Ambler Olympic Club starts young runners off on right foot

Medal winners from Ambler Olympic Club at the AAU Cross Country National Championships include, from left, Justin Landis, Brayden Perry and Aaryan Katiyar. (Photo by Chris Conklin)
      The great ones always seem to start their sports careers early in life.
      Whether it’s Tiger Woods playing golf at age 3, Wayne Gretzky trying hockey on his frozen backyard pond as a toddler or Kobe Bryant bouncing a basketball before pre-school, it’s clearly an advantage to learn a sport early.
      Running cross country, even if it’s not quite as early as the aforementioned gentlemen, is no exception. Cultivating a love for this form of athletics at a young age can provide a strong foundation for later years.
      That’s sort of the mission statement for the Ambler Olympic Club, which is coached by Mike Gross, long-time runner who also coaches at Holland Middle School.
      Some of his top proteges recently competed in the AAU Cross Country National Championships in Charlotte, N.C. and five of them with Bucks County connections earned medals by finishing among the top 25 competitors in their age group.
      More than 160 clubs from around the country competed in the event on Dec. 4. Bucks teams finished in the top 10 in five different age brackets, including sixth-place spots by the boys 11-12 and boys 13-14 units.
      The top individual finisher among the Bucks County contingent was Aaryan Katiyar of Jamison, who placed 16th in the 13-14 age division.
      One of the most amazing performances was provided by Isabella Cabrera of Doylestown, who placed 25th in the age 7-8 bracket. She ran a quick 2,000 meters.
      Also turning in top-notch efforts were New Hope’s Ruby Keddie, a 24th-place finisher in the 13-14/4,000-meter event; Ivyland’s Brayden Perry, a 21st-place finisher in the 13-14/4,000-meter event; and Cate Quinn (who runs for Villa Joseph Marie), a 19th-place finisher in the 15-18/4,000-meter event.
      There’s a good chance all of these youngsters will blossom into excellent harriers over the coming years.
      It all comes down to learning how to do things the right way at the very start.
      “We say we are a developmental club,’’ Gross said in a recent telephone conversation. “We teach them proper habits for training so that when they’re older, they can reap the benefits of that. The goal isn’t to win national titles (which AOC’s Nathaniel Viands actually did by winning the 11-12/3,000-meter event) but to teach these kids to do the right things.’’
      Gross, an excellent runner himself, knows of what he speaks.
      “The right things include eating well, getting sleep, understanding the importance of rest days, not overdoing it,’’ Gross said. “If you teach the right behavior, good things will come.’’
      Perhaps the most important thing is to maintain that “fun’’ level throughout a runner’s early years so as to avoid the dreaded “burnout.’’
      “The worst thing you want is to have this 11- or 12-year-old just do everything,’’ Gross said. “And then get to high school and wonder ‘why can’t I still do this? Why are all these kids now better than me that I used to beat? Why don’t I like this anymore?’ That’s the danger of youth sports, we put too much pressure on them, trying to create Olympians at age 10.’’
      The answer, in a word, is patience.
      “If we’re patient with them and teach the right behaviors while having some fun along the way, then we set them up to do well later,’’ Gross said. “And if in that process they win some things along the way, so much the better.’’
      Gross had words of praise for all 13 of his athletes from Bucks and Montgomery counties who took home medals.
      The Ambler Olympic Club counts more than 200 runners as members. It’s the oldest continuously operating club of its kind in the United States. Gross came away from the nationals beaming.
      “The AOC cross country coaches could not be more proud of the effort each and every runner put in,’’ Gross said.
      Congratulations to AOC on doing things the right way and getting rewarded for it.
      >Gerlach responds to race director’s claims
      A couple weeks ago we wrote about Tori Gerlach, daughter of former Council Rock High School standout runner Dana Menago McCafferty, and her somewhat unpleasant experience at a 5K race in Phoenix, Arizona on Thanksgiving Day.
      Several questionable post-race developments were chronicled in the column. Gerlach, who captured the women’s title (and was fifth overall) in a time of 16:19, did not receive her plaque in a timely fashion and, according to her, was told by a race official/volunteer she had been “disqualified.’’
      The race director later blamed the delay in giving out the award to a “timing error, a computer chip malfunction.’’ By Gerlach’s account, the director never offered a face-to-face apology. Gerlach also insists race officials made comments directed at finish line personnel to inquire about her appearance and whether she looked fit enough to run that time.
      Recently, the race director forwarded his account of what he believed took place, contradicting the article’s contention there was an awards ceremony (there wasn’t). Also, the article stated the person to which Gerlach spoke to at the timing station was an “assistant race director.” That person was a volunteer.
      In a Wednesday telephone conversation, Gerlach, who competed in the U.S. Olympic track and field trials earlier this year, stood by all of her original statements.
      “He did not apologize,’’ Gerlach maintained. “I also have direct messages on Instagram of him reaching out to me when I posted that story and even then he never said anything about a chip malfunction. He did not apologize, he actually was rude. He said he had (originally) told me about the chip malfunction and that he apologized. None of that happened. (At the post-race) he ignored me and just told me I won and he would send me a plaque. He actually acted annoyed and more annoyed he would have to make a new plaque than anything else.’’
      The headline on the column suggested the whole incident had a bit of gender bias against Gerlach and another female runner who finished seventh overall. (The other runner was also initially told she was “disqualified.’’)
      “I think that’s exactly what happened,’’ Gerlach said. “If people think the headline was too strong it’s because it makes people feel uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean it (the headline) wasn’t right.’’
      A quote from Gerlach in a similar article in Women’s Running Magazine probably sums it up best.
      “You can make mistakes,’’ Gerlach said, “but how handle you them says a lot.’’
      Race calendar
      Saturday, Jan. 1

Bucks County Roadrunners Winter Series Cham-Pain 5K, 11 a.m., Tyler State Park, Newtown. Contact

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About Wayne Fish 2437 Articles
Wayne Fish has been covering the Flyers since 1976, a stint which includes 18 Stanley Cup Finals, four Winter Olympics and numerous other international events.