Heading into Girls on the Run, Annika recalls not having much confidence. A Tarkington 4th grader, she hadn't run much before and was shy in general. Annika thought she wouldn't talk to anyone or would be too scared to talk to anyone.
"Throughout the weeks, I feel like I got closer with everybody and it just felt nice to have people around me that were positive. I just became a better person in general."
Annika did Girls on the Run again in 5th grade (Swanson) where she continued to enjoy the program's focus on not just the physical but emotional aspects of life.
"It wasn't just about running. They helped us mentally talk to each other and support others but then also support ourselves."
Girls on the Run also taught Annika how to develop a positive outlook toward herself and maintain that mindset not only while running but also in her general, day-to-day activities. Annika recalls how, every day, after they would finish their laps, they had a notebook in which they were asked to write down a positive word to themselves.
"We kept that (journal) and I really enjoyed doing that."
Known by her peers as "Active Annika," the now-14 year old remains so and runs every day, often with her dad, Aldo. Annika also enjoys participating in track and cross country but confesses she loves distance so cross country is her favorite.
In fact, both Annika and Aldo have signed up to be 2022 SoleMates to support future GOTR girls through the program. Aldo says they became SoleMates because they wanted to help families that couldn’t afford to do GOTR.
"So that other girls could have the same opportunity as Annika did to build confidence, make bonds and enjoy physical activities, too.”
Inspiring all girls to build confidence, make intentional decisions and foster compassion for self and others is at the heart of Girls on the Run. For Aldo, it's what helped his daughter (and other girls) the most. He noticed how the girls being surrounded by their peers — and in the absence of boys — were able to be themselves.
"When I went to see them run, it was just so great to see them upbeat, all in their little groups and seeing how happy they were, and relaxed," he recalls.
Aldo said that's something you don't generally see in a classroom setting. Most elementary-age girls in school often seem shy and quiet and introverted, much like Annika.
"By the end of season, they were all just so energetic and happy, and then when they did their last 5K together, they were all just totally different than when you saw them at the beginning of the season."
In elementary school, you don't have as many sports to pick from, Aldo added, so it was nice to have an after school activity for his daughter that provided exercise but also lessons for building confidence and creating connection.
Annika echoed her dad's sentiment, saying she really liked the positive energy and connection that Girls on the Run brought to her school. It gave her the opportunity to be there for her peers while also allowing other girls to be there for her. Annika didn't have a lot of friends but when she joined Girls on the Run, it helped her socially.
"I feel like I can open up more easily because in elementary I was shy — well, I'm still shy — but I feel like I've gotten better at it!"
Participating in a 5K with her peers made Annika feel accomplished and "super happy to be out there and doing it." Annika enjoyed the pre-5K activities of putting glitter in her hair and just hanging around with her team and enjoying it.
"I feel like I enjoyed the race, I took in the moment of just being out there and running and not so much as, 'I need to go this pace or whatever,' but just going out there and having fun."
Why Girls on the Run?
Aldo sought a program after school for Annika so she could be around her classmates more. He had always participated in some kind of sport when he was younger and wanted the same for his daughter. She was very shy but things started to change when Annika came home from GOTR practices.
"She just seemed so excited when she came home. That's all she wanted to do is talk about it. She seemed more happy and social, and she wanted to talk to other peers more."
So, what about the parents who might be wondering or on the fence about Girls on the Run?
Aldo admits that the name might be deceptive. But, it isn't just about running, it's about being part of a team and becoming more connected with your peers. He added that running might seem like a deterrent but it's really for anyone at any pace willing to bring positive energy and comradery to the team.
"It's more about building (the girls) up and the confidence they'll have to finish something together," Aldo said, noting how the whole program really boosted Annika's confidence, right down to being able to do this interview!
"Of all the things that she's accomplished over the years, we still have all these little mementos from Girls on the Run on our fridge more than any other thing because it was such a positive change."
Annika and her dad, Aldo, sharing a winning moment after a race.