Before she became a two-time Olympic Trial qualifier, Ronda White was a member of the Charlotte Flights.
It's been almost 10 years since White competed for the Charlotte-area youth track-and-field program, but she still feels indebted to the coaches who helped her prepare for college and life.
On March 11-12, White, who helped the Flights win a national championship in the 400-meter relay as a teenager, will have the chance to reconnect with some of those coaches, as well as fellow athletes she knew in the program.
This year, the Flights are recognizing their 20th anniversary; they will start the celebration with a weekend's worth of feel-good events.
On March 11, the Flights will host an informal gathering where current and former athletes and coaches can socialize. The event, at the Revolution Park Sports Academy, is free and open to the public.
The following day, the group will host a formal banquet at the University City Hilton. Charlotte television and radio personality Steve Crump will serve as the emcee for the fundraiser.
The banquet's keynote speaker will be Stephanie Hightower, a former world-class sprinter and hurdler.
Hightower has held national and world records and earned a spot on the 1980 Olympic Team, though she didn't compete in the Moscow Olympics because the United States boycotted those games.
Hightower is president of USA Track and Field, the national sanctioning body for the sport. The Flights became a member of USTAF in 2005.
That membership was a pivotal step for the program, which always had prided itself in developing youths in more than just track and field. Team President Alvin Woods said the Flights joined the organization so that its scholarship-seeking athletes could get a greater amount of exposure to college programs that were recruiting them.
The team was founded by Mecklenburg Park and Recreation employees Anthony James and Cynthia Smith-Perkins in 1991. They worked at the Double Oaks and Earle Village Recreation Centers, respectively, and noticed a lot of children would run between the two neighboring facilities.
"We had these kids that didn't have anything to do," said James, who is still the Flights' head coach. "Their parents didn't have money to send them to day camp, but we wanted to give them something to do."
The program quickly developed to include all track and field events and became a national power within the Amateur Athletic Union sanctioning body.
The Flights started with 20 youths, and its 15- to 16-year-old 400-meter relay team qualified for the AAU national championships in the first year. One of those runners, Trey Miles, now 35 and an art teacher at West Charlotte High, eventually served as a coach for the Flights for about 10 years; he now serves on its board of directors.
In 1996, Jamorya Funderburk became the Flights first national champion, winning the long jump in the 15- to 16-year-old division. In 20 years, the Flights have produced 49 national champions. Woods said he guesses approximately 300-400 former Flights athletes have received college scholarships.
Membership peaked with a yearly average of 400 athletes between the late 1990s and early 2000s. Enrollment dipped to 185 members in 2010, a result, Woods feels, of parents' needing to prioritize their money in a poor economy. Registration for the program is $100, and parents are responsible for travel and other costs.
The Flights have made large strides in areas off the track as well. In 1994, the group incorporated, and it received federal nonprofit status in 1998.
In 1994, the program established a relationship with Johnson C. Smith University. The Flights supported the partnership between JCSU and Mecklenburg Park to help get the Irwin Belk Track and Field Complex constructed at the university in 2003.
The Flights host an annual meet (sometimes at UNC Charlotte) in the memory Dr. Jim Law, the JCSU professor who advocated the partnership with the Flights and the construction of the track.
Flights coaches and volunteers helped with timing and in other capacities as JCSU hosted the NCAA Division II Outdoor Track and Field Championships in 2007.
The network of support that the Flights offers, within and outside of its program, is what Ronda White fondly remembers about competing in track and field as a youth.
"For me, the Charlotte Flights was like a family," she said.
"You often see programs that don't come together as a team. With the Flights, the coaches would talk to team and talk to the parents. It was just a close-knit family."