A Nonprofit On the Right Track

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Co-president of The Armory Foundation on helping to run the longstanding track and field area


  • Rita Finkel would like to see more people in the stands, because when they come, "they have the time of their lives." Photo: Justin Gaymon

  • On “Ida Keeling Day” in mid-December, when 102-year-old Keeling, a native of Harlem, spoke with kids at The Armory in Washington Heights. Keeling, who established the world record in the 100m dash for women 100 and over in 2016 at the Penn Relays, met with children who participate in The Armory’s CityTrack and Little Feet Program. Photo courtesy of The Armory

“We call it ‘the fastest track in the world,’ because more records have been set on our track than any other,” said Rita Finkel. As co-president of the Armory Foundation, the nonprofit that serves the track and field community of New York, she ensures that the organization — pun intended — runs at full capacity.

Located in Washington Heights, The Armory has over a century of history with the sport, as documentation of the first runners there goes back to 1914. It is also the track on which more than 57 high school and 12 professional American records have been set. Now, it holds 100 competitions per year, is home to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame and has the largest afterschool center in the city, with programming for close to 2,000 high schoolers and 300 elementary school students.

Finkel has been with The Armory since 2006, after its president, Dr. Norbert Sander — the only male New York City resident to have ever won the New York City Marathon — invited her to join his team. When he passed away in 2017, she assumed the role of co-president, along with Jonathan Schindel.

On February 3rd, they will host the NYRR Millrose Games, the oldest and most prestigious indoor track and field meet, with participants ranging from eight-year-old athletes to Olympians.

You’ve been with The Armory for over 11 years. Explain what led you there.

I’m the mother of three daughters who were fencers, and was hanging around the Fencers Club and invited to run it. They never had an employee in 115 years. I loved the intersection of kids, sport and education. As my kids got older and my world got a little bit bigger, I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Sander one day and he called me up and said, “Come meet me and have a tour of The Armory.” And I helped him with something ... and he called me and said, “You’ve been there seven years; do you have the seven-year itch yet?” And I said, “Actually, I kind of do,” and he said, “Come work with me.”

Tell us about Armory College Prep, which helps runners get into college.

It’s unscreened; whoever’s running on the track can come down and participate. We have a wonderful classroom on the first floor called The Classroom to Everywhere, and we help them get into four-year colleges with all of the funding that’s necessary to get them through. It’s not enough to just get them into school. That continues to be a big project for me. We have been working with students in grades 9 through 12 to help get them into college, but decided we wanted more time to help them really succeed. What was happening was the kids really were walking in the first week of December of their senior year and there’s very little you can do then, other than pushing around papers at that point. So in order to get them to come earlier, we began an educational middle school program. We have this longstanding track program called CityTrack [for sixth, seventh and eighth graders] that has been at the Armory for 16 years. And that’s specifically for middle school students, so we started to recruit from that program into the academic one and that has been a great way to provide substantial help to our students.

A lot of the programming is free for students. How is it funded?

So that’s what I do with the rest of my life. The academic programs are a million dollars a year. CityTrack is funded by a private donor, Susan Waterfall, who has done this for 16 years, raising money for it. And then the Flom Family Foundation underwrote Little Feet [their program for third, fourth and fifth graders]. So we spend a lot of time raising money.

The National Track and Field Hall of Fame is in the building, with 284 people inducted to date.

The Hall of Fame is an interesting hybrid. In 2004, in a bidding process, we won the opportunity to be the home of the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. And for years, they did their induction somewhere else. So we were after them to say, “Come to the Armory, and induct your athletes however how you see fit.” So three years ago, they began the Black Tie and Sneakers Gala and bring in all the athletes and do this wonderful night where the greats of track and field come in. We have Al Oerter’s memorabilia, shoes from Michael Johnson, Rafer Johnson. It’s really a beautiful installation. And recently, we took a tour that Dr. Sander had videotaped and just sliced it all up and on your smartphone, you can come in and have a tour led by him.

The Armory became a homeless shelter in the ‘80s. Tell us about that part of its history.

It was a state-owned building, and in the 1980s, they turned it into a homeless shelter. And there were thousands of homeless men who lived on the drill floor. The state decided it was not a good way to use the space, and they were closing those really big shelters. So Dr. Sander started to petition the city to give it back to the runners. He said, “You don’t have to give me any money, just give me the keys.” And so the state sold the building to the city and Mayor Dinkins handed him the keys and said, “Good luck.”

Give us an example of a record that was broken there.

The most famous record that was set at the Armory was the indoor high school boys’ mile. The very first sub-four-minute mile was set on The Armory track by Alan Webb. And it had stood for a very long time. Two years ago, Drew Hunter broke it.

What do you want the future of The Armory to look like?

I’d like to see more students, and younger students. More people in the stands, because whenever anybody comes, they have the time of their lives. And it’s less expensive than a movie and it’s wholesome. These kids are growing up healthy, and it’s a sport they can do for the rest of their lives. So there are so many reasons to support running, jumping and throwing. Every season we try to do something new and exciting that enhances the spectator and athlete experience. Because it’s very important to us that people walk away and say, “That was just great.”


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