When I was a Junior in high school I went out for the Cross Country team. I don't even know why, exactly. Many of my friends were runners, maybe that was it. I didn't have the gear, at all. I ran in shoes from Payless Shoes all season, and luckily they issued uniforms for the meets. I was at the back of the pack, and by back of the pack I mean I was last. And by last, I mean dead last. Every workout. Every meet. And my race, JV Girls, was the last race of the day, so we're talking hold-the-bus-until-Diane-finishes kind of last. But something clicked for me, and that something had everything to do with my coach. Every single workout, and every single race, there stood Coach Flim, arms crossed, half smile, waiting for me with the encouragement "Bring it home, Lady Di!"
He gave me that nick name early on in the season. Having never run before, and given the shoes I was wearing, it's no surprise that I came up injured pretty quickly, and I was in line before every practice to have my achilles taped so that I could run. One day, a couple of weeks in, he called out "Lady Di, you're up!" And from then on, I was Lady Di. It was not lost on me, even as a teenager, that this was a good coach and a decent person to see me and treat me as an important part of the team. I was new. I was slow. Coach Flim's teams, boys & girls--these teams went to State. I was not going to contribute to that. And yet, he paid attention to my injuries, waited for me at the end of workouts, cheered me over the finish line, and gave me a nick name. Of course, it's all of these years later, when I look back on how significant his influence was--pivotal, really--that I have come to the conclusion that he was matching the effort I was giving. It was a kind of circle, really. I never missed practice. I worked hard. I didn't complain. I didn't give up. I watched what he valued, and the example he set. He was the quintessential ideal coach: strong, kind, good, and in control. He was funny and thoughtful and encouraging, but you also knew not to mess around. And he always ran with the team. I think I wanted to please him, and I think that was because I respected him and because he saw me. If I had to guess, I'd say he was in the business of building good people as much as building good athletes. I'm betting now, from this vantage point, that he saw beyond the quiet kid in last place--he saw that I had a little grit, and a little fire burning. And I wanted to be those things--gritty and fiery.
Well, I ran all winter after the season was over. And I ran all spring. And all summer. I saved my money and bought three pairs of split shorts, like Joan Benoit wore. And a pair of Saucony running shoes that felt like running on clouds. I improved dramatically from Junior to Senior year, although no match, of course, for the talent and experience of those top girls. We had a good team, and I got better because of that. And I was no longer bringing up the rear in the Girls JV races. Well, not mostly. That next spring after my second cross country season, I spoke at my high school graduation at the football stadium. I was filled with running, and running metaphors, and the energy that comes from finding yourself in something. And I was filled with Coach Flim's coaching. The first words that I spoke were words that Coach Flim said over and over and over. I don't know when he said them--when he was taping us up for workouts? On the bus to and from meets? At team meetings? But I do remember one time for sure: there was a long run we use to do that was 12 miles, I think. The workout was called Sundown. Or Sunset. Or Sunrise? It was to a spot outside of town--a road or a restaurant or a hotel--something by that same name. We'd leave from the school, run out to that spot, and turn around and run back. I don't recall, now, if I ever made it all the way out there. I do recall a number of times, however, as the team passed me on their way back, Coach Flim would say "Turn it around, Lady Di", and I would turn around and head back. Coach Flim waited at the highway crossing to make sure everyone got across safely, and then it was about a mile back to the school. He would check in with me after I crossed, and then he'd run ahead. But one particular day he stayed with me and ran in that last mile after crossing the highway. And of all the times he must have recited this quote in order for it to stay with me the way it did, this is the time I clearly remember hearing it. These were the first words of my graduation speech, and it goes like this:
It's not your aptitude
But your attitude
That determines your altitude
And that takes intestinal fortitude.
Does he know, I wonder, what an impact he made, not only on those top runners, but on a kid like me, who wandered onto the team and carried with her the power of his coaching? Does he know the values he instilled of attitude and intestinal fortitude? Does he know the power of the example he set? The work ethic that was built? The love of running so deep, that even when I buried all of this for a number of years, the pathways were too established and true to disappear altogether? Does he know the bar he set for the coach that would follow many years later?
I've been searching and searching for quotes about coaching, good coaching, or what it means to be a coach or have a coach. I wanted to add something to finish this, to button this up. Nothing was speaking to me, speaking to the depths of what this really means when I sit down and dig up those memories. When they were all laid out in front of me, I realized that Coach Flim had a significant impact on my life, on the trajectory of my life and how and who I wanted to be in the world. He made me a runner, something I identified with so deeply that, even when I lost my way, that identity sat around the little fire deep in my soul and wouldn't leave--sat there and waited and waited and waited to be called back up to the start line. So I don't need to look outside myself for the definition of a good coach after all. I only have to look back to 1983, to the man with his arms crossed and his half smile yelling "Bring it home, Lady Di!"