“Young man, walking down the hallway, you should do Track.”
1) It is pure
The oldest and purest athletic completion of all is the simple foot race. Our sport, Track and Field, has its origins dating from even before the original Greek Olympiad.
“Victory by speed of foot is honored above all.”
– Xenophanes of Colophon (570-475 BCE)
All kids run. Running fast is fun. Jumping far or high is fun. Throwing something heavy as far as you can is fun. Haven’t you ever taken a rock and thrown it as far into a lake as you can? Leaped off the top of a sand dune? Raced your friend to the end of the block? The building blocks of Track and Field are written into our DNA. Humans were never meant to be sedentary. Track and Field is a sport that harnesses the skills needed for every other sport: speed, strength, endurance, and coordination.
There is nothing arbitrary about who wins the race.
No judgement call from the ref will determine the outcome. Same goes for all the other events – it’s easy to see who jumps over the bar and who doesn’t, who throws or jumps the furthest.
In soccer, football, baseball, hockey it is plausible that the team that plays better can still lose. Sometimes it comes down to a judgement call, a penalty called or not called (ask the Fenwick Football Team). In Track, the results are there for all to see.
You don’t need much to succeed in Track. You don’t even need a Track. There is one regulation Track in all of Ethiopia, a nation whose distance runners have won dozens of Olympic medals over the past two decades. Cahokia, the best Track team in our state, has no indoor facilities. Some sports, even swimming, are largely restricted to wealthier parts of the world. Anyone can do Track. You need very little equipment. A pair of trainers and a pair of spikes. That’s it. If you can’t afford those, we’ll help. You don’t need to have started on your training as a little kid to be successful, as you might have in tennis, golf, swimming or wrestling. Your talent is already there- our goal as coaches is simply to help you find and develop it.
Let me give you an example on athlete who had talent but needed help finding it. Last year, I stopped a young man in the hallway just like I stopped you. His name was Justin Taylor. Another teacher had seen him shooting some hoops in the gym and was amazed at his hops, so told me about him. I waited just outside of his 10th period Social Studies class and when he was about to enter I made my pitch.
Justin did not initially want to join Track. He was polite but shy, and I feared he would demur and pass on my invitation. The first day of practice went by, and he was not there. On the second morning of practice, Justin walked in about 15 minutes after we’d started. I walked over to him, smiled, and told him how glad I was he decided to try it out. I walked him over to our high jump Coach Andy Antoniou, introduced him, and we tested his vertical. It was pretty good!
Coach Antoniou is a great coach. He took Justin, a kid who’d never tried the high jump before, and by the indoor conference meet, Justin had leaped 5’4”. Then, after a few more months training, he cleared 5’7” at our outdoor conference Championships in mid-May, finishing third overall at the Sophomore level. I was so proud of him. As he improved, his confidence grew. I saw him come out of his shell a bit, walk a little taller. This year he will enter as a major asset for our team, no longer reluctant to join, but proud to be a part. We want that for you, too.
2) It is measurable
Young man, one advantage of Track is we can neatly chart your progress. We won’t have to guess if you are improving. We can measure objectively. We know Justin became a better high jumper by May than he was in January. Pick some events. We’ll see what marks you achieve in your first few attempts. We’ll see what marks you get after weeks of practice. Then, where you are towards the end of your first season. And, if we are fortunate, we’ll see where you finish as a senior as compared to when you first started. It is my coaching imperative to help you improve. If you are willing to work at it, I am confident you will.
I am a Cross Country Coach in the Fall, and I love that sport, but there is no fair way to compare times from Cross Country courses: some are flat, some hilly, some just under 3.0 miles, some just over. Terrain varies. But in Track, you can fairly compare your mark against athletes your age across the entire nation. We could argue endlessly about who the best high school football player or basketball player in the nation is, but there is no dispute about who is the nation’s fastest prep sprinter (last year, that would be Noah Lyles of Alexandria, Virginia, who ran 10.16!) or best triple jumper (Illinois’ own Ja’Mari Ward of Cahokia who hop, skipped, and jumped a national record 53’7.5″last season). In fact, if you really want to see what it takes to be among the nations’ best in Track and Field, start studying here: https://www.trackandfieldnews.com/index.php/lists
Or, if you just want to see what it takes to be among the best in our own high school’s history, you can look here: https://sites.google.com/site/hctrackteam/Records/outdoor
In reality, the vast majority of guys who join our team won’t break any school records or be on any national lists, but the goal is the same for all of us: to get better. There is something truly rewarding to know that you are capable today of something you were not capable of previously. We in Track call that setting a “PR” (Personal Record). And we celebrate every time a guy on the team sets one.
Here are a few examples of guys from last year’s team who improved throughout the season. First up, Big Jeff Dang. Jeff joined Track for the first time last year as a junior. He weighs 305 pounds and could surely pick me up and throw me. Still, he’d never picked up a shot put in his life, and would need time to learn the event. Here was his progression:
Jeff returns this year as one of our top throwers, and for his senior he’ll be coached by a former Olympian, as Tom Putskys, America’s best Javelin thrower for most of the 1990s and 2000s joins our staff. Under Coach Putskys’ guidance, I am confident we’ll have many more PRs this season to celebrate with Jeff.
Another guy who joined our Track team for the first time later in his career was Steven Coan, who came out last season for his senior year. He’d played club soccer for his first three springs but since his soccer career had ended and he had friends on the team, he decided to try Track. It took some time to figure out where he would best fit, but through trial and error, we learned he was a pretty darn good 400 meter runner.
Here is how Coan improved in the 400 meter event over the course of his one season with us:
We love soccer players. Don’t get nearly enough of them to come out, so strong is the hold of Club Soccer in our community. But soccer athletes make great Track athletes, having a good balance of both speed and endurance thanks to the demands of their beautiful game. I know Steven feels great about his decision to join Track for his final athletic season, that he gained some memories and friends he’d not otherwise have had. Which brings me to my next reason you should join track:
3) You’ll make lifelong friends…
My wife and I just sent our Christmas Cards. We ordered 100. About half went to family, the rest to friends. Of those friends, a significant majority are former high school and college teammates (others are families of kids I coach – see #4). Last month I flew to Seattle to visit college teammates – one lives there, one in Minneapolis, one in San Francisco. We haven’t been on a team together since 2002, but we’ve managed to see each other 2-3 times a year since then, such is the strength of the bond we created.
Let me tell you a story about myself and our hurdles Coach, John Mariner. We went to middle school together, than high school. We were teammates on the Track team at York. Here is a meet from our senior year where we both won an event:
When we first became friends, we were 11 years old, both 6th graders on the Brian Middle School Cross Country team. Now, we are 36, each with 1-year old daughters. That’s a quarter-century of friendship, begun of being teammates and sealed through the bond of high school athletics. Two other coaches on our staff, Coach Westhphal and Kupres, became friends when they were college teammates at Loyola. They stood in each other’s weddings and remain close today.
While Track is sometimes called an individual sport in the sense we are all trying to improve upon our own best performances, at this school we will emphasize TEAM most of all. I want you to see other kids walking through the halls wearing our “HC Track” shirts and know that those guys are your natural allies.
I want any team victory we might be fortunate enough to earn to feel like it was earned by all of us, and celebrated as such. There is no better feeling than celebrating TOGETHER. Why did 5 million people feel the same impulse to get to Chicago, despite all the inconvenience they knew they’d face, to be there for the parade celebrating the World Series champion Cubs? It is because they wanted to feel like they were a part of something amazing. That is what I want for you, young man – to help you authentically earn that feeling. HC has not won Varsity Conference since 2002, and has done so only once since WWII. That is our goal for this year. Come join us! There is no guarantee we will achieve the goal, but we never will if we don’t try. And if we succeed, many what an amazing feeling that will be!
4) …and gain lifelong mentors
As your coach, I will form a stronger bond with you than I would if I were only your teacher. I know I am not supposed to say that, as I was once told by an administrator that I am to be a “teacher first, coach second” (I don’t think those roles can be separated). The truth is that I teach one-semester Sophomore elective courses. I get to know my students for half a year, then they move on. If you come out for Track as a freshman, though, we will have four years to get to know each other. I will invest heavily in our relationship, will strive to help you realize your true potential and to achieve feats you don’t currently think you are capable of. Track isn’t like soccer, football or baseball. We aren’t split up by grade level. You won’t have a different coach as a Sophomore than you did as a Freshman, with yet another Coach assigned when you move to Varsity. We’ll be your coaches all four years.
I take my role as your coach very seriously. I promise not to ‘use you’ to burnish my own reputation or to take a win at all costs mentality. My own high school coach, the legend Mr. Joe Newton, used to tell us, “if you devote yourself to me and our team, I’ll do anything for you.”
I have tried to live out his words. Just last week I was contacted by an athlete who I had not heard from in five years. This athlete did not run all four years for us – he stopped after his junior year to focus on academics. He will be graduating this spring from UPenn and is applying to join the Air Force, so he wrote to ask me for a letter of recommendation. I wrote the very best letter I could. No matter how long its been since you graduated, I will ever remain your steadfast supporter and champion.
I keep a file folder of every positive note I get from a student, teacher, or athlete. It is a small reminder to myself that there is value to what we do in athletics beyond the meet results. I am going to share some of these notes with you, not because I am bragging, but because I want you to understand the depth of the bond that is created through years of working hard together towards common goals.
So here is Billy Fayette, the first all-state athlete I ever coached, writing to me on the eve of his high school graduation:
You have had an influence on me in a way that you do not realize. I have learned a lot over my time as an HCXC runner and cherish all the memories I have developed…You have always pushed me to my limits…you have helped me achieve many goals that once seemed impossible and were only part of those ‘dreams’ of mine. If it wasn’t for you I would never have turned into the runner and the person I am today.”
–Billy Fayette (May 2011)
This very afternoon, Billy and I are getting together to go for a run. We’ll discus his new job, his family, running, coaching, politics, and any other topic that comes up. I love winter break because it gives me time to catch up with so many of my former athletes. Our relationships last far beyond the four years you’ll spend in high school.
Perhaps you think my bond exists only with those Track athletes who do the distance events. So, here is Chris Kizer, a football player and sprinter, writing to share with me something he included in his college essay:
Coach Lawrence has taught me many lessons about having a true passion for what you do, very hard work, and loyalty to your teammates. A sport that I barely liked freshman year, I have come to love, and I can honestly say Coach Lawrence has played a huge role in igniting that flame…I can honestly say I have grown from a football player who just did track to get faster, to a runner who loves his team and his sport. I hope that one day I can inspire young men to love something and work at it the way he does.
-Chris Kizer (4/12/10)
And lest you think I only focus on the best athletes on our team, here is an excerpt from a speech given at our annual Track Banquet by Sunil Dommaraju, who entered his freshman year as quite literally the slowest guy on our entire Track team:
That first day, when I walked into the health room where we would hold our daily team meetings, I introduced myself to Coach Lawrence; he immediately responded with a determined smile and welcoming body language. He didn’t look at my bigger body-type and my freshman-sized stature condescendingly. Rather, he saw within me the potential to be a great runner, hard-working athlete, and even more, a mature young man. This is a perfect example of Coach Lawrence’s genuine care not just for the top 12 runners, but for EVERYONE on the team. Some coaches in other sports programs will only care for and nurture his most valuable athletes, and naturally so. But Coach Lawrence doesn’t settle for a few great runners. He wants everyone to revel in the joys of success, personal records, and improvement…Coach has showed a genuine compassion for all athletic levels and he has made our team culture one of hard work and dedication. That first time trial my freshman year in cross country, I ran a 9:29 for the mile because I couldn’t even run the second mile, and since then, with the guidance of Coach, I have improved immensely to a PR of 5:18. Thank you Coach Lawrence for being a great mentor. I will never be able to repay you for teaching me so many life lessons. You have personally made a huge impact on my life and for that I am forever grateful.
-Sunil Dommaraju, May 2015
It’s humbling to re-read these notes, but inspiring, too. Your four years here will go by fast, but they will be incredibly formative years in your life. Should joining Track be part of your high school experience? Consider discussing this tonight with your parents/guardians. I can say with confidence that most parents of athletes who have been in our program will testify to the positive impact participation in Track had on their sons. Here is a note from the parents of Alex Orton, one of the first athletes I coached who was involved in Football, Wrestling, Cross Country, and Track during his four years at HC:
Hi Coaches. Now that Alex is about to graduate, we have been thinking a lot lately about how thankful we are about the 4 years he has spent at Central. Attending Central ended up being a wonderful experience for him, and for his parents. He has done well academically, in sports and made great friends. Hard to beat that. But maybe most importantly, he was mentored early and often by influential teachers and coaches. The role that you guys have played in Alex’s development as his track and XC coaches, as teachers and for being an overall positive influence cannot be underestimated. Please accept our sincerest gratitude for all that you have done to help shape Alex into the man he is today, and to prepare him for life after Central.
-Kathy and Tom Orton, parents of Alex (4/25/09)
I saw Alex at a team reunion last summer. He is enrolled at Chiropractic College at National University in Lombard, an institution my own father used to teach at. We hadn’t spoken for years, but upon seeing him again I was immediately taken back in memory to 2008 when he and his teammates, a fun-loving bunch to be sure, became our first group to qualify for the IHSA Cross Country Championships as a team. I am honored to have played some role in Alex’s development, and hope to do the same for you.
So, you’ll have close friends and mentors, but another reason to come is
5) It is good for you
“The Stars of Track and Field are Beautiful People”
– Belle and Sebastian.
You can be Prince Fielder and still excel in baseball, or BJ Raji and still be a solid football player. Track athletes are some of the fittest athletes you’ll ever see.
There are a lot of unhealthy behaviors high school students engage in: drug and alcohol use most obviously, but also poor sleep schedules, bad nutrition habits, irregular schedules. Track can be an anchor. It helps you organize your day, and allows you to get in your daily exercise, helping you to feel good about yourself.
Studies show that your environment shapes your individual choices. If most people around you smoke, you are far likelier to start smoking. So why not surround yourself with people who are really in shape, striving to get even fitter? Our goal is to create a supportive and healthy environment to help you flourish.
But don’t take my word for it. Here is a former athlete of mine, Mark Gesior, who wrote me during his freshman year of college to express regret for his decision NOT to come out for Track during his senior year:
…but I realized that with other people behind you, you can tackle almost anything. Skipping out on the track season my senior year was probably one of the worst mistakes I have made ever. On the team, each and every single guy had my back…At the time it felt like the cool thing to do, that I…was going to go out and live my life and escape the long runs and escalations that had been making my life hell. I can honestly say that the extra semester of sleeping in on weekends, and going home right after school was not worth it at all. Now especially, I am realizing that you are who you are because of the people you surround yourself with. And when I was surrounded by runners, I was a runner.
I share Mark’s words with his permission, as he wrote to me that he hopes others will not follow his lead. I am happy to say that Mark is now a senior at Marquette University and will be graduating this spring. Our relationship remains as strong as ever. Even if you quit while in high school, I will respect you for at least trying out.
Our group will be supportive. It will also be composed of individuals from many different backgrounds, which leads to the final reason you should do Track:
6) It is diverse.
Let’s talk about race. It’s a subject that makes people uncomfortable. I teach African American History. I am white. This is an issue we need to be more open about. Diversity is a strength. Diversity also takes hard work. By definition, diversity means you have people with different backgrounds, experiences, and values, which means tension is almost inevitable. One reason I love Track is that every year we have one of the most diverse teams. In part, this is because our team is large. In part, it is because there are so many different events to choose from, and we feed from many different sports. What unifies people? A common goal is a positive unifying force. Joining track will allow you to join with other boys your age who may be different than you in many respects. We can at least start to get to know each other on the basis of equality by our shared commitment to the goal of winning Conference.
Now I am not naive. I don’t think mere participation on a Track Team will salve the nations’ racial wounds. But Track and Field has been a venue of greater equality than many other realms in American life and culture. In a Track race, unlike life, everyone begins on the same starting line. We all know the story of Jessie Owens’ heroics in the 1936 ‘Hitler Olympics’ where he disproved with his foot speed the lie at the heart of Nazi ideology. Somewhat less well-known is the courage displayed by African American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics when both raised a fist in the black power salute while on the victory podium for their gold and bronze medals in the 200 meter dash. Smith and Carlos hoped to draw attention to the fact that they were running for a nation which treated them as second-class citizens, and they faced intense criticism (were black-listed for jobs, too) for their actions. This was 1968, a year even more tense than 2016, when America really was on the verge of tearing apart. In a rare display of contrition, the USOC actually invited Smith and Carlos to join the current Olympians on their visit to the White House this past September, showing recognition at long last that their protests were, in fact, patriotic, and not anti-American as many argued at the time. It frustrates me how many of my students have formulated opinions about a more recent controversial figure, Colin Kapernick, without ever knowing anything about Smith and Carlos.
On the Track team, we will teach you our sport’s history, one in which African Americans have played a prominent role, from Owens, Smith, and Carlos to Bob Beamon, Carl Lewis, and Alyson Felix. Track is a sort of utopia in that it really is true that people won’t be judged on the color of their skin, but rather the results from their event – it is the ultimate meritocracy. People will respect you for your achievements, no matter what other misconceptions or unfair judgments they might make of you.
And that ain’t much, but it is something.
Well, young man, thanks for hearing me out. I hope you’ll join us. The season starts January 23rd, and we’ll be meeting in the Dance Studio at 3:15. It you’d like to learn more, take a look at our website: www.hctrack.org or come see me in room 282. I hope to see you on the big red oval!