June 2021

Since 1974, the Colgate Women’s Games—the largest amateur track series for girls and women in the U.S.—has been fostering self-confidence and determination in thousands of people each year through organized sport and the opportunity to earn grants to support their educational aspirations.

Growing up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn in the 1960s and 1970s, Jean Bell never imagined that she’d one day become an attorney. Then she met Fred Thompson, founder of the Atoms Track Club and founding organizer of the Colgate Women’s Games. Thompson, who passed away in 2019, was the first African-American lawyer she had ever met.

Thompson’s support, coupled with the experience of participating in the Colgate Women’s Games for years, inspired Bell and many other young women growing up in underserved communities to set big goals and achieve them. “I came from a poor background, but I was lucky because I had my parents and a mentor like Fred, who encouraged me to do better for myself,” says Bell. “A lot of kids around me didn’t have that support.”

Since 1974, the Colgate Women’s Games—the largest amateur track series for girls and women in the U.S.—has been fostering self-confidence and determination in thousands of people each year through organized sport and the opportunity to earn grants to support their educational aspirations.

When Thompson came up with the idea for the Atoms Track Club—the model for the Colgate Women’s Games—his goal was to provide a positive outlet for kids in underserved areas of Brooklyn where truancy  and teen pregnancy were growing challenges at the time, says Meet Director Cheryl Toussaint.

At first, the Atoms Track Club was open to both boys and girls, but Thompson shifted his focus to coaching the girls after realizing there were fewer resources available to them. “This was before Title IX [which requires public schools to fund boys’ and girls’ sports programs equitably], so most track meets offered few, if any, events for girls,” Toussaint recalls. “That changed when Colgate came into the picture - now thousands of girls get to participate in track and field and have the opportunity to earn educational grants-in-aid at the Colgate Women’s Games,” says Toussaint.

Toussaint, like Bell, grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, ran with the Atoms Track Club and was a part of the Colgate Women’s Games from its earliest days. She credits her experience with these programs with changing the course of her life.Cheryl earned a degree from New York University and funded her postgraduate studies with grants earned at the Colgate Women's Games. She went on to work in the financial industry for many years and would later run her own apparel business before becoming Meet Director of the Colgate Women’s Games after Thompson retired.

Leveling the playing field

“Even in 2021, there aren’t a lot of things for kids [in underserved communities] to do after school” says Bell, who currently serves as Chief of Staff for the Colgate Women’s Games, in addition to managing her own track club for girls and working as an Administrative Judge for the New York State Department of Labor. “Track is something you don’t need a lot of money to do. All you need is a pair of sneakers and a desire to run.”

For many young women, participating in the Colgate Women’s Games has paved the way for a life-long love of athletics and a passion for education. Thousands of alumnae have gone on to win high school- and college-level track and field championships, and at least 27 have competed in the Olympics. Yet Toussaint says the Games are about much more than sports.

“Make no mistake. This program is about empowerment. We want participants to see that with hard work and discipline, they have the ability to achieve and succeed,” said Toussaint, who herself is an Olympic silver medal winner. Any girl who is enrolled in school can compete, and top performers receive educational grants-in-aid.

“This is bigger than running track. There’s a sense of comradery, a commonality of purpose. It’s about being able to be competitive in life and chart your own future—with education as the fuel.”

Now in its 47th year, the Colgate Women’s Games takes place in New York City, with competitors coming from Massachusetts down to Georgia to participate. “It doesn’t matter what your background is, what your parents’ socioeconomic status is, what race you are, or what neighborhood you come from,” says Toussaint. “We believe in an equitable and inclusive playing field.”

Participation is free, but the time commitment is significant. Each year, 3,000 girls register to participate, and women return for four to six weekends in a row to compete in the track series.

The first four weekends are preliminary meets open to any girl who is enrolled in school, from first grade through college and beyond. “Every week, each participant receives a ribbon for participating, but the competition intensifies as girls vie for a spot to compete in the series’ [coveted] semi-finals and finals events,” says Toussaint. Participants earn points throughout the series, and at the end of the Games, the top point-scorers go home with trophies as well as educational grants ranging from $250-$1,000 each.

Motivating the next generation

Colgate Grants can be used for tuition, books, tutoring, and certain expenses related to academic advancement for those attending college or other accredited institutions of learning.

Importantly, athletic ability is not a requirement. “The majority of participants do not advance to the finals or make the spotlight [headlines]for their athletic feats, but they truly can ‘win’ by being a part of this program, by competing each week, working towards a goal and observing the sportsmanship and grit of other competitors and the coaches who are incredible role models,” says Toussaint. “It provides a cumulative building of confidence and self-awareness that they didn’t have coming in. Girls start to realize, ‘I can do this,’ and feel good about being encouraged. They become part of a community that really wants to see them achieve their personal best.

“These girls come from different places and they don’t know each other,“ added Toussaint. “They learn to trust each other, to talk to each other, and cheer for each other. Our intention is not to create the next Olympic athlete—though we are happy to see when that happens. Rather, our goal is to make track an entry point to success and promote education as the pathway.”

”For some participants, the Colgate Women’s Games have had such a lasting impact that they want to participate long after they’ve finished their education, which is why Colgate added a 30+ year old division to the competition. Not only do these women eagerly join in, but they often enroll their daughters in the elementary and middle school divisions. “It’s heartwarming to see so many daughters on the sidelines cheering their mothers on,” says Toussaint. “The future for all these women is so bright.”

While the Colgate Women’s Games was sidelined this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Toussaint and her colleagues have been using the time to strategize about how to make the program even stronger when it is safe to lace up.

“We’ve got big plans to come back stronger and better than ever,” said Toussaint. Stay tuned for updates in the coming months.

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