Running's next superstars | Community sports feature

Students from Tyee and Tillicum competed in a meet this year.  - Courtesy photo, Linda Reichenbach
Students from Tyee and Tillicum competed in a meet this year.
— image credit: Courtesy photo, Linda Reichenbach

Regardless of the sport, there is no shortage of programs, teams and leagues for youth in the Bellevue area to join. Whether taking to the pint-sized diamond for a Little League game or firing the first of thousands of jump shots in AAU basketball, team sports offer a consistent outlet for boys and girls of all ages.

But when it came to running, Linda Reichenbach saw a void.

"Those can be intimidating to some kids," she said of team sports, which become more selective at a younger age each year. "Running is kind of the everyman's sport."

After three of her own children finished high school at International School (they competed in sports for Newport), Reichenbach found there was another void as well, one that was previously filled by various volunteering endeavors around the district.

So she decided to take action that would fill both and create a new structure for middle schoolers in Bellevue to find an accessible athletic outlet.

"For track and cross country, there are some select and club programs," Reichenbach said. "But not something that is available to everybody."

Without interscholastic athletics in Bellevue middle schools, students have limited options for competing in individual sports until reaching high school.

Those with the talent, financial means and countless hours to spare can find a foothold in one of the select programs Reichenbach talked about, or at a private club in the case of tennis or swimming. But for economically disadvantaged youngsters, or those who play for enjoyment rather than a college scholarship, the opportunities were not as apparent.

Until Reichenbach began making a change that could soon sweep across the entire BSD.

After originally hoping to coach with the high school program, she decided that dedicating her time to the development of a middle school running team would best utilize her efforts. But without any foundation for a program, Reichenbach started from square one. She met with Jean Verbka, a counselor at Tyee Middle School and decided the new team could be added to the intramural sports programming at the school.

But the news wasn't all good and certainly wasn't what Reichenbach expected.

"We're only talking about Monday, Tuesday and Thursday," she said. "And only after tutorial, but before the activity bus leaves, that's 48 minutes."

While the limited practice time was at first a source of consternation, Reichenbach soon realized it was an ideal setup for a group designed for kids getting their first taste of competitive running and sports in general.

"I know how burned out kids can get," she said. "They wanted to be at practice and were excited to be there. I realized it was the perfect amount of time."

Newport girls cross country coach Caryn Heffernan said Reichenbach's dedication has been an invaluable asset to cultivating an interest in competitive running, which she said is one of many conduits kids can use to ease the transition to high school.

"It's really great for middle schoolers to get involved because it gets them in new social networks," she said. "We have a camp for incoming freshman during the sumer and we have them meet kids. We have kids that met at that camp and were best friends through high school."

The first iteration of the middle school team at Tyee met for six weeks, but were left without any competition with fellow district middle schools devoid of a team and those in neighboring towns part of the WIAA's Triangle League, meaning they were prohibited from competing against non-WIAA members like Tyee. That hangup stopped a potential meet with Islander Middle School and led to Reichenbach's discovery that Tillicum had begun a running club in a similar vein what she was doing. That led to the competition the kids and coaches had been hoping for since the idea was formulated.

But for Reichenbach, that was just the beginning.

Ideally, she would like to see athletics reincorporated at the middle school level in the district. While that possibility seems unlikely, she said nothing will dissuade her from expanding the program throughout the BSD.

"My short term expectations are to become part of the intramural programs and be able to have meets with the other middle schools," she said. "We can open up opportunities for kids to get exercise, feel good about themselves and build up the programs at the high schools. I'm on a mission."

Linda Reichenbach (left) and Caryn Heffernan hope the Tyee and Tillicum programs can act as a conduit for the rest of the district. JOSH SUMAN, BELLEVUE REPORTER

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