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Meet the woman who is using running to teach young girls they can do anything they want to do

Kelly Teeselink, executive director of the Eastern Iowa region of Girls on the Run, smiles in front of a banner after th
Kelly Teeselink, executive director of the Eastern Iowa region of Girls on the Run, smiles in front of a banner after the fall 5K race in November in Cedar Rapids. The banner was made by girls involved in the program and was used as a photo backdrop during the race event. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Teeselink)
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Like so many runners, Kelly Teeselink, director of the Eastern Iowa Girls on the Run program, started running because she wanted to lose weight.

“At that time, I was at my heaviest and my unhealthiest, and I was just kind of over it,” she said. “I’d always wanted to be a runner, because, you know, in my mind, runners were skinny and running was the quickest way to burn calories.”

Growing up with an eating disorder, Teeselink, 33, said she had never felt comfortable in her own skin — she saw her body for the things she felt needed to change, and not for the incredible feats it was capable of doing.

That’s why the lessons Girls on the Run aims to teach young girls about self-love, self-esteem and self-confidence ring so true to her.

“Speaking personally, if I had learned some of these things at 9 or 10 years old, it would likely have prevented me from taking that path that so many women and girls take — looking at what the scale says and what my body looks like and equating that with my value as a person,” Teeselink said. “From a very early age, girls are told they are supposed to look a certain way — they see it on TV, in movies, in magazines — and if they don’t look like that they are less valuable as a person. We’re trying to counteract that messaging.”

Girls on the Run is a national nonprofit that uses running and goal-setting to teach third- through eighth-grade girls about healthy living, exercise and respect for their bodies, while infusing the girls with confidence, self-worth, resilience and an appreciation of their bodies for what they can do rather than what they look like.

“So what we’re trying to do is give girls the tools to be able to think critically about that messaging,” Teeselink said. “So when they see a magazine cover, and it’s telling them they can have a toned butt in 10 steps, they are able to look at that and acknowledge ‘yes this magazine cover is telling me that this is important,’ but recognize that it’s really not like that. That doesn’t make me a better version of myself.”

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In Eastern Iowa, Girls on the Run has teams in roughly 40 communities — serving about 550 girls — from the Cedar Falls-Waterloo area all the way down to Washington.

Most teams meet at their local schools for about an hour and a half, twice a week during the 10-week program. The program runs in two seasons each year — one in the fall and one in the spring, and each season ends with a 5K run, which serves as the organization’s major fundraiser.

Each team has at least three, if not more, coaches who work with the girls every week on running as well as the lesson for that session.

Teeselink began volunteering as a coach for Girls on the Run at Horn Elementary School in 2012. She was named executive director in 2018.

Teeselink started coaching at a time when she was starting to appreciate running, and the lessons she was teaching the girls unexpectedly taught her about herself and how running has changed her life.

“I was just really starting to get into running,” she said. “Running wasn’t something I grew up doing. I started with the Couch to 5K program and after I completed that program, I started to run more.”

Like a lot of runners, Teeselink started signing up for races, and eventually started training for half and full marathons.

Teeselink said she was volunteering at a 5K race when she saw a couple of young girls playing — both were wearing Girls on the Run T-shirts. After doing some research, Teeselink said she knew she wanted to get involved.

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“At first, I didn’t really understand what it was really all about,” she said. “So, when I started coaching, later that year, I kind of realized, ‘OK, this is way more than just running,’ and it kind of helped me understand the role that running has played in my life.

“I realized running had helped me view my body in a way that I hadn’t before, and that was with pride for what it can do, rather than what it looks like or what the scale says or what size pants I was wearing,” she added. “You know I spent so much energy focusing on the numbers revolving around my body — like how many calories did I consume today? How many did I burn? — all these things that don’t really matter. So, running has just given me a freedom that I’d never had, and I don’t think I really understood that until I coached Girls on the Run and realized the things that we were teaching the girls were the things I was learning.”

One of Teeselink’s favorite lessons the girls learn is on negative self-talk.

“I think girls and women, we essentially grow up thinking it’s OK and normal to talk negatively about ourselves whether that’s in our head or out loud,” she said. “So we work with the girls to help them learn to recognize when they’re doing that and to put a stop to it, and how to flip the switch and talk and think positively about themselves.”

Girls on the Run is a volunteer and donation-driven organization, Teeselink said. All the coaches are volunteers who donate their time to work with these girls, and donations not only support the organization’s operating needs, but they also help to pay for scholarships for girls whose families might not be able to afford to pay the $160 enrollment fee.

Men and women are welcome to volunteer, and coaches do not have to have an in-depth knowledge of running, Teeselink said.

And in working to encourage girls to believe in their limitless potential, Teeselink said she has found that same unlimited power inside herself.

After training for half marathons and marathons, Teeselink decided she wanted to push herself further and jumped into ultra running. Teeselink ran her first 100-mile race in Ohio. Since then she has run four more 100-mile races and is training for a sixth.

“It’s really hard to say if Girls on the Run played a role in the belief that I could go farther, but I would very much bet money that it did,” she said. “Teaching those girls that they can truly do anything that they want to and that they are full of limitless potential, I have no doubt that has really helped me realize that I also have limitless potential. I don’t have to stop at a marathon, if I don’t want to. If I want to go farther, I can go farther.”

Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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