New York – The roar of a passing commuter train on the nearby elevated tracks dwarfs Annika Sorenstam’s soft voice, which carries the lilting vestiges of her native Swedish. Her audience, 54 children ranging from kindergarteners to second graders who are sitting on the asphalt, doesn’t seem to notice the interruption, inured to the aural disturbances that take place every few minutes at this busy intersection.
Prior to this cool autumn day, these students of The Children’s Storefront, an independent tuition-free school in East Harlem for low-income families, had little exposure to golf and had never heard of Sorenstam. Yet her quiet confidence has won them over, and the students listen intently to the three-time U.S. Women’s Open champion and USGA ambassador as she explains the joys and benefits of physical activity, even as another train clatters past.
Their rapt attention calls to mind the story of Joyce Wethered’s feat of concentration during the 1920 English Ladies’ Championship, which she won. According to the oft-spun tale, Wethered sank a putt while a train raced past the green. When asked whether the rumble of the train had bothered her, Wethered’s alleged response was: “What train?”
Wethered was considered the best female golfer of her time, and decades later, Sorenstam dominated women’s golf with a mix of talent, consistency and mental toughness that produced 72 wins on the LPGA Tour.
Sorenstam also embraced fitness in a way few golfers previously had, and physical health remains an important aspect of her life, even in retirement. For two years, her ANNIKA Foundation has partnered with SPARK (Sports, Play, and Active Recreation for Kids) to promote physical education, health and wellness in schools.
It was this commitment that brought her to Harlem on Oct. 3, and efforts like this outreach program are part of the reason Sorenstam received the 2012 Bob Jones Award, the USGA’s highest honor.
“It is truly an honor to receive the prestigious Bob Jones Award,” said Sorenstam. “I appreciate the USGA recognizing our hard work and I will continue to try to grow and promote the game through many foundation initiatives.”
This school year, the ANNIKA Foundation, SPARK and The First Tee are sponsoring the physical education program at The Children’s Storefront, which is located on a classic Manhattan residential street, lined with brownstone stoops and fire escapes that hang from apartment buildings like elaborate jungle gyms. Lacking a gymnasium and open spaces, the school uses the street itself as a playground, blocking traffic from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Although hardly ideal, this makeshift arrangement fits the neighborhood. Harlem, after all, is the epicenter for street and asphalt games in the United States. Just blocks away sits Rucker Park, where past and present NBA stars ranging from Wilt Chamberlain to Kobe Bryant have competed in intense games of playground basketball. Baseball legend Willie Mays is said to have learned to hit curveballs by playing stickball on the streets of Harlem, just across the East River from the Polo Grounds, the former home of the New York Giants. And the nearby Apollo Theater hosts an annual worldwide Double Dutch jump-roping competition, which grew on sidewalks just like the one fronting The Children’s Storefront.
Sorenstam is adding golf to this roster of games, showing the basics of putting and chipping to students who have never touched a golf club. Although they may neither realize nor appreciate it, the experience these kids are having is the equivalent of receiving a voice lesson from Luciano Pavarotti.
“Having a woman who is world renowned at what she does come to our school is absolutely remarkable, a privilege and an honor,” said Wendy Reynoso, head of school at The Children’s Storefront. “What it will do, especially for the girls, is make it very clear that if there is something they want to do, it’s available to them.”
While several of the students take tentative strokes, the others sit on the sidewalk and cheer whenever one of their classmates hits the target with the oversize ball. Their enthusiasm for the game, Sorenstam and physical activity is clear from the way they strain forward, itching for a chance to take some swings.
After the ad hoc clinic, an informal recess breaks out on the street, and Sorenstam joins several students in Double Dutch. After turning the ropes for a while, it is Sorenstam’s turn to jump. A paragon of rhythm and timing with a golf club in her hands, the winner of the career Grand Slam struggles to time her jumps properly, tripping over the ropes after a couple of hops.
She gives up after several attempts and returns to holding the ropes. Then again, the day isn’t really about her, but rather the kids who need help overcoming the epidemic of childhood obesity, which has tripled during the past 30 years and has affected minority children in disproportionate numbers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“A lot of these kids come from tough neighborhoods and tough families,” said Sorenstam. “To inspire them and introduce them to golf, this is what they need. They need the attention, motivation and inspiration.
“Sometimes we take these things for granted, but it doesn’t take much. Right now, they’re like sponges. They can pick up good things or they can pick up bad things. So if you can teach them some important things, they have the foundation to be healthy for the rest of their lives.”
Strengthening this foundation at the school are several educators, including Helen Primrose, the physical-education teacher at The Children’s Storefront, and Dr. Cathrine Himberg, professor of kinesiology at California State University, Chico. Himberg, who has worked with SPARK and is the founder of the Center for Advancement of Standards-based Physical Education Reform (CASPER), developed the physical-education curriculum at The Children’s Storefront, which previously had lacked a comprehensive fitness program.
“We chose The Children’s Storefront because of its unique challenges,” said Himberg. “If you can implement a successful program here, you can do it anywhere. Nobody has any excuses.”
The effects were apparent from the first weeks of school. “As a result of the new program, I am noticing the kids are ready to learn when they are in the classroom,” said Reynoso. “And the level of physical fitness has increased, not just with the students but also with the staff. They’ve been so inspired that we have Tuesday Pilates classes. I’ve seen an amazing shift in terms of physical activity for the entire community.”
Golf is one of many new activities introduced to the school by Himberg. Even if there is no future member of the PGA or LPGA tour among the student body, Sorenstam will consider her visit a success if it inspires the children to embrace a healthy lifestyle.
“SPARK and The First Tee are great programs that teach kids the importance of regular physical activity and many life skills,” said Sorenstam. “My dream is that all schools in America would be like The Children’s Storefront in this regard.”
Hunki Yun is a senior writer for the USGA. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.