Rick Leek was right about both of them.
Leek, the late and still beloved teacher and track coach at Girard College, saw potential in Diamond Woolford in the early 1990s and, years later, noticed another star before her ascent.
So when Girard College junior track phenom Thelma Davies performs Friday at the PIAA District 1 championships at Coatesville, she will have Woolford by her side and Leek in her heart.
“Mr. Leek, may he rest in peace, was the first person who actually told me I had potential in running,” said Davies, who set PIAA Class 2A state records in the 100- and 200-meter dashes as a freshman (11.58 and 23.85 seconds, respectively). She also won both 2A crowns as a sophomore (11.68, 24.15).
“When he passed away,” she said of Leek, “I just vowed to continue running for him.”
Davies, who this season has battled an allergic reaction to ibuprofen that has caused patches of dark black spots on her arms and legs, is set to compete in the 100 and 200 and possibly the 4×100 relay this weekend.
She also runs for her late grandmother, Anna Johnson, who was her earliest supporter, although Johnson had cancer and died before witnessing Davies in competition.
Leek had a heart attack and died suddenly in 2014, a few days after his birthday, Davies said. He had been a popular teacher at the school, where he started in 1988. But he also seems to have been much more.
“In a way, [the athletes] were his children,” said Bill Gallagher, a teacher at Girard College since 1975. “He loved that team. He was incredibly successful with all the teams that he coached, but I think he had a bond with each kid that transcended” sports.
Leek noticed something special when Woolford, a West Philadelphia native and the current Girard track coach, was in middle school.
Leek encouraged Woolford, who also loved basketball, to commit on the track. Woolford excelled in the long jump, triple jump, 100 and 200 and graduated in 1999 as one of the school’s best track athletes.
He also competed at Penn State, where he stayed as a volunteer assistant after college when coaching a high school team was not in his plans.
But Woolford kept in touch with Leek, who let him know about a sixth grader named Thelma with gobs of potential.
“Mr. Leek helped me out and basically passed the baton for me to help out future athletes here, from Thelma to the other athletes we have now,” Woolford said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better situation.”
Woolford has asked around and done research and believes that Davies could become the first athlete in the state to win two events four years in a row. Rochester’s Lauryn Williams won the 100 and 200 in 1999, 2000 and 2001, and Beaver Falls’ Domenic Perretta won the 800 and 1600 in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
If this weekend at the district meet goes according to her plan, Davies could earn her third straight championship in the 100 and 200 next weekend at the PIAA championships in Shippensburg.
“Continuing the work that Mr. Leek started with [Thelma] is a great honor,” Woolford said. “I owe that man everything. To this day I always appreciate what he did for me.”