I knew last night before bed that the weather would be a little nasty for this morning’s track workout. Sure, enough, it was 38 degrees and rained progressively harder the longer we were out there. But it didn’t matter, first of all, because it’s my job, and if there’s one thing my coach, Zane, has taught me in the two and a half years I’ve been under his tutelage, it’s the importance of professionalism.
But no matter the weather, it doesn’t take as much effort for me to suck it up and do my job when it means going to the track, because I absolutely love track workouts.
It was something Zane learned about me early on when he started coaching me. I remember him saying, “It doesn’t matter how bad you look or how tired you are, you always come through in track workouts.”
Today, as I banged out my 400-meter repeats, I had, as usual, an excess of phlegm that meant that I was hacking and spitting (in very unladylike fashion) more times than I cared to count. Zane pointed out to me the fact that I always went off the track to spit, saying, “you still hear [your former coach] whispering, right?”
He was referring to a story I had told him about Coach Kim, the former Head Track Coach at Calvin. Coach Kim was known to reprimand athletes for spitting on the track. He was a Korean Olympian, and he respected the track because the track had been his livelihood.
This morning I thought how crazy it is that—five years after leaving Calvin’s track program—I still hesitate to spit on the track. That’s the kind of influence coaches can have on their athletes—and now that I am a coach myself, it’s kind of a scary thought.
I have had a lot of coaches in my life, and each of them has taught me something (most have taught me more than I can remember).
Coach Kim not only taught me not to spit on the track, he also taught me to respect the sport.
Coach Thompson, my high school coach, used to call my teammates and me his children, and I would have trusted him with my life. That’s what he taught me—to trust. I am a natural skeptic, but for some reason, I always believed Coach Thompson.
The week before the Regional Championship my sophomore year, he told me I was going to win the race—something I wouldn’t have thought possible. I practically had a panic attack that week—I was actually diagnosed with “stress-induced asthma.” I left it to the last 50 meters, peed all over myself, and nearly passed out, but I did it. I won. And I did it because if Coach Thompson said I could, I believed I could.
Al, one of my coaches at Calvin, taught me about passion and teamwork. He was the master of pre-race pump-up speeches. He was not very fit, but he raced back and forth across the infield faster than anyone else when someone was about to set a new personal best. It didn’t matter who it was—Al was excited for my slowest teammate and my fastest one.
It was Al who helped unite us to a common cause as a team, rather than as a bunch of individuals trying to run faster than each other. The summer before my senior year, he asked me straight up, “Schlabach, would you rather help your team win a National Championship and not be an All-American, or be an All-American and lose as a team?”
If Al taught me passion, Nancy taught me level-headed composure. Her words were few, but when she complimented me, it meant something.
Diemer showed me that it’s possible to be a high-level runner and still be a good person—that you can get out without becoming bitter or idolizing the sport. In his stories about his Olympic running career, he shared how running, just like anything, is really just a tool for caring for others and glorifying God.
Otte showed compassion. Even though he wasn’t my main coach, he’s the guy I went to when I was frustrated and wanted to quit track my senior year of college. And when I went to him, he listened. Of course I didn’t actually quit, but his ability to sympathize with my wanting to was what I needed.
And Zane, as I mentioned, has taught me how to be a professional. Before he agreed to coach me, he made me read Steven Pressfield’s book, The War of Art, and has since demanded the commitment to professionalism that Pressfield writes about.
This morning, as I finished my last quarter on the track, I said, “Well, that was solid, but there wasn’t much spark.”
To which he responded, “That’s ok. You don’t need spark all the time.”
When I changed my shoes to cool down, my hands were almost too numb to untie them. I remembered a time when Coach Laura Scholma had untied my spikes for me after a bitterly cold race in Michigan—when she was probably colder than I was. I told Zane, “You can wait in the car if you want. I know you’re probably cold.”
But he said, “I’m fine,” and waited it out.
That’s the thing I’ve learned from every single coach, and am grateful for from every coach I’ve ever had: good coaching takes self-sacrifice.
Calah Schlabach (’09) is a Calvin graduate who—let’s just be honest—majored in cross country and track while minoring in English and writing. After a year or so of global wandering, she discovered the sport of triathlon. Calah is currently working as a professional triathlete.