K 2019. Photo: Rich Gelder

Not being a competitive road runner, I set out at my usual pedestrian pace, and did a whole lot of watching. It was a sea of girls in bright pink T-shirts. I watched my friends in action–coaching, supporting, cheering, and running backwards along the course to take the hand of someone who needed a little encouragement. It was truly inspiring, and it reminded me why runners make up such a special community. I was overwhelmed by the pride in knowing people like my running friends, who give up their time to help such a vulnerable group of kids. It gave me hope, not only for the future of elite Canadian distance running, but for humanity itself. Who knows? One of those young women who ran alongside me on Saturday morning might eventually represent her school at an OFSAA competition, and perhaps even Canada on the international stage.

Most won’t, but the mentorship they receive will help them become fit, active and beautiful in their own estimation nonetheless–at home, in school and in the community. They are supported in becoming active, to realize that they can become confident, active leaders. They learn to see the power and beauty within themselves.

Just like Genevieve and Melissa. And Sarah. And Jinny, Maddy, Kelsie and Alanna.

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