Tami Dennis has been head coach of the Mount Pleasant Track Club for more than 20 years | Photo by Andy Brack

Mount Pleasant coach Tami Dennis swims to keep fit, but she dreams day and night of running.

As the founding head coach of the Mount Pleasant Track Club, she is being honored with the Joseph P. Riley Jr. Award at this year’s Cooper River Bridge Run.

“The Joseph P. Riley Jr. Award is given each year to a person who has unselfishly dedicated their time and energy in promoting health and wellness in the Lowcountry of Charleston,” said race director Irv Batten. “Tami Dennis embodies what this award is about. She has dedicated herself to promoting health and wellness through her involvement with the Mount Pleasant Track Club. It’s amazing what she has done with the youth of Mount Pleasant.”

Dennis, 64, is humbled by the honor. 

“One of my greatest accomplishments is getting such a great group of coaches who love what they do and make my job much easier.” And then there are the kids. 

The club, founded in 2003 with about 20 youths, exploded to more than 400 participants with 35 coaches through the years. It’s one of the nation’s top running clubs — and maybe the top one for a town the size of Mount Pleasant. Most of the prominent clubs are in metro areas like Los Angeles, Atlanta and Houston.

First a swimmer, then a runner

Dennis, who grew up in Spartanburg, started competitive swimming as a youngster, eventually lettering as a freshman at Clemson University. She also coached swimming with her dad as a teenager. 

“My goal was to letter,” she recalled recently. “I swam five hours a day.”

But Clemson only offered one scholarship for a woman swimmer in the late 1970s. When she didn’t win, she stopped swimming competitively.

“I set my goal, hit my goal and then experienced college,” she joked.

After Clemson, she worked in sales for IBM, followed by a sales career as a pharmaceutical representative. But she also started running to keep fit. Her competitive nature, spawned by her father, kicked in. And she ran and ran. 

“It’s easier to do. You don’t need a pool. And I started running as stress relief for my job.”

So while in Spartanburg, she started a children’s running program called Footsteps to Fitness. It eventually grew to a program offered in 38 schools with more than 2,500 student runners. She also started the Spartanburg Striders running club and coached it for 15 years. It produced several All-Americans and two national champions.

Then sales job transfer brought her and her Ravenel-born husband Ray to the Lowcountry in the early 2000s. 

“He wanted to come down here to play golf 12 months of the year instead of 11.”

And it wasn’t long before the coaching bug bit again, thanks to the town of Mount Pleasant’s recreation department director who wanted to develop a track team.

Since then, the all-volunteer team has grown and grown. Dennis oversees three dozen coaches who oversee competitive running for about 400 youths. Over the last 20 years, more than 600 of the club’s track athletes have been state champions, 169 received All-American honors and 17 became national champions. Its cross country team has had 94 individual and 139 team state champions, five dozen regional champs and individual All-Americans, and 17 team All-Americans.

Still coaching running, but back to swimming

After years of competitive running, Dennis has switched back to swimming. It’s easier on the legs. And she’s retired, so she has the time.

“I swam two miles this morning,” she said one afternoon earlier this month. “I’ve got arthritis in my left knee so I run a little tiny bit, but I’m mostly walking/swimming. I’m swimming 6 miles a week and walking 20 miles.”

She’s looking forward to the April 1 Cooper River Bridge Run — just like she always has.

“I ran the Bridge Run for 32 years in a row and I was usually in the top five or top 10 of my age group,” she said. “Even when I lived in Spartanburg, we would bring 150 people a year for the Bridge Run.”

For her, the Bridge Run has always been the biggest deal of the year.

“I went from doing 30 races a year to one a year and that was the Bridge Run,” she said. “It was always the race that was circled on my calendar.”

These days, she roots for her club’s runners from the sidelines around the one-mile marker of the race. 

“I warm up. I wear my running stuff and then I go to the one-mile mark and cheer on all of my kids,” she said. “My mind thinks I’m doing it, but my body says I’m not.”

The Cooper River Bridge Run is seared into her soul.

“It’s always been the epitome of the racing community. It’s the biggest deal in South Carolina.

“The Cooper River Bridge Run has brought a lot of support from the running community all over the world. I’m saddened by the fact that I can’t participate as a runner now, but I love the fact that I coach a lot of people who do run it and support it.”

The race starts 8 a.m. April 1. No fooling.

Andy Brack is editor and publisher of the Charleston City Paper.

Riley Award winners through the years

Winners of the Joseph P. Riley Jr. Award from the Cooper River Bridge Run are recognized annually for their unselfish dedication to promoting health and wellness across the Lowcountry. Past winners include:

2015: Noah Moore
2016: Marka Rodgers and Adam Gorlitsky
2017: Susan Johnson and Janis Newton
2018: Bill Macchio and Cullen Murray-Kemp
2019: Dr. Janice D. Key
2020: Dr. Marcus Newberry
2022: Paul Wieters

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