SALT LAKE CITY — Every June for the past 20 years, a group of kids ages 2 to 10 of all shapes, sizes and colors has gathered for a track meet at the East High School track. Well over 100 kids run for fun in 50-meter and 100-meter “dashes,” 80-meter hurdles and a 400-meter race-walk, as well a softball throw, standing long jump and Turbo Javelin.
It’s the brainchild of Roland Tolbert, who has been developing some of the top track and field talent in the state since the early 1980s. This particular event, called the “Tiny Tots Track Meet,” began a couple of decades ago because his 3-year-old daughter, Sasha, begged him to be a part of the regular track meets her father ran every week with older kids during the summer.
"She’d say, ‘I want to run, Dad,’ and she’d go home crying,” Tolbert says with a chuckle. “So I said, ‘I’m going to start a track meet for you,’ and we’ve been running it ever since.”
No times are kept and each kid gets a medal and a certificate in the meet that is publicized purely by word of mouth. Which is easy to do, considering all the thousands of kids Tolbert has coached for more than three decades.
Tolbert runs the Cheetahs Track Club, which is also referred to as the Central City Cheetahs, although kids from all over the valley and some even as far away as Wyoming participate three days a week during the summer.
Of his Tiny Tots Track Meet, Tolbert says, “We’re trying to get kids at an early age to get active and get moving. You see the little hurdles. Whether they go over them or around them or kick them over, it’s just the fact that it’s something they do naturally. Run, jump and throw — kids don’t have to work hard to do that. It’s a natural thing they do, so it makes the sport easy to coach.”
Jeremiah Steenblik competed in athletics at Olympus High and had his daughter in a program in Salt Lake County. He saw the Cheetahs at a local meet and was impressed enough to bring his 10-year-old daughter, Chloe, to work in Tolbert’s program in the hurdles and 100- and 400-meter dashes.
“It’s great,” he says. “Even though it’s a rec track club, he coaches and obviously takes it serious and prepares the kids for future track and field if they stick with it. That’s good for kids. You want it to be fun, but kids also need that structure.”
Many families have several kids in the program, and after all these years, Tolbert has children of his former students coming out to run and jump and throw.
“It’s exciting, just to know they want to bring their kids back to compete in this program,” Tolbert says. “I think it’s special.”
This summer, Tolbert has 245 kids in his program, ages 6 to 18, and has had as many as 275 in the past. The older high school age athletes train three days a week from 4 to 5 p.m., while the kids 6-14 go from 4 to 5. There are also weekly meets, and the better athletes, a couple of dozen or so, will compete in regional and national meets, which will be held in Bozeman, Montana, and Lawrence, Kansas, respectively, later this summer.
“I focus on running, jumping, throwing and conditioning,” Tolbert says. “Kids these days are so into staying at home and just playing games, our whole focus is to teach every kid how to be active. Whether they do this for football, track or soccer and we tell kids ‘you’re out here to get better at whatever else you want to do. If nothing else, be better at being fit.’”
Tolbert grew up in California, but when he was 16 his family moved to Utah, which was a big adjustment for him.
“I looked at my parents and said, ‘what country is that?’” recalls Tolbert on his initial reaction to the move to the Beehive State.
He settled in and ran track and played football for South High School, then went down to College of Eastern Utah in Price for track and field. Tolbert had a natural jumping ability and excelled in both the long jump and triple jump and became one of the top junior college jumpers in the nation.
After two years of college, he came back to Salt Lake and decided to stay involved in track and field and began coaching youths in the summer at Northwest Recreation. He and his wife made T-shirts for their initial 12 kids with “Northwest Roadrunners” printed on the front. That evolved into the Central City Cheetahs, a group, that’s grown to 200-plus over the years.
The program is run through Salt Lake County Recreation, but the club is also a non-profit entity, which allows it to take kids to regional and national meets through fundraisers and donations.
Kids run a race at a Cheetahs Track Club meet at East High School in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 6, 2017. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Tolbert’s primary job is with Salt Lake Building and Grounds, but has coached track at South, West and East high schools for 20 years, and just this past year became the head coach at East for the second time and also assists the East football team. But he doesn’t limit his club to athletes in the East High area.
“Kids come from all over,” he says. “It shows the variety of our program with different nationalities and being able to mesh kids from the west side and the east side and all different cultures and bring them here and say, 'you know, we’re all one family.’ Those are the little things that make me feel good.
“And we treat them all the same, the heavy kid, the small kid, slow or fast, we do the same thing — you run as hard as everybody else. You’re going to work as hard as everybody else, and I think it makes the kids feel good. I don’t put anyone on a pedestal. They’re no different than this kid who doesn’t know how to run.”
Cal Beck laughs when he says he has known Tolbert for “decades,” considering that Beck is 15 years younger than his mentor. Beck was a star for the 1994 Utah football team, but had his career cut short because of migraine headaches. But track was always his first love and he competed from the time he was a youngster both for and against Tolbert’s Cheetahs.
“I love the program,” Beck says. “I ran against and with CCC growing up and I appreciate what Roland is doing here. There was no question that when I wanted to come back and coach that this was the program I wanted to bring my boys to and help as well. They figured they could use my loud voice.”
Beck’s two sons are 9 and 4, and he’s at East every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, helping with the dozens of kids on the track.
Miles Crockett, 7, participates in a softball shot put during a Cheetahs Track Club meet at East High School in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 6, 2017. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
“He focuses on the local kids and gives them an opportunity to compete in regionals and nationals,” Beck says, “if they’re willing to put in the work and develop and get them to high-stakes championship track meets. A lot of them are starting to see that success build up and go to the next level.”
One of Tolbert’s current stars is Will Prettyman, who took state in three events this year, winning the 100-meter, 200-meter and long jump titles in the 4A meet. He’s just a sophomore and will certainly be offered a college scholarship in a couple of years.
Prettyman has been training with Tolbert since he was 7 years old, and after he works out for an hour in the hot afternoon sun, he stays and helps the younger kids for an hour. He gives Tolbert much of the credit for his progress.
“He’s my favorite,” Prettyman says. “I feel so lucky to have him as my high school coach and rec coach. He’s a very good coach. He lays the law down and there are times when you’re mad at him but he’s able to turn it around.”
Tolbert tells a story about when Prettyman went to his first national meet when he was just 12 years old.
“Will was the only white kid in the race and he was a wreck,” said Tolbert, who is African-American. “I told him, ‘we all bleed the same. Just because you look to your left and to your right and see African-Americans, that doesn’t mean anything. You’re at the same level.’”
Tolbert took Prettyman to a field away from the track and crowd to warm him up and get him relaxed. As it turned out, Prettyman very nearly won the 100-meter race, finishing in second place by just one one-hundreth of a second.
“It was one of those moments you’ll never forget,” Tolbert said. “That’s what propelled him. That’s when we knew, this kid is special.”
Now 56, Tolbert says he feels the effects of age after getting replacements for both knees. He and his wife, Tammy, have five kids and eight grandkids, and while some have competed in track, just as many have been involved in dancing and cheerleading. His oldest granddaughter excels in golf and volleyball.
“I like it here. When I’m not (at the track) I’m up there,” he said, pointing to the mountains. “That’s where I spend my time. I boat and fish — I love it up there.”
Monica Harrison congratulates her daughter, Serphina, 5, after a race at a Cheetahs Track Club meet at East High School in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 6, 2017. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Besides teaching proper running and jumping techniques, Tolbert stresses life lessons, like giving back.
“I tell them, ‘you’re a Cheetah for life, I‘ll always be here for you,’” he says. “I have a rule for them. After you graduate from high school whether you go to college, get married, go on a mission, you come back here and give back to the program, either as a coach helping with track meets or anything else in the program — just give back.”
As for his future plans, Tolbert doesn’t have plans to quit anytime soon.
“I watched my little grandson run yesterday — he’s almost 2 — and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Wow, I could be doing this for a little while.’”