‘McFarland USA’ runners to visit Park City
April 25, 2018
In 1987, a cross-country team from McFarland High School in California had an unlikely win at the state championships. Twenty-eight years later, Disney released a film about the team and its story. Soon, two of the runners will be in Park City to speak to students.
Johnny Samaniego and Thomas Valles, who ran for the team that inspired the film "McFarland USA," plan to visit various classes and clubs to share their personal stories. They were part of a cross-country team of Latino immigrants that went on to win multiple state titles. Samaniego and Valles are scheduled to meet with the Park City High School Latinos in Action group, the school's track team and Ecker Hill Middle School's after-school program on May 3. On May 4, they plan to visit McPolin Elementary School and Treasure Mountain Junior High.
Keren Mazanec, a local parent who helped organize their visit, said that she hopes the event inspires Park City youth, particularly Latinos who might find similarities in the life stories of Samaniego and Valles.
The men are coming to Park City thanks to an unexpected meeting last fall. While touring to visit schools in Texas, they met Elaine Murray, a local parent. She asked if they would visit Park City, and they agreed. After a few months of futile attempts to find funding for their visit, she met Mazanec.
“Champions can come from anywhere. If champions came from McFarland, they can definitely come from Park City, Utah,” Johnny Samaniego, former runner for McFarland High School’s cross-country team
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"When she told me that these guys actually go around and talk to people, I immediately just said, 'Why can't we have them here?'" Mazanec said.
Mazanec started planning their visit and soon, she and Murray found another parent, Mark Lemons, to assist. He arranged a gift from the Lemons Family Foundation to the Park City Education Foundation to help bring Samaniego and Valles to Park City. There was other community support to bring them here as well.
When Murray approached Lemons, he had not seen the movie, but he watched it soon after and decided that he would do what he could to bring them here.
"It's an inspiring story," he said. "It helps to get us more connected and to promote social equity."
Samaniego and Valles are now coaches themselves at McFarland High School. Samaniego coaches the girls high school basketball team and Valles is the assistant coach for girls and boys distance running. Since the movie was released in 2015, they have toured schools across the country.
Valles said that he enjoys sharing his story about the difficult times he passed through in his youth as his parents divorced and he struggled with dyslexia through schooling. Running saved him, he said.
"I ended up running in college, and that's what opened doors for me and my education," he said.
He and Samaniego ended up graduating from California State University in Bakersfield.
Valles said that when he started sharing his story, he did not think that it was very significant. But then he began to from youth who thanked him, because they had shared experiences. Now, he loves to show the youth that if he can make it out of a bad situation, so can they.
Samaniego, who had his own challenges growing up, said that since they have the "platform to share our stories to inspire and motivate kids," they feel like they should.
A big part of Samaniego and Valles' story includes that of their coach, Jim White, who helped them see their potential and reach it.
"We all have a Jim White," Valles said.
Samaniego said that it is important for the youth to have positive role models, and they hope to be that for the students that they visit.
Mazanec said that every student can learn from their story, because everyone must overcome obstacles in life. She hopes that those who attend walk away knowing that they can do anything they set their minds to.
Samaniego and Valles are excited to visit Utah for the first time and share that message.
"Champions can come from anywhere," Samaniego said. "If champions came from McFarland, they can definitely come from Park City, Utah."
Students from Treasure Mountain Junior High who are interested in attending the assembly with Samaniego and Valles must first watch the movie. The school plans to show it on April 30 or May 1 from 2:45 to 4:45 p.m. There will also be a showing of the film in Spanish on Saturday, April 28, at the Jim Santy Auditorium in the Park City Library at 3 p.m.
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