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first_imgIn a matter of moments as the first practice got underway, a couple hundred kids spilled into Legends Stadium and began dashing, jumping and hurdling under the warm evening sun.Some of them, as young as 6, were stepping on the track for the first time. Others were back involved in their favorite spring sports activity in Kalispell.Last week marked the start of the 40th season for the Highlander Track Club. Since it was established in 1975, the program has been both an institution and inspiration for generations of local kids who have participated in the four-week season, which features seven practices and two meets for 6 to 14 year olds from across the valley. It has served as a model for other communities while nurturing a sport with deep roots in the Flathead Valley.It has thrived so well that in 2010, the program expanded to include a cross country club in the fall and last year’s spring club had over 400 participants. It has grown so much that there are now two separate sites for practices, Legends Stadium and Glacier High School.Overall, roughly 7,000 kids have participated in Highlander programs while countless high school students have served as volunteer coaches and mentors who help teach the youngsters the basics of track and field.While the participants and mentors have changed over the years, a few influences have remained constant, evidence of their devotion to this thriving community tradition.Lew Savik, one of the original coaches, remains the club’s steadfast coordinator, helping organize the practices and meets.Last week Savik was back at it, hurrying around the stadium making sure all the teams were well situated. He also happily helped lead the high jump practice, showing the young boys and girls the proper way to catapult into the air.“It’s really been successful. Some of them learn a little something, but they’ll all get fresh air and good exercise,” Savik, 74, said.He added, “It’s just fun to watch all the coaches interact with the kids and the enthusiasm they all have for it.”Another familiar face at last week’s practice, AJ King shuffled around the track taking care of the finer details. King himself started out as a Highlander when he was 13 and went on to become a successful high school competitor. Today he remains actively involved, along with his brother, John, and the staff at Three Rivers Bank.The King family and Three Rivers Bank have been the driving force behind the club from the beginning.Jack King, the father of AJ and John, opened First Security Bank, which later became Three Rivers Bank, in 1974 and a year later spearheaded the track program as a way to nurture the sport of track and field while offering kids an outlet for exercise.Thanks to the bank’s continued support, the Highlander program remains free for all participants.“It’s been good for the kids. An awful lot of them stayed with it through high school,” Jack King said.Indeed, anyone trying to explain Kalispell’s rich tradition of track and field success would have to point to the Highlander program as a big reason. Many of the best track athletes in Montana history are Flathead High School graduates, and many of them got their start in the Highlander program.“I have so many good memories from Highlanders. I remember coming to practice and having those older kids as role models and I’d look up to them,” said Zach Perrin, a multiple state champion distance runner from Flathead who participated in Highlanders as an eighth grader before becoming a volunteer coach in high school.“I just think it’s a great program and gives kids good role models and gets them started with something that maybe they can be passionate about later in their lives.”Track is an important pastime for both Savik and the Kings.Savik grew up in Charlo and competed in the hurdles in high school, winning a pair of state championships his senior year. He arrived in Kalispell for work after getting out of the Army in 1963. He eventually connected with another track enthusiast, Neil Eliason, who launched a successful track and cross country program at Flathead Valley Community College. As the college program thrived, Eliason also launched a youth program for girls.Savik picked up the program after Eliason left and helped carry it on.Savik and King connected in 1975.The King family has a long history in Kalispell, dating back to the late 1800s, when Jack’s grandfather, Eugene A. Steere, moved to Kalispell to become the Montana State Superintendent of Public Instruction and eventually the first principal at Flathead County High School. Steere loved track and so did his kids. The heritage continued as Jack passed the passion for track and field onto his kids.“I guess it’s in our blood. We all love track,” AJ King said.A year after opening the bank, in 1975, Jack King hooked up with Savik and others to launch what became the Highlander Track Club.“The high school needed a feeder to get these kids interested in track. I wanted to get the little kids going. And that’s really what started it,” Jack King said.“We had some coaches who really understood what I was doing and helped get it going, like Joe McKay and Ken Siderius and Lew Savik. They could see the benefit. It was more than just me. It takes a whole community to help make something like (the Highlander Track Club).”Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Eugene A. Steere was the father of Jack King. Steere was King’s grandfather. Also, Steere served as the Montana State Superintendent of Public Instruction, not the city’s superintendent. And Neil Eliason founded a youth track program for girls in the 1960s prior to the group that later became the Highlander Track Club. Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup. Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox. Emaillast_img read more