They say when one door closes, another opens, especially if B. Eugene Neal is involved. Nearly 40 years ago, Gene (as he is widely known) was employed by Montgomery County, where he initiated a youth track program. When that team was eliminated following a county budget cut, Gene started a new team called the Firebirds Track Club “to provide a place for younger athletes to participate,” he said. Today, as Gene reflected on the Firebirds, which is still going strong, he said, “The Firebirds served as a very fruitful training grounds for many of the high schools in the upper county regions of Montgomery County. It has provided the base for numerous athletes that have become some of the best in the county, whom many have earned athletic scholarships in track and other sports. Also, the discipline and other lessons taught in the program have aided participants to excel in other areas of life.” Gene remained a Firebirds coach through 2014 and is now on the Firebirds Board of Directors and is the Head Track and Field Coach at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School.
Corliss Clark is also on the Board of Directors and the President Emeritus of the Firebirds. She said, “I have been involved with the Firebirds since 2002 when my daughter was nine years old and started running with the Firebirds.” As Corliss saw that the team focused on positive training and competition, she became involved as an active parent volunteer and eventually became a part of the administrative staff and then was voted in as the president. Today, she said her main goal is “to ensure we have a platform that allows any athlete, regardless of their financial or social status, the opportunity to learn a sport that's a stepping stone for good health, conditioning and ability to excel by working hard.”
Okinyi Ayungo is in his third year as Head Coach for the Firebirds that now includes more than 200 athletes during the outdoor (spring/summer) season. Many Firebirds athletes stand out. Among them are Nathaniel Mintzer, Tiana Welbourne, and sisters Aleah and Reagan Schwartz, to name a few.
Coach Ayungo said high-school freshman Reagan Schwartz is a humble, fierce competitor. She is an outstanding runner and phenomenal jumper. At 14, she had the farthest Long Jump of any girl her age in the country, broke the regional long jump record, and was an All-American. Reagan said, "In order to stay good at track and field, you have to put in your full effort and dedicate extra time in the off season to train."
Regan’s sister Aleah is in 8th grade. Last year she was the AAU Regional Champion in Shot put and Javelin and placed 3rd in discus. Coach Ayungo said Aleah’s “work ethic and attention to details allow her to excel in these highly technical events. She is also a role model and mentor, often helping to coach younger athletes.” Aleah especially enjoys “when you beat your personal record and you know all your hard work was worth it."
Coach Ayungo described Middle-Schooler Nathaniel Mintzer as hard-working, introspective and fast as lightning. He competed in the 100, 200, and 400-meter at the USA Track and Field National Junior Olympics in Sacramento, California this past summer. Nathaniel said, “You should never give up. Giving up is the easy way to approach life. You can always overcome your setbacks."
Coach Ayungo said 10-year-old Tiana Welbon is running times that would beat most high school athletes in Montgomery County. She is laser-focused when she runs. Last summer she was the National Champion in the 400-meter and 800-meter and broke the national record for the 400-meter. She was also an All-American in the 200-meter. Tiana said, “Track has always been a dream of mine and running has been something I have liked since I was 7."
Two Firebirds relay teams are also attracting plenty of attention.
The 11/12-year-old girls relay team of Raylynn Gomez, Taylor Jones, Amira Ayungo, and Elena Juarez ran the 4x100-meter and 4x400-meter at the AAU National Junior Olympics held this past July 27 thru August 3 in Greensboro, North Carolina. They placed 21st in the 4x100 and 23rd in the 4x400.
The 11/12-year-old boys relay team of All-Americans Cayton Scott, Amari Sabbakhan, Rei Nettey, and Colin Abrams placed 7th at Nationals in the 4x400.
Coach Ayungo said both these teams “have a strong bond and support each other on and off the track. Even though most of them will attend different high schools, they will cheer and encourage each other even when their teams are competing against each other.”
Coach Shawn Sabbakhan added, “What makes the relays special is that they believe in each other’s abilities and want to be among the best. They are truly ‘one for all and all for one’.” He said it’s fun to “see their levels of growth. A couple of our top competitors use to whine and pout and even played sick if they had to run a 400 or an 800 but now they love it. For more information about joining The Family of Firebirds: www.firebirdstrackclub.com