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Elementary student speeds toward 5K success with Girls on the Run

By: Jessica Meszaros

Mia Balella eases into her racing wheelchair with help from her Girls on the Run teammates.

On Nov. 9, Oak Brook Elementary fourth-grader Mia Balella attended her final training session for one of St. Louis’s largest 5K events.

It takes weeks of training and preparation for the average adult to run a 5K, and for a novice runner, up to eight weeks is recommended for training to make sure the body can resist injury.

But Balella is already physically fit. In addition to racing, she plays basketball and also has participated in swimming, discus, javelin, shock put and more, with skiing the next sport she wants to try on her list.

“I love playing sports, sports and more sports,” Balella said. “But I’ve been racing for three years.”

On Nov. 9,  she wheeled across the finish line after completing two miles of laps, her final training session before the Girls on the Run 5K. Later that same evening, she attended Adventure Club and a basketball game, where she played for the St. Louis Rolling Rams.

Girls on the Run is a physical activity-based youth development program designed to develop and enhance the social, psychological and physical abilities of girls in elementary to middle school. Oak Brook Elementary has been participating in the program for two years, and Balella got involved in fall of 2017. Its where she honed her racing skills.

“I got involved because one of my friends was also racing and I thought, ‘why can’t I do that too?’” said Balella, who also has raced with the Disabled Athletes Sports Association [DASA].

With DASA, she participated in an 800-meter race. Although Balella has been using crutches and a wheelchair to assist her mobility since she was born, the racing wheelchair poses its own unique challenges.

“It’s different from my other chair because I have to wear gloves with it,” Balella said. “My legs are tucked underneath me, but in my regular chair, they stick out in front. It’s a little harder, so you kind of have to get into the groove of it.”

Mia Balella and her racing wheelchair

On Nov. 18, she’ll show off her groove in the GOTR 5K, with her family and other classmates also running by her side for the 3.1-mile stretch along Olive and Market streets near the Soldiers Memorial downtown. The event serves as a fundraiser for the GOTR Scholarship Fund.

According to Courtney Berg, executive director of GOTR STL, the event is the largest timed 5K in the state of Missouri, in the 10th largest 5K in the United States and is the largest GOTR 5K in the world.

“I think this is an amazing thing for St. Louis to have,” Berg said. “The same curriculum that’s taught here today also will be taught at every other participating school. Then, at the start line, all these different girls from different backgrounds will line up side by side.”

Balella explained the premise behind GOTR.

“With Girls on the Run, we learn how to work with each other and we also have different lessons,” Balella said. “You get to be a part of a team.”

Leading up to the final 5K event is a season consisting of a 20-lesson curriculum taught by certified coaches that integrates lessons alongside distance running. The team at Oak Brook Elementary has between 20 and 25 participants throughout the season with an average ratio of one coach to every three students.

“It’s really magical, because a lot of these coaches are women,” Berg said. “They’re showing these girls how adult women act around each other, and how to be role models, how to celebrate each other’s success and how to express and accept gratitude. That not always the image that’s presented to them in media.”

Girls On The Run participants for Fall 2017 [Photo courtesy of Fox Entertainment Group and Parkway School District]

The St. Louis chapter is one of about 225 councils across the United States and Canada and one of five different councils in the state of Missouri.

In a survey conducted by the organization in 2013, participating runners reported an increase in self-confidence, positive attitude and physical activity. The statement rings true for Balella, who plans to keep racing past the 5K.

“I think other girls would really like it,” Balella said. “Especially if they’re athletic.”


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