Sometimes, the most important stories to tell are the hardest ones to tell. Such is the case for me when it comes to the best female hurdler I’ve ever coached. We had a lot of success together, but our relationship fell apart during her senior year, and we have only recently begun to piece it back together. There is no short way to tell this story, so let me go back to the beginning:
In 1997, the first truly gifted athlete that I had the opportunity to coach – Summer Knowles – entered my life. She was a freshman sprinter who had transferred from a nearby public school. With very quick turnover for a relatively tall girl (5’8”), Summer was an instant success in the sprints, finishing first in the 100 and second in the 200 at the North Carolina Independent Schools State Championships. She went on to run for the Durham Striders – a track club based in Durham, NC – throughout the summer, further improving upon the success she had achieved during the school season. In the fall of the following year, her sophomore year, she asked me to teach her how to hurdle. I was hesitant at first, because we already had good depth in the hurdles, and we needed her to continue leading us in the sprints. But she was persistent, so I agreed to teach her, and Summer picked up on it very quickly. She was an eager learner, and a very hard worker. In the winter months, we’d often be out on the track until it was too dark to see, doing drills, smoothing out technical problems. I remember that she fell twice in practice during the off-season, and that, both times, she got back up and continued on. One thing I noticed, with some frustration, was that the more I tried to instruct her in a hands-on manner, the more confused she became. There was one practice when I didn’t even run myself at all, although, back then, I would always run with my athletes. On this day, however, I devoted all my time to watching Summer and trying to help her improve. Nothing worked – until the end of practice, when I left her alone and was talking to another athlete who had finished his workout. Summer, on her own, started doing one of the drills I had shown her earlier, then after doing that a couple times, went back to sprinting over the hurdles. This time she cleared them all, and was able to instantly apply the drill to the actual hurdling. That practice ended on a positive note. So, in a workout a couple days later, I told her I would leave her alone and let her teach herself how to hurdle, since she seemed to be doing a better job at it than I was. She had another great practice, and was really beginning to look comfortable and natural going over hurdles.
Around that time, it was becoming obvious to me that a beautiful story was developing. Summer said something to me late in the practice that I’ll never forget. I was explaining something technical to her and asked her if she understood. “Yeah, I understand,” she said, “but now I just have to do it.” It was then when I realized I needed to back off and give her the space she needed to figure this hurdling thing out for herself. Before then, I’d been pressing too much; I’d been too worried that maybe hurdling was something Summer wouldn’t be able to pick up. That’s why I was being so hands-on – I wanted to ensure that this project would work. But when I let go is when things started to actually fall in place for her; that’s when she began to learn how to hurdle. She taught herself something by doing it; she learned it through repetition. Those winter months taught me a valuable lesson: sometimes I do my best coaching when I’m not really coaching at all, when I’m letting the athletes coach themselves; sometimes I do my best coaching when I trust them, and give them room to explore.
In the first outdoor meet – a small meet at Durham Academy, one of our rivals – Summer ran a very sloppy race, zigzagging all over the lane, hitting a lot of hurdles. She gave me a distraught look afterwards, as if asking me what had gone wrong. I didn’t have any answers, so I just kind of stared emptily back at her. We were both surprised when the official hand-timing her said she had run a 14.9. I assumed it had to be a mistake. But it wasn’t.
As the season wore on, Summer’s technique got better and better, and she grew more aggressive and more confident. Meanwhile, her times in the open 100 and 200 were also coming down as well, although I didn’t really have her doing all that much speed work. It seemed that the improvements in her hurdling form were creating improvement in her running form without us needing to focus on it. In the state meet that year, she won three events – the 100, the 200, and the 100 hurdles, all in record times. Her time in the hurdles was 14.40, which ranked her among the top two in the state, and among the top fifty in the nation at that point in the year. It was very rewarding for me to see her do so well. It verified to me that all those cold days in the winter months had been worthwhile, and that an athlete with exceptional natural talent and a work ethic to match has limitless potential.
During the summer, Summer ran with the Durham Striders again. I was thinking about joining their coaching staff so that I could continue coaching Summer as I had all year, and I even went to one of their practices. But they already had a hurdle coach, so I felt like I just didn’t fit into the picture. Unlike both of us had thought, her times didn’t come down during the summer months. She got stuck in the 14.5 range, and didn’t improve her pr until the final meet of the season, running a 14.32 at nationals. I felt like I had let her down, and I felt like some distance had been created between us. I had been there for her throughout the winter and the spring, but when she really needed me, when she was facing the heavy competition of the summertime meets, I was nowhere to be found. All spring long we had talked about how her times would come down once she had tough competition to run against regularly. But it didn’t really happen.
At that time, I simply didn’t yet realize how good of a coach I was. The fact that Summer learned how to hurdle primarily by teaching herself is something I viewed as proof that I really had little to do with her success. I didn’t realize then what I came to realize much later – that silently observing her and allowing her to teach herself was actually a very effective method of coaching. I assumed that I pretty much just got lucky that things turned out so well. I assumed that her times would come down even further once the summer season started and she had stiffer competition and more experienced coaches. One of the biggest mistakes I made in regard to my relationship with Summer, and it started during that summer between her sophomore and junior years, was in not taking a more hands-on approach, in not saying that she was my athlete. I didn’t want to be an ego-tripper going around shouting “Look at this girl that I coach,” but it just goes to show that being humble can sometimes have its drawbacks; sometimes humility is just a veiled way of not accepting the responsibility that comes with being relied upon. That was a major mistake I made in regard to my relationship with Summer.
In a journal that I kept around that time, I wrote the following thoughts: Maybe I should have stayed helping with the Striders even if I wouldn’t have had that much authority; at least I could have been there as someone to talk to, someone to keep her confidence up. Maybe I should have told her the hell with the Striders, you’re training with me. Too busy being nice and diplomatic. My flaw right now is that I’m afraid to be really good at what I do. Why am I surprised that Summer’s times didn’t keep getting better after she stopped training with me? Don’t I realize how good a coach I am? Why did I think she could pick up where she left off without my being there? Why do I assume that because other coaches were better athletes than me in their day, they’re automatically gonna be better coaches than me as well? Why do I assume that simply because other coaches have been involved in coaching longer than I have, that they can bring out the best in their athletes better than I can? Why can’t I see that coaching the hurdles is my gift, that it’s what I’m good at? What am I afraid of?
The thing about it is, everything Summer and I did during those winter and spring months worked. I was too involved in it at the time to realize it – too involved in monitoring the emotional damage done to all my other female hurdlers by the mere fact that Summer was hurdling at all, too involved in the hopes and the maybes and the what-ifs of Summer’s slow progress, too involved in stressing myself out over unmotivated runners on the team who, in retrospect, really weren’t worth worrying about. But I could see it now. Everything we did worked.
So, I resolved, as Summer headed into her junior year, that I, and only I, would be her coach. Together, as soon as school started up again in late August, we made up a list of goals. I also devised and gave her a workout plan to follow throughout the year. Both of us were eager about the prospect of her breaking 14.00 in the 100 hurdles, and of breaking 12.00 in the open 100. Then, one day in September, I heard the news. . . .
Summer hurt her knee fooling around playing touch football after school. At first the doctors thought it was her meniscus, and she would have to get it operated on, but there was a chance she might be ready for the spring season. Still, it seemed apparent that any goals we had had in mind for her would have to be put on hold. A week later, she had an MRI done, and the news was worse. She tore her anterior cruciate ligament. She would miss the whole season.
Summer missed about a week of school after her surgery, during which time I did not communicate with her at all. It was the end of the first grading quarter, so I was busy computing grades and writing grade reports in addition to the regular everyday teacher stuff I always had to do. I didn’t have time to call Summer. A couple days after her return she came to talk to me, and said that she felt I had abandoned her. As a mentor, she said, I had abandoned her. She was on the verge of crying. I was upset as well. She mentioned how I had kept in touch with her over the summer and how she had called me from Maryland after the East Coast Invitational, and now that she really needed me, it seemed like I just didn’t care. What could I say? She had the right to feel that I had abandoned her. Looking back, I wonder myself why I didn’t even call to see how the operation went. Was I that busy with school stuff that I couldn’t pick up the phone? I always pride myself on my ability to focus on the things that really matter, and to not allow myself to caught up in the trivial things that only seem very important. This was one instance in which I had allowed the thing that really mattered to go overlooked.
I taught Summer American Literature that entire year, so I saw her every day. As the school year progressed, she seemed to struggle more and more with the fact that she couldn’t run. She suffered a lot that year, having to read newspaper articles about other local track athletes throughout the season, and having to hear about how good other girls were doing for our team. Summer came to a couple of our meets early in the year, but stopped coming after the second or third one. I didn’t make her come; I wanted her to feel like a part of the team, but I knew it was hard for her to watch so many races that she would’ve been winning had she been healthy. Losing a whole year to injury broke her heart. In the conversations I had with her, she expressed anxiety over the possibility that she would lose all scholarship opportunities that she otherwise would have had, and she also expressed sorrow over the fact that she had lost a huge chunk of her identity. “I used to be a track star,” she said to me quite matter-of-factly on one of her darker days, “now I’m nobody.” On days when her frustration reached its peak, she was especially caustic. I remember one day, while we were discussing The Great Gatsby in class, Summer kept saying, “This book is dumb.” Well, it’s not my favorite book either, so I wasn’t going to argue its value just because I was the teacher, but she kept on saying, “This book is dumb. Why are we reading it? What are we reading next? I hate this book.” It’s like she was trying to get a reaction from me. I remember one time she complained because I took off points on a test for spelling a character’s name wrong. “I can’t believe you took off points for that,” she snapped. “The name’s in the book, Summer,” I retorted, “why don’t you be quiet and read the book.” She stopped fussing after that. I knew that Summer was really upset about not being able to run – not about some stupid test – and that she was just taking her frustrations out on me because neither she nor I could do anything about it. But when Summer is in pain she puts up walls, and when she does it’s virtually impossible to communicate with her. All one can do is wait till she takes the wall down.
Toward the end of her junior year, Summer began coming to practice and working out on her own, sprinting as fast as her knee would allow her to. She generally did 100 or 150 or 200 meter sprints, with lots of rest between reps. It was good to see her out there again, and it was hard not to think of what might have been. One day she was doing some 150s with another one of our girl sprinters who was also recovering from an injury. Summer, needing more recovery between reps, fell behind, and ended up having to do the last one by herself. She asked me to time it, and I did. By that point in the practice, the only people still on the track were Summer, myself, and Steve Cockburn (pronounced Co-burn), who had just finished an extensive 110 hurdle workout. So Cockburn and I were standing at the finish line as Summer ran her 150 – he exhorting her to run faster, and me yelling out the time. I remember looking at her round the curve and surge into the straightaway and thinking to myself, “Good Lord, she’s rollin.” There was a look of determination on her face, a look that told me that, in her mind, she was running more than an ordinary practice sprint; she was reclaiming her territory, she was beginning her comeback. She ended up running that last repeat in something like 18 or 19 seconds – faster than anybody on our team had done that day, male or female. Afterward, exhausted, she lay on the track to catch her breath. Eventually, she sat up, but didn’t stand up. “Next year began today,” I said to Steve, “The year 2000 began today.” Hearing me, Summer smiled through her fatigue, and Cockburn laughed, sharing my enthusiasm. The three of us talked a little while longer, and then I left, and then Cockburn left. I remember, after I had gone to the locker room and showered and changed, I was on my out to my car when I peeped through the window and saw Summer still sitting there, where Cockburn and I had left her, alone, on the track. I was going to go back out there and talk to her some more, or at least ask her why she was still sitting there. But I decided not to; I knew why she was still there. She needed to be.
In Summer’s senior year, things fell apart rapidly. She was told that her knee was all better, but that it would be dangerous for her to try to hurdle on it. That meant that the root cause of us forming such a close bond – the hurdles – could no longer be our primary source of connection. She would have to run only the sprints, and probably have to move up to the 400, as running the 100 would also put a great deal of strain on her knee. In the fall of her senior year, around the same time that she was told she couldn’t hurdle, she accepted a scholarship offer to UNC-Chapel Hill. Her times from her sophomore year were fast enough to merit the scholarship. Although she had started doing some conditioning stuff beforehand, I didn’t see much of her on the track after that. I wasn’t teaching her anymore, so it was harder to find her during the day.
My assumption was that, now that she couldn’t hurdle anymore, she had lost a lot of her motivation. Summer worked hard when it came to learning how to hurdle, but, with her knee, she couldn’t hurdle anymore unless she got it operated on again. I really don’t think that Summer enjoyed running. She enjoyed competing, and she thrived on winning, but she didn’t enjoy running itself. And without hurdles in her way, it seemed that her ability to motivate herself had gone away. Because, in her sophomore year, when she first started hurdling, no one on our team worked harder than Summer. I’m sure she was thinking that I felt she decided to slack off and rest on her laurels once she got her scholarship to UNC, although that’s not how I felt at all. The problem was, regardless of how I felt, or why she stopped coming to practice, we didn’t communicate with each other. We just allowed ourselves to drift apart. I don’t know what her mindset may have been, but mine was that I shouldn’t have to chase her or seek her out; if she wants to run, she knows where the track is; if she wants to talk, she knows where my office is. I put my pride before our relationship, as I’m sure she did as well, and we both suffered as a result.
One day in early February, as it was getting closer to the spring season, I called her at home just to see what was going on with her, and to find out if her mind was still focused on track. She said she had been running with her mom, that she knew I probably thought she hadn’t been doing anything at all, but that she was going to show me once the season started. It surprised me that I had become an antagonistic figure in her mind. She was going to show me? I had thought that we were going to show the world. By the time the outdoor season began, it seemed obvious to me that Summer and I would never be as close as we once had been. She could be a difficult person to approach, and I must admit that I could be too, as much as I tried not to be. Also, the fact that she wasn’t hurdling created a rift in our relationship that we just couldn’t seem to overcome. She said to me early in the season that she didn’t feel that I was her coach as much as she used to because she wasn’t hurdling anymore. Although I voiced my disagreement, in my heart I knew she was right. On days that hurdlers worked on technique, I was with them. Those used to be the days when Summer and I would bond. They still remained the days when I would bond with my hurdlers. But Summer wasn’t one of them now, so it was different.
Meanwhile, her times in the sprints were surprisingly fast in the early part of the year. She ran a hand-timed 25.4 in the 200 and 12.3 in the 100. Summer’s attitude had definitely changed, though. I needed her to be to a leader, a captain, since she was a senior with a lot of experience. But because she had missed her entire junior year, she wanted to focus on herself, to make up for the time she had missed, so she didn’t want to be bothered with the rest of the team. She was anxious to be done with high school and to get on to UNC. She started missing practices, explaining that training with the girls on our team wasn’t making her any better. Plus, her habit of taking a whole lot of rest between interval reps wasn’t stopping. We had a very immature team that year, so I needed someone to show some leadership, but Summer, by that time, was too self-absorbed, too bitter, and too plain old mad at the world to be that person. She ran a very good 4×400 leg at the Penn Relays in April, and we had a lot of fun on that trip. She and I had our first and only really good conversation of the season in the hotel lobby on the night before the race, and I was beginning to feel confident that, hurdles or no hurdles, we might be able to salvage something of substance out of this season after all.
But Summer’s times in the sprints weren’t getting any faster, and toward the latter part of the season, she began to despair. At the state meet, she was scheduled to run the 100, 200, and 400. Without consulting me, she took herself out of the 400 so that she could gear up and try to win the shorter sprints. It didn’t work. She finished second in the 100, and she finished third in the 200. In both races, she lost to girls that the pre-ACL Summer would have blown away. In both races, her running form fell apart at the end. She was making a swimming motion with her arms, as if she were reaching for the finish line, but she just couldn’t get there soon enough. After the 200, I tried to console her. I walked up to her and patted her on the back. When she turned around and saw who it was she said, “Get away from me, McGill, you haven’t given a fuck about me all season.” Those were the last words she spoke to me that day, and, at that moment, I felt that they may very well be the last words she would ever speak to me. Too hurt to respond, I walked silently away.
I remember thinking to myself, on the bus ride home to Raleigh after that meet, about the scar on her knee – the scar from the surgery, and how it symbolically represented our relationship. When she had been running the hurdles, our relationship had been whole, complete, and everything had been going well. Just like her knee. But after the surgery, just like she never returned to her old running form, and just like she never ran the hurdles again, the relationship between Summer and myself never fully recovered, never fully healed, but instead remained permanently scarred. Even though at times during the season it was good, it never got back to being as good as it once had been. Every time, during the latter part of the season, when I would glance down at her knee, I would think about that. And then, at the state meet, “Get away from me McGill. . . .” It all fell apart. It all fell apart.
Throughout her career at UNC, Summer was never fully healthy. Injuries plagued her the whole time she was there. Her sophomore year of high school ended up being her best year of running track. I kept up with her progress by looking up meet results on-line, by talking to another UNC track athlete I knew, and by hearing from other alums who still kept in touch with Summer. I didn’t call her, I didn’t email her, I didn’t try to communicate with her in any manner. As far as I was concerned, our relationship was over. It had been fractured beyond repair, and even though I didn’t like the fact, I accepted that I would have to live with it.
But I couldn’t live with it. It took me three years to let go of enough of my anger and pride to admit to myself that I still cared about her. In the middle of the night one night, I wrote her an email – a long letter in which I tried to repair the broken bridges that lie in crumbled ruins between us. I didn’t know for sure if she would even respond at all. I thought she might see who it was from and delete it without even reading it. But a few days later, she did respond. It was a bitter letter in which she basically let out three years worth of pent-up anger. We were still oceans apart from each other. In her email, she expressed her disbelief that I couldn’t understand why she felt that I had betrayed her. From my end, I resented the fact that I had made the attempt to reach out my hand to her, and she had responded by biting it. We were still very far apart.
I tried again, last year, her senior year at UNC. Her response was less bitter. It seemed that the ice was thawing, so to speak. I emailed her again in the summer, informally asking her how her season turned out, and what her plans were now that she had graduated college. I received a very nice email in return in which she expressed forgiveness, the desire for closure, and she even had some plain old, normal conversation in there about how much she liked her new job. In October of 2004, she came to our homecoming football game, and I saw her again for the first time in five years. We hugged, we got caught up on each other a bit, and we talked like two human beings who actually like each other. It was cool, to say the least. It was very cool.
Of all the lessons I have learned from all the emotional upheavals of my relationship with Summer, the one that stands out the most in my mind is that girls and boys cannot be coached the same way. It sounds like a rather basic thing to say, maybe even an ignorant thing to say, but it has become so obvious to me that I cannot deny the truth of it. With boys, performance comes first, and the relationship comes second. Help me to get better, is what boys want. Help me to get faster; help me to win races. If a male athlete sees no improvement in his performance, even though he’s doing everything the coach tells him to do, that athlete will lose faith in his coach, and the relationship will deteriorate. But if the athlete’s performance does steadily improve, and victories mount, that bond between coach and athlete will strengthen, even if they aren’t “buddy-buddy.” A male coach, similarly, wants to see a work ethic before he commits himself to investing time in an athlete. Work your butt off and I’ll do anything for you. But if you don’t show the willingness to put in the work required to compete at a certain level, the male coach will basically look elsewhere for someone who will. So, between a male coach and a male athlete, there is an unspoken understanding, from both perspectives: performance comes first. Female athletes, on the other hand, want to know that they matter to you; they want to be sure that you care about them. Once they have that assurance, they will work as hard as asked. So, the problems I had with Summer were really only an extreme version of the problems that have arisen, at one point or another, with just about every girl I’ve ever coached. I’ve come to realize that not every man is fit to coach female athletes, and I must admit I’ve had my own doubts as to whether or not I’m equipped to do so. Maybe I am too competitive, maybe I am too focused on winning to have the patience to be nurturing and comforting when the situation calls for it. The Summer drama has really forced me to look at myself in the mirror.
Since the days of Summer, I handle differences with female athletes differently than I used to. I make it a point now to give my female athletes lots of attention, to give them a hug after every race, even if I’m disappointed with their performance, and to make sure I have informal conversations with them whenever I can, even if I don’t feel they’re practicing as hard as I feel they need to. With female athletes, I make a conscious effort to put the relationship first, and it has made a difference. In the past five years, I’ve had relationships with several female athletes that most certainly would have fallen apart if I didn’t have the memory of Summer Knowles in my mind to guide me. The whole Summer fiasco has made me a better coach, and that’s one positive I can take from it. I do also feel that if she and I can remain friends and stay in touch with each other in the coming years, then the pain of those long, dark years of misunderstanding will fade away.
© 2004 Steve McGill