The Things We Want the Most

In my first year of coaching, back in the spring of 1995, a little auburn-haired 5’2” eighth-grader named Caroline Pyle came up to me in the second week of practice asking if I would teach her how to run the hurdles. I laughed at her. I already had three good hurdlers, and didn’t need a fourth. Then along comes this little girl no taller than a hurdle herself walking up to me talking about she wants to learn how to hurdle. I thought she was joking. She had been training with the distance runners, and had seemed to be doing very well. So why not stay there? I glanced quickly at her small frame and soft, eager eyes and smiled, almost derisively. “We’re doing a hard workout today,” I told her, “get with me tomorrow and I’ll see if we can’t do somethin’.” I laughed and shook my head as she walked away. Of course, I didn’t expect her to come back to me the next day. But she did.

She improved rapidly in the short span of the spring season. By the end of the year it had become clear to me that she wasn’t only catching up to our more experienced hurdlers, but she was the best hurdler on our team. She was able to lead with either leg quite naturally, and did so in both the 100 hurdles and the 300 hurdles. Prior to coaching her, I had always believed that in the 100 hurdles, the idea of switching lead legs was a no-no because it causes too much confusion and gives the athlete too much to think about during the race. Due to Caroline’s example, however, I now teach all beginning hurdlers to lead with either lead leg. For girls, this is especially useful for those who are too small or too slow to three-step, so that they can four-step between the hurdles in a race. For girls and for boys, it is useful to be able to switch legs in the intermediate hurdles. Mental confusion doesn’t become a problem, I have found, because of the basic rule that if you do it a lot in practice, it feels normal in a race.

In our first few meets of her freshman year, Caroline established herself as far and away the best female hurdler on our team, and had already improved remarkably from an impressive eighth grade season. I loved to watch her run because inherent in her strides was a sense of urgency and intensity that was just beautiful to watch. Though she wasn’t nearly the hard worker that she later became, she was, even then, a fierce competitor who was driven by a healthy fear of losing. When Caroline was really nervous, really scared before a race, expressing concern to me that she might not really belong on the track with the other girls, I knew she was ready. Based on how well she had done in the first month of the season, I was eager to see how she would perform against the competition that would take her out of the comfort zone of small meets against other private schools. Around that time, Gary Duggan, who coached our distance runners, approached me and asked if I wanted to enter any sprinters or hurdlers in the Raleigh Relays that would be held at North Carolina State University on the last weekend in March. The Raleigh Relays are more of a relay meet now, but back then the order of events was the same as in a regular public school meet. So, for a small school such as ours, with only a handful of seriously competitive athletes, such a meet was ideal. North Carolina State University had a beautiful nine-lane all-weather track, and I had some promising sprinters and hurdlers, including Caroline, whom I wanted to give the chance to run on such a fast surface against a host of talented, well-conditioned athletes. So, along with Coach Duggan, I made arrangements for a handful of our best runners to take part in the meet.

It was a warm day in April, a chance of rain was included in the forecast, but I was hoping it would hold off until the meet was over. After that, let the downpour come. This was an important occasion for the best runners on our team because it marked the only chance they would get all year, prior to the conference and state championships, to face a large number of high level competitors. Early in the day, the rain held off. A mild breeze was blowing, but had little effect on runners’ performances. Caroline ran the 100 meter hurdles and finished 7th overall, 2nd in her heat. I was mildly surprised that she did so well, and so was she, I think. But later in the day would come her best race – the 300 meter hurdles – and that’s the race I was truly looking forward to. As the clouds grew thicker and the sky grew darker, I prayed that the rain would hold off a little longer. The weatherman had said that there was only a chance of showers, so I held out hope, in spite of what the sky directly above my head was telling me. Finally, in the early afternoon, the rains came, and they came hard. Pelting and bouncing off the rubber surface of the track, assaulting the thin umbrella under which I stood with Coach Duggan. Meanwhile, Caroline went and sat in her parents’ car, awaiting the end of the deluge. Races were still being run; there was no rain date for this meet. But the crowd was thinning out, athletes were leaving. Each succeeding event had less and less entrants. But it’s not too windy, I reminded myself. Rain is one thing, but it doesn’t kick your butt coming into the homestretch like a good gust of wind will. Caroline’ll be all right, I assured myself, the rain won’t bother her.

I saw her, coming down from the bleachers, walking toward me in her yellow rain hat. She’s ready to go, I was thinking, assuming she was coming to ask me what she should do to warm up. “Ready to go, girl?” I asked. She stared at me blankly, wet strands of hair clinging to her cheeks. “My mom doesn’t want me to run.”

I about blew up. But didn’t. “I want you to run, Caroline,” I stated firmly, “I’m your coach, and I say you’re gonna run.”

“What’s the point?” she asked, “I can’t run a fast time in this weather.”

“Yes you can,” I retorted, “just run your race and don’t worry about the weather.”

Yes, I was being selfish. I had gone through a lot of trouble to get our athletes entered in this meet, had even put out my own money for the entry fee. I wasn’t about to have my authority undermined by some “mom.” I knew that, being a private school, we wouldn’t have another opportunity to take part in a meet with so many athletes, so I wanted Caroline to take her chances, not go home wondering what place she could’ve come in if . . . I didn’t want to spend the next month and a half before our state finals unsure if she could rise to the occasion in a tightly-run meet with a large amount of competitors. I wanted to see what she could do. I wanted her to run.

She ran. A personal best. Won her heat and finished 2nd overall, running a faster time than most of the girls in the fast heat. I remember telling her before the race that I would never ask her to do anything I didn’t feel she was capable of doing. . . . Right as she crossed the finish line, her mom ran to her and wrapped her in a blanket. The rain was pouring down mercilessly. Coach Duggan and I offered her the cover of our umbrella, and Duggan told her to “Thank Mr. McGill for making you run.” Caroline didn’t say anything. Just looked at me briefly with those soft eyes, droplets of rain dripping from her hair, onto her shoulders. She didn’t need to say anything; the apology was in the expression on her face. I smiled and wiped some of the rain from her hair. “Good race, girl,” I said.

The relationship between Caroline and me became a special one after the Raleigh Relays. That was the moment when I became her coach, she became my athlete, and our common goal became to make her the best hurdler she could be. If we had never had that confrontation, we wouldn’t have had the mutual respect we later developed, I would not have grown aware of just how courageous an athlete she was, and she would not have come to completely trust me to guide her to success in the hurdles.

Caroline went on to have four very good years of varsity track competition in high school. She never won first place at the state meet, but she finished among the top five in the 100s every year, and she finished second in the 300s in all of her last three years. Always, it seemed, there was a girl who was a little bit better than her. In her senior year, she was even able to three-step for half of the 100 hurdle race, although she hadn’t grown an inch from the 5’2” she stood in eighth grade. Also in her senior year, she ran her personal best of 46.5 in the 300s, which still stands as our school record. She ran that in the semi-finals of the state meet, and was winning in the finals throughout most of the race before Chanda Powell, who later went on to run for North Carolina Central University, tracked her down on the final straightaway. It was hard. . . . Caroline cried after the race. “I let her pass me,” she said. She really wanted to win that race, and she really thought she would. So did I. But Powell was just a better athlete. There was nothing either of us could do about that.

I felt proud of Caroline for going after it, for putting her heart on the line. She finished second at the state meet for the third year in a row, but this was the best second of them all. In previous years, she had conceded victory, and settled for second. In her senior year, she worked hard during the off-season, worked harder during the season, and acknowledged to herself that her goal was to finish first in the state meet. In a letter I wrote to her about a week after the season ended, I said that the things we want the most are ultimately the things we fear the most – once they are upon us, and are no longer just far-away dreams. In her senior year, for the first time, really – Caroline faced her fear head on. And for that reason, I consider her a champion, regardless of the place she came in. When I look back on the five years I coached her (and I also taught her composition for a semester), it’s the quiet times I remember, not any particular races. Time spent sitting in my classroom, or in my office, talking about track, talking about life. Time spent sitting on the track after a workout. Lazy, slow-paced Saturday practices. The silent spaces in a conversation . . . .

Caroline, after graduating high school, attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for four years, and is currently attending dental school at the University of Maryland. I still keep in touch with her. It was from her that I learned the basic life lesson that the size of one’s stature isn’t as important as the size of one’s heart. I will never again turn away an athlete who wants to try the hurdles. My motto now is, if you’re willing to try, I’m willing to help you.

© 2004 Steve McGill

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