Kokopelli running team
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Runners of the Kokopelli Racing Team who competed at the USATF National Junior Olympic Cross Country Championships in Reno, Nev., are, from left, Aliya Fulbright, second place 9-10 girls team member; Carly Christians, 13th overall 9-10 girls; Heidi Curtis, 17th overall 9-10 girls; Jordan Banta, eighth place overall 9-10 girls; Oliver Horton, 13th place overall 9-10 boys; Jade Allen, 13th place overall 11-12 girls; Bethany Michalak, first place overall 11-12 girls; and Matthew Edwards, 10th place overall 11-12 boys; not pictured: Kasyn Pino, second place 9-10 girls team member.

Photo courtesy of Lisa Rainsberger

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Lisa Rainsberger’s philosophy is, in her words, “you don’t coach kids like you would coach adults.”

“That’s the biggest premise for me because I see so many kids who are being coached as an adult, and at some point, there’s nowhere for them to go and the rest of their career is a huge frustration,” said Rainsberger, founder of the Kokopelli Trail Running Series, a highly successful Colorado Springs-based youth running program.

“I try to keep a reasonable trajectory of improvement for kids and keep it fun.”

Does her approach resonant with young runners? Just ask the eight Kokopelli youngsters who recently achieved All-American status, including one who became a national champion, at the USATF National Junior Olympic Cross Country Championships in Reno, Nev.

Cheyenne Mountain resident Rainsberger (formerly Weidenbach) gained national fame when she won the Boston Marathon in 1985, an achievement no other U.S. woman equaled until 33 years later in 2018 when Desiree Linden won the event.

During Rainsberger’s long athletic career — a three-sport All-American at the University of Michigan, the winner of the Boston, Chicago and Montreal marathons, the USATF’s Runner of the Year in 1985 and 1989, a three-time U.S. Olympic team alternate — she acquired the experience and knowledge that would help her mentor others when she retired from competitive running and founded Kokopelli.

“Even with a degree in exercise science, and with so many years in sports, I never thought I’d be a coach,” she said. “But I learned a lot from the good ones and also learned a lot from the ones who weren’t so good.”

Rainsberger founded the Kokopelli running program, named for the god of fertility in Southwest Native American folklore, in 2009 with the mission statement to provide “high level and development coaching and programs for youth runners.” Kokopelli currently serves about 80 children ranging in age from 7 to 19. It’s a full-time, year-round endeavor for Rainsberger, and she employs a team of assistant coaches that includes Adam Christian, Biya Simbassa and Michael Jordan.

Rainsberger’s daughter, Katie — herself an elite distance runner who earned 10 state titles while running cross-country and track at Air Academy High School and currently a standout runner at the University of Washington — was instrumental in the founding of Kokopelli.

“I realized that when Katie was in the seventh grade and decided to join a cross-country team, that there were no competitive running clubs in the area, especially for kids that wanted to race.

“I started Kokopelli so young runners would have an avenue to compete and to make friends, and it’s evolved over the years.”

The program currently features specialty events, high-performance camps, individual training programs and competitive team opportunities. Currently in its winter training season, it is designed for grade school, middle school and high school athletes who have been competing in cross-country and soccer. The winter program continues until Feb. 25 for high school athletes, and March 17 for others.

In mid-April, Rainsberger will sponsor a spring program for younger runners who are not competing on a middle school or high school track team. According to the Kokopelli website, it will emphasize training principles, fitness, speed, consistency and a love for the sport.

“We strive to keep it fun,” Rainsberger said. “We have certified coaches who are passionate about what they’re doing. Our programs are safe and affordable, and we offer scholarships and provide opportunities to help families.”

Practice sessions are held twice weekly in various locations, including Monument Valley Park near Colorado College, Bear Creek, Holmes Middle School and the north entrance to the Air Force Academy.

Beginning in May, Kokopelli will offer a program for middle school and high school runners when their track season has completed, and it will be geared toward developing strength, flexibility, consistency and speed.

The runners that come to the program are already active in sports such as basketball, soccer or swimming, and have achieved a certain level of fitness, Rainsberger explained.

“For those just starting in athletics, I direct them to Landsharks Running Club, a school-based program,” she said.

At the USATF National Junior Olympic Cross Country Championships in Reno last December, 30 area runners — who had previously competed in state and regional competitions — represented the Kokopelli racing team. Competing against hundreds of entries, eight of the runners earned All-American honors by placing in the top 25 of their age divisions.

Additionally, the 9- to 10-year-old girls team placed second nationally, and Bethany Michalak was the national champion in the 11-12 girls division.

The local club has proven that achieving national recognition is an obtainable goal; however, at the heart of the program is the joy of running.

“I had a parent who once told me, ‘When I dropped off my kid at practice, he was really grumpy. When I picked him up, he was a real happy kid,’” Rainsberger said.

“I believe running is truly a kind of elixir for happiness.”

For additional information, go to kokopellikids.com.

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