Coach Helps Kids Put Best Foot Forward
Coach Hilliard Sumner was huddled with a group of parents under a large umbrella at the Birmingham High School track field on a recent Saturday morning, when a sudden downpour threatened to end yet another Valley Raiders Track Club meet.
As water cascaded down the bill of his cap, the tall, lean coach glanced around the field, suddenly grabbed his stopwatch and dashed to the sodden track in time to yell, “Finisher!” to each of a handful of young sprinters sloshing across the finish line.
“I don’t care if they win the race,” Sumner said. “I want to help give them the tools to enhance their self-esteem and the tools to address the next task they’re told they can’t achieve.”
The young athletes splashing around Tom Bradley Stadium track, clothes stuck to their bodies, begged the coach not to call the meet. When parents were asked why the kids were willing to compete under such adverse conditions, they say the answer is simple: Coach Sumner.
“We’re here because of him,” said Gayle Levinson, whose 9-year-old son, Jonathan, is completing his third year of training under Sumner. “He’s tough, but he always remembers that kids are kids. He knows what they can do and insists they do it right.”
The self-effacing Sumner, 52, says his involvement stems from his strong conviction that adults must be strong role models for kids.
“I’m tired of hearing people talk about what’s wrong with kids,” said the divorced father of four, who gives about 20 hours a week to the track club. “Too many parents believe that if they give kids $10, that’s enough. I can guarantee that kids would far prefer the parent give them an hour of support.”
Sumner, of Woodland Hills, signed on with the Valley Raiders Track Club--a nonprofit organization that offers training and competition opportunities to 6- to 15-year-olds--five years ago and became head coach and athletic director two years ago.
Sumner’s sports career began in his native Philadelphia, where he ran high school track and also excelled in football, basketball, tennis and golf.
Following high school and a short stint in the Air Force, he earned a degree in accounting at Philadelphia’s Temple University. He also holds a business certificate from the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate in nutrition from Clayton School of Healing in Atlanta.
Sumner’s athletic accomplishments mirrored his academic and business successes. He won the gold medal in the 10,000-meter track event at the 1967 Pan American Games, and became a three-time national champion in the 100 meters, and five-time national champion in the 400 meters in 1975.
He settled in Woodland Hills later that same year, working as a financial consultant for several companies over the next decade.
Since 1987, he has coached runners at Chaminade College Preparatory in West Hills, Taft High School in Woodland Hills and served as sprint coach at USC in 1990. He now divides his time between his Health Energy Center business in Woodland Hills and his volunteer coaching duties with the Valley Raiders and Win America track clubs, where, parents say, all the kids feel like winners.
“Coach Sumner manages to encourage the youth to achieve their potential through self-confidence and self-esteem,” said Valley Raiders parent Michael Gerety. “My son has grown so much. He feels great about himself.”
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