Athletes Serving Athletes continues growth in Howard County

In Courtney Mann’s bedroom there’s a collection of gaudy trophies, ribbons and medals — the byproduct of a decorated running career. A senior at Howard High School this spring, Mann has established herself as one of the state’s top distance runners over the last four years.

And yet, for her lengthy list of accomplishments, which includes a pair of outdoor track county titles this spring, Mann said she found just as much gratification while taking time to run outside the spotlight.

It is through her participation in Athletes Serving Athletes, a charity-funded, nonprofit organization that empowers individuals with disabilities to train and compete in mainstream running and triathlon events, that Mann finds a state of serenity.

“I wanted to do something with [running] other than compete, which is still something I love to do,” said Mann, who will run cross country and track at the University of Maryland starting in the fall. “[Athletes Serving Athletes] helps me recognize the values of these athletes I’m helping. They’re similar, if not identical, to my own. That’s something I’ve gained a lot from this program. … Every race, there’s always a new moment. A new thing that reminds me this is why I do this.”

Mann is currently one of three Howard County teenage athletes who volunteer at ASA. Adam Lowe, a sophomore at Marriotts Ridge, and Lindsay Allen, a recent Reservoir graduate, are the other two volunteers.

Athletes Serving Athletes was founded by David Slomkowski in 2008 and is headquartered in Baltimore County. ASA has eight other regions in which they serve individuals with disabilities — Anne Arundel County, Baltimore City, Frederick County, Harford County, Howard County, southern Maryland, the Eastern Shore and even central Pennsylvania.

Howard County, behind Baltimore County, is ASA’s second-to-largest most active region.

“It’s a great county,” said Slomkowski, ASA’s executive director. “It’s got a lot of resources. It’s a very active county. Very focused on healthy, active lifestyles.”

Mann’s story of finding more joy while helping others rather than simply running and competing on her own terms is exactly the vision Slomkowski sought when he founded the program.

In 2006, Slomkowski competed in his first triathlon and through a little research discovered Team Hoyt, a famous father-son duo that have competed in over 1,000 races with each other. The father, Dick, pushes his son, Rick — a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy — in a custom-made running chair. In a triathlon, Dick will pull Rick in a boat with a bungee cord attached to a vest around his waist and to the front of the boat for the swimming stage. For the biking stage, Rick will ride a special two-seater bicycle.

After Team Hoyt’s first race in 1977 — a five-mile run for a lacrosse player who had been paralyzed in an accident — Rick told his father a line that resonated deeply with Slomkowski: “Dad, when I’m running, it feels like I’m not handicapped.”

“When I saw that story, I was moved. I was crying,” Slomkowski said. “I was inspired, for a lack of a better word. Then, I asked, who is doing this in Baltimore? I want to do that. I was put here to do that.”

Slomkowski surveyed the Baltimore-area for anything like Team Hoyt. He found nothing. Then he took his research to a national scale. He still couldn’t find anything. An opportunity was there. Unbeknownst his idea would flourish into something larger, he reached out to The William S. Baer School — a school for special needs individuals in Baltimore City. Slomkowski showed the administrative staff the story of Team Hoyt and asked if any kids would like to participate in local races.

“They said, ‘We have 230 of them, when do you want to start?’” Slomkowski said.

Over the next year, Slomkowski made flyers that promoted a meeting to discuss his idea for students. Eventually, five families showed interest, but only one student followed through. But that was all Slomkowski needed.

Slomkowski then bought a jogger — a custom-made running chair — and with the lone student from The Baer School, competed in the Run to Remember in September of 2007, a 5K race in Baltimore.

The student loved the thrill, and Slomkowski found great joy in bringing a child with a disability the competitive adrenaline. The two then competed in the Baltimore Marathon the next month and duplicated each other’s success. Patrons told him afterward he needs to grow his idea into something more. Mentors told him to do the same.

Ten years later, Slomkowski’s idea has morphed into ASA, impacting a wide-range of individuals, with Howard County becoming one of the program’s leading areas.

In the early years, ASA only held one or two races in Howard County. Now, they have 15 races in the county, with 17 regular athlete teams and about 50 WingMen who participate. WingMen train and race with specific teams, taking turns to push the joggers that harness athletes with disabilities.

The insurmountable growth in Howard County is due in large part to area director Stephanie Blades, who is a tireless worker and “angel” to the program, according to Slomkowski. Blades started volunteering for ASA five years ago when she saw Slomkowski compete in the 2011 Columbia Triathlon, and always looks for ways to reach a wider population.

Over the past few years, ASA has developed a tight-knit relationship with the Cedar Lane School in Fulton.

“I said, ‘Whatever that kid is doing, I want to have fun like him,’” Blades said of her first encounter with ASA. “It just looked amazing. You can see the bond they had. I needed to figure that out, how to get involved.

“It just sucks you in. I wanted to help more kids, cross more finish lines, and the ball just kept rolling.”

Since ASA is non-profit and charity-driven, prospective WingMen must raise a $350 minimum to join a team. Mann, a WingMan, reached the amount in an instant, and held a neighborhood bake-sale selling cookies, brownies and lollipops. Ever since, her life hasn’t been the same. Mann can’t single out just one individual who has impacted her the most, but every race, there’s always cheerful, intimate conversations.

“Watching their faces light up, seeing how much fun they’re having, it’s just such a good feeling,” said Mann, who has been a part of ASA since June 2016. “I always learn so much about them. Having a conversation when running, it’s nice. … I learn a lot about them. They learn a lot about me. It forces you to talk and make new relationships.”

Besides the WingMen who help provide athletes with disabilities a competitive thrill, there are other avenues of volunteering. People are needed to man water stations and help spread awareness of ASA at fairs and festivals.

“That’s the greatest impact: The volunteer aspect,” Blades said.

Since its debut 10 years ago, ASA has impacted nearly 200 athletes with disabilities. The amount of volunteers who have come and gone, perception transformed for the better and souls rewired, is a myriad number.

“I’m human, I’m prone to selfishness and complaining, and when I’m around somebody with real challenges, I get way more out of it than the families and individuals with disabilities,” Slomkowski said. “That’s our focus, to serve them. It’s corny and its cliché, but it’s the truth. … I go home every day after being with my team, and ask, ‘What am I complaining about?’ These families, what they go through is insane. Insane.

“I think that’s the biggest gift: The gift of perspective.”

No matter what function someone has in ASA, from a collegiate-bound runner like Mann, to someone who has a soft spot for helping an individual experience something they never thought was attainable, the modus operand is constant throughout: “Together, we finish.”

“Every time I’m doing a race, I’m much more grateful for the gifts I’ve been given,” Mann said. “I’m grateful to serve my community and be a part of that. It makes me appreciate the small things in life and the things you were given, so you might as well use them instead of tuck them away. It’s definitely very humbling and it’s like this indescribable feeling. I don’t really know how to explain it other than gratefulness. The least I can do is help out.

“It’s definitely something I’m going to keep in my life for a long time.”

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