Olympic Touchstones Part III – Land of the Cascades and the Olympics

I have always approached challenges with a tendency to throw myself fully into the task at hand, a fact which typically means that I remain unable to play the role of jack of all trades. There are many that tout the skill of multi-tasking, and while I do believe in crisis management and a need to sometimes juggle, I also don’t buy into the theories that encourage or enable fractured focus.

It’s not surprising that, on occasion, I have to make some difficult choices about what are and are not a feasible pursuits or uses of time, and in turn I have always coached athletes to do the same. In my own life, I only lasted a limited amount of time as a coach of both distance running and soccer, dedicating myself to cross country in the fall, which overlapped with early soccer season, which in turn overlapped with the beginning of track. Just as I was often told by HS soccer players that I attempted to ‘recruit’ out for running, or by runners whose commitment I question as less than 100%, I do understand such positions and decisions because I have been faced with similar dilemmas myself. I make no bones about the fact that I am a demanding coach, but I will always meet an athlete 50% of of the way, whether that takes an ounce or ton of investment on my part.

I spent my last several years in S. California as one that drank the running Kool Aid and become completely committed to the lifestyle. And still, faithful to one of my other innate flaws, I yearned for new challenge. This tug, along with a number of other personal, practical and quality of life considerations, led me to the beautiful Pacific Northwest and a job at another small school in Tacoma, WA.

Mt Rainier frames the city of Tacoma

Rather than assuming the reins of a powerhouse program like Mead HS, across the state, where my eventual friend Pat Tyson coached, or even across town at Bellarmine Prep or Gig Harbor HS, I landed a teaching job at a school that was in the process of resurrecting cross country, with no certain success as part of the prognosis at the time.

Looking back now, I still laugh at how bleak the prospects were, but I was enticed by the tales of a frosh that had a mustered a solid frosh track season, running right around 4:30 for the 1600 with a decent 800m to match. The only bad news? Tom also played goalie for the HS and a club soccer team. Upon arrival in WA, I learned that the cross country coaching duties were to be shared with a fellow teaching colleague, and as the boys’ coach I had a list of five guys that comprised the roster at the time. One of those boys was described as a ‘nice kid’ and a ‘definite maybe’ that might run but might also serve as a team manager instead. I don’t know what possessed me to place any real stock whatsoever in the future of that team. There were no real elements of success waiting to be assembled. The brightest spot was a muted, literally, promise from Tom to give cross country some thought over the summer.

That August, as I introduced our small group, seven strong when all was said and done, to the notion of pre-season training, I began to see in practice what I knew in theory was going to be a real challenge. After a lot of waffling from Tom – I had put him in a tough spot – and a some days of missed practice to finish summer reading, he did make the unpopular move of leaving the soccer program to join our team. Regardless of your situation, success starts when you find ‘The One’ around whom you can build, and Tom was just that. Not long after I planted my feet at Charles Wright, I wrote out a set of three-year goals that included what must have seemed like some ludicrous objectives. Among them were the following, in no particular order here:

  • roster 20 runners
  • podium team finish at state
  • win league as a team
  • coach a Foot Locker finalist
  • have the team attend summer camp

Charles Wright cross country goals

The full list of goals , scrawled onto a legal pad, features items with far more basic underpinnings, but it still represented a recipe. I had selected a logical, if lofty, progression for my goals, and once down on paper I did share them with my Athletic Director, also new to Charles Wright Academy from the college ranks that year. I didn’t realize if right away, but Bob Beeman (no, not that one, folks) played as pivotal a role as any on my road to present day. He had vision of his own, didn’t mind kicking up some dust in the process and showed faith in me beyond what I had in myself.

After the fall season Bob sat me down and told me that I was going to be the head track coach. I bucked that notion. There was already a distance coach in place (never mind that she had nothing to do with cross) and the whole situation seemed way too prickly. Bob won (again), and the dye was cast. I coached the sprint group that spring and weathered some rough days. One of my clearest memories is of standing on the backstretch of our then dirt track; rain falling in slants; my useless umbrella limp and battered; urging Tom on as our distance coach had him assault the 3200m school record. As a sophomore determined never to run more than 4 laps on the track, Tom was not destined to run a notable time that day, and I uttered aloud to myself as I stood there, ‘ What the f*@k am I doing here?”

Tom Wyatt at the Bellarmine Invite

Things couldn’t go anywhere but up, but in my remaining five years at CWA we did meet some of those goals, win individual and team titles and make success the hallmark of the program. In cross country, on the track, in league, at State, nationally… Tom became a FL finalist, and I had two other athletes that together formed a troika of the best HS athletes I could have imagined over a 6-year period. We were only small-school competition in Washington State, you might say, and you’d be right. Still, I have always believed that winning, at any level, is just that. Coaches, athletes and teams either know how to win or they don’t. There is no middle ground on the score sheet or in the standings. The coaching and talent rich surrounding of the PNW provided a perfect place for me to truly forge my philosophy as a coach, and the ability to meet coaching colleagues, attend clinics and travel East for Level II school did almost as much for me as the time spent living under the same roof with Matt Ellis, who taught and coached across town in the perennial powerhouse Bellarmine Prep program.

In the several years that Matt and I were housemates, I ran more miles in Point Defianceand on the other WA trails, and thought/talked more about coaching than anyone outside of the two of us could bear to tolerate, even this guy:

Mike, Mike Lynes

The proof was in the results when all was said and done though, and while I also believed that there was probably no reasonable way in which the Matt and I could have coached in the same program, in some ways we did that on a daily basis by putting everything to the test at home before it every hit the practice plan at Charles Wright or Bellarmine. Good times indeed.

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About Drew Wartenburg

Director of Cross Country/Track & Field at UC Davis
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