Track club coach’s passion paying dividends for kids and sport

NORTH CHARLESTON – Tami Dennis was packing her team’s equipment after a long day of USATF cross-country competition last Saturday at Wannamaker Park, only to be interrupted repeatedly by parents thanking her with a handshake, a hug or both.

For the 54-year-old Isle of Palms resident, those moments help remind her that the many hours she puts into coaching the Mount Pleasant Track Club continues to pay big dividends.

Video: Mount Pleasant Track Club growing

Monica Mutter, whose son is on the Mount Pleasant team, said she was impressed with Dennis almost from the moment he first started running for her last year.

“My son started in her program for the first time last year and by the second practice she knew him by his first name,” Mutter said. “That’s pretty good when you have 80 children.  She knows every kids’ name.”

Siobhan Maize, who has two daughters in sub-bantam, said Dennis creates and maintains a “very positive” atmosphere with her program.

Maize said that prior to the start of each meet Dennis seeks out each member of the team, encouraging them to perform at their best.  Then she will head out to a spot on the course where she will offer further encouragement as they pass by.

“Her enthusiasm rubs off on the kids and on us parents,” Maize said.

At the start of each season, Dennis asks each kid to set personal goals, thresholds that Mutter said have an impact on and off the track. 

“It’s about improving PRs, doing better the next time,” Mutter said, “but Tami is also a great esteem-builder and team-builder.”

Maize agrees.

“No matter where you are performance-wise on the team, you’re still a part of the team. She’s really into teaching the kids to work towards your goal, but also help the team.”

Dennis, a Clemson graduate, started her coaching career in the Upstate 20 years ago, starting Footsteps to Fitness and the Spartanburg Striders.  She moved to Mount Pleasant in 2002 and started the track club, which has dominated competition at the state level successfully competed nationally in USA Track and Field events in cross-country and track.

She has built the program to where it now feeds young athletes into the public and private high schools in the Charleston area, including Wando, Ashley Hall, Bishop England and Porter-Gaud. The program also reaches into the collegiate side, with two of Dennis’s former kids now running at Clemson.

“The high school coaches will acknowledge that our kids go into their programs knowing how to practice, knowing how to compete,” she said. 

Dennis keeps in touch with her “kids” well into their adult lives.

“There are a couple of kids who I coached while I was in Spartanburg who are now in their mid-30s,” she said. “Once they run for me they will always be one of my kids.”

Dennis also has been successful at passing her coaching baton on to Stephanie Buffo, a former track club (Spartanburg) member who ran at Clemson and Dorman and last year served as an assistant coach for the (Mt. Pleasant) track club.

“She’s now in her early 20s and she wants to coach down the road,” Dennis said. “That, to me, brought what I do full circle.”

On the track side, Dennis said she has had a couple of ex-competitors come back during the summer to coach pole vault and “give back.”

“I’m a big believer in giving back to the sport,” she said.

The team has several assistant coaches, but its’ leadership and vitality clearly starts with Dennis, though she will tell you otherwise. 

“The nice thing is, my coaches are so good that I don’t have to worry.  They know what we have to do.”

Her energy and that coordination among her assistant coaches was tested on Saturday as the head coach noticeably favored her left foot throughout the day, the result of plantar faciitis, a heel injury that’s common among long-distance runners.

“I’ve been running for 35 years and I’ve never really had any injuries,” Dennis said.  “I guess it’s finally catching up with me.”

She’s been wearing a boot on the foot, but that device has complicated her recovery.

“It has irritated my shin and caused bruises. It’s been painful,” Dennis said.

The injury also has planted thoughts in her mind about how much longer she will coach.

“That’s the big question, isn’t it. I’m 54 and I’ve really been coaching my whole life.  There will be a point in time when it won’t be fun anymore, but it continues to be fun.”

Clearly, her passion for the sport, and more importantly for developing young children remains strong.

“I’m a volunteer; I don’t do this for money,” she said. “I do this because I really do believe that we are developing young athletes and great citizens.”

Dennis said her current group of runners is special.

“These kids love each other and they care about each other. When the season ends, these kids are chomping at the bit to get together,” she said.

That enthusiasm among the kids appears to be rubbing off on their families.

“I have the best parents and have started a lot of them running simply because their kids are running,” Dennis said. “You talk about influence, well we’re influencing families.  We’re developing healthy habits within families.”