My seventh-grade cross country coach was a wiry guy with short gray hair and a barrel chest made for shouting from one side of a track to the other. At the time, I’m sure I knew which classes he taught at our junior high. I’ve long since forgotten that fact and anything else I knew about him, including his first name. As far as I recall, it was “Coach.”
Coach Toabe seared himself into my adolescent memory banks on the first day of practice, when he took us for a run through the suburban streets around our school. It was probably 2 or 3 miles. Soon after the workout ended, my mom drove me home. By the time I got out of the car, I was walking like a person with no knee or hip joints. I don’t think I’d ever hurt like that before.
But I went back out the next day, and the day after that. It was the first team I’d been on where we competed individually but for the good of the group. I’d hated playing organized sports in PE up until then. When I made an error in baseball, basketball, kickball and the like, I worried that the whole team saw my failure and hated me for it. So you can understand why I avoided team sports whenever possible.
Cross country was different. In cross country, my running could only help the team or not help: I couldn’t hurt us. For the first time in my life, I was on a team that fit my personality. I began to come out of my shell a little, in an environment where it didn’t matter how smart I was or that I couldn’t hit a ball.
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Coach Toabe came to mind when I volunteered at the Northern Arizona Middle School XC Championships last October at Fort Tuthill. The meet, managed by Ben and Jen Rosario of Northern Arizona Elite and Vince Sherry of Run Flagstaff, attracted 70 teams from across northern Arizona and almost 500 kids in grades 6–8.
Watching the young athletes run hard as parents and coaches cheered for every single one reminded me of that important time in my life, so many years ago, when I found a team sport even a shy girl like me could love.
I don’t know that Coach Toabe ever said anything particularly wise to us. He was no Jim Tracy, legendary coach of San Francisco University High School, who said things like, “We run farther than the race to make the race seem short, and we run harder than the race to make the race seem easy.” Or maybe he was, and I just don’t remember. I just remember being on Coach Toabe’s team and liking it; being challenged in a new way, and liking that. Decades later, I returned to running as my sport of choice. Some of that is thanks to a little man with a big voice, who nurtured a team even a team-hating kid like me could love.