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Thank you for teaching me “resilience”

June 1st, 2004 · No Comments

Dear Mr. Tower:

I don’t know if you remember the first time we met, but I do. During the fall of my freshman year I had become friends with two cross-country runners and, inspired by their experiences, I was considering going out for the track team with them. So I stopped by your office to talk to you about running.

How afraid I felt. Me, out-of-shape freshman girl. You, larger-than-life-large legendary coach (and history teacher). Even your name Tower seemed intimidating to me.

You asked me how far I could run. I think you may have tossed in a suggestion of a pack of wild dogs running behind me. I said two miles. I was lying, or at least severely stretching the truth. I don’t think I had ever run a mile without stopping.

You asked me to touch my toes. I couldn’t. Flexibility has never beeen my forte. This was February, only a few weeks before the season would start.

Any rational evaluation of my potential ability based on these examinations would have stated that I was unfit. Unfit to try track.

Yet you encouraged me. You weren’t coaching track that year. But you were the only running coach on campus I could consult, and I was glad to be able to talk to you. I went out for the team. I learned to run a mile. That year, I learned to run.

A few months later in the cafeteria you spied me eating lunch, wearing a T-shirt I’d received at a recent road race. “Where’d you get that?” you teased me with a bit of surprise in your voice. Already, I was hooked on running – and you had helped me.

In the fall you were my coach for cross-country, and for the next two seasons after that one. I learned many things from you. You told a funny story from your own experience and taught me not to eat steak and eggs the morning of a race. You taught me that we could laugh and relax; we could have fun and run. I learned that people who seem scary can be sweet. From you I learned resilience. I think I heard “resilient” for the first time when you and Sally used it to describe me, at an end-of-the-year banquet. But I think it could be used to describe you as well.

Under your coaching and care, I learned the power of my own mental strength. I remember talking about “gremlins” on the hills at Woodlawn, and how we needed to squash them in our minds and with our bodies as we ran. To defeat the lies and doubts with discipline. You taught me to be strong in my body and in my mind. You encouraged me to go beyond comfort and what I thought I could do. To take pain in stride and push through it. And smile. (and the nurses wondered why I laughed when I was in labor. ..)

I’m not writing as someone who made the Olympic marathon team or saw NCAA action. As you know, I never burned up school records, made any all-time top 10, or even consistently made the varsity top 7, despite my desires. Since graduation, I’ve run one road race. I’m writing as an at-home mom of three young children, a wife and homeschool teacher. But running has stayed with me, even if at this stage of life it means jogging a couple loops around the neighborhood before the kids jump out of bed. And what you’ve taught me has stayed with me. I am passing it on to my children… by that I mean more than just the sit-ups we do on the sofa each morning 🙂

I looked through my photos to see if I could find one to send along with thiis letter. But what I found in the closet from my cross-country days was a roll of film taken under strange conditions, as if we were running through fog or mud or both. All that can be seen are the yellow singlets and looks of determination or agony on faces. Yet what I learned from you is not muddy or foggy but clear, these twenty years later.

If I close my eyes I can see the hill at Hamlin Park with its angle and intensity that had earned it the name “Suicide” – and I remember the way we practiced conquering it. I can see the mud, singlets and racing flats. I can see you cheering me in the sprint near the finish line at Woodlawn and smiling at us after the end of the race.

As I’m ending this letter, I’m remembering one thing you said that is not true. While commenting on my cookies once, you predicted that my husband would weigh 300 pounds. That is not true now and I hope it never is…if you met my husband you would especially understand this 🙂

I enjoyed getting to see you a few years ago when the team raced on the island and I was hoping to have the opportunity to see you again this fall out on a course. So, selfishly, I’m sad you are retiring, but I know you have given so much to so many through the years. I hope you enjoy many blessings as you leave the school.
If you’re ever on the island, please stop by!

With gratifude,

Last week I heard that my cross-country coach is retiring. I wanted to publish this letter to him out of my gratitude for all teachers and coaches. Thank you for all you’ve given to me! At this time of year, at graduation, and throughout the year, I remember …

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