In the spring of 2005, Nick Symmonds had to fend off a challenge from Calvin's Jeff Engbers, far left, in the DIII 1500 meter national championship. Contributed photo.
Track or cross country?
Good question! If I factor in the New Mexico wind and compare the length of meets, I tend to lean towards cross country. The team unity in cross country that results from everyone competing in the same event is difficult to replicate on the track. However, I really enjoy the change of pace that coaching track provides. From working with sprinters to focusing more on splits and times, track is very enjoyable. Coaching both with JV girl's basketball sandwiched between may be the best option. Change is the spice of life!
Give us a little bit of background on your own high school experience. Where and what did you run?
I grew up in Whitinsville, a small town in the rolling hills of central Massachusetts, about an hour west of Boston, and attended Whitinsville Christian School. In elementary school I did quite well in a few races and knew I could be a decent runner. I balanced basketball and running throughout high school and, like today, found basketball to be a great change of pace from the running the rest of the year. Under the tutelage of great coaches, running began to define who I was. I ran around somewhere in the ballpark of sub-16, 9:30, 4:24, and 1:57 and desired to continue running in college.
While back in Massachusetts this Christmas break, I received a DVD in the mail from a teammate's father who recorded much of my junior cross country season. He had interviews, race breakdowns, but didn't catch on tape our weekly Friday morning breakfast the team put together in the school locker room after a short run. The DVD brought back great memories where my love for cross country started.
We know you went to Calvin and ran under Brian Diemer, the last athlete wearing USA colors to medal in the Olympic Steeplechase. What were a couple of the highlights of your experience there? Were you a part of any of Calvin's DIII national title teams?
Although I looked around a bit, Calvin was the only school I applied to. With a few older siblings who had attended, plenty of family in the midwest, a great academic school, an Olympic bronze medalist coach, and the cross country team coming off of a Division III National Championship, I knew Calvin was where I should be. I was roommates and teammates with Rehoboth alum Andy Yazzie. My freshmen year was a struggle, and I learned what it meant not to give up. My sophomore year things came together, but I had to learn that there was a bigger picture to competing than just running fast. During my junior year I learned the lessons of teamwork and how this happens in running. During my senior year I was able to learn and experience what it meant to be a leader. I think what I enjoyed most about Calvin was that the running experience complimented, but didn't take over, my academics, personal life, and spiritual life.
In the four years I was at Calvin, we didn't finish lower than second at the national meet. I had the honor of running on both of the national championship teams in 2003 and 2004 (junior and senior seasons). In 2003 I finished a ways back, but in 2004 I happened to be the top finisher at the national meet for Calvin with a 20th place finish. Along with me that year in the top five [for Calvin] were two New Mexican products, Andy Yazzie and Tim Finnegan [Los Alamos].
In track, for two straight seasons I was the last runner to qualify for the national meet in the 1500--thank you Nick Symmonds for not running the 1500 in 2004. I qualified for the finals both meets, but finished as All-American just my senior year.
Every once in a while we would have some 'stud' run with the team for whatever reason. We would get done with these runs and hear more about their careers than we had ever heard about Brian Diemer in the years we were with him. Two years after I graduated, I did an internship with the cross country team and was able to coach with and learn from the great set of coaches at Calvin. Being on the other side of the fence that season, along with my positive experiences at Calvin, helped me realize that I wanted to continue coaching.
You ran against Nick Symmonds in college as the photo above proves, but did you have any idea at the time who, really, you were running against?
In 2003 I watched Nick Symmonds at the track nationals in upstate New York. Symmonds as a freshmen took down a loaded field, including the likes of Ryan Bak and Matt Grosse, not just in the 1500, but also the 800. I remember watching him kick in both of those races--at 150 to go--and thinking, "He has something special and is going to be good." I don't think I would have guessed he would have accomplished as much as he has but knew there was something special there. I remember thinking before the 2005 national championship race that it was quite an honor to be able to compete against him.
Maybe I'm the only one who thinks about strange and unrealistic things on my runs, but every once in a while when I'm out for an early morning run and think that I'm moving pretty good... eight minutes a mile can feel fast... I think I should have thrown in another gear during that national 1500 final. That race went out slow and so, at 500 to go, I went from the back to the front and figured, since I was more of a distance guy, I better get into position before things really took off. I moved up next to him with 400 to go and was fortunate enough to keep a trip and tumble behind me. It's fun to watch him now and think that with a lap to go I was next to him.
Rehoboth Christian School and Calvin College are linked by a common affiliation with the Christian Reformed Church, but Gallup, New Mexico, is still a long way--both culturally and geographically--from Grand Rapids, Michigan. What brought you to Gallup?
There are a bunch of Dutch CRC pockets around the country, Whitinsville being one of them, with Grand Rapids, Michigan, being the big one. Rehoboth was founded by the CRC as a mission for the Navajo Indian Reservation in the early 1900s. When I was accepted in 2007 at UNM in the Sport Administration doctoral program, I decided to see if there were any jobs at Rehoboth. Rehoboth was completing a new Sport and Fitness Center and was looking for a part-time teacher and someone to help transition into the new building. I accepted a job at Rehoboth and figured I would make the 280-mile round trip commute once a week for a year and then move to Albuquerque and be a full-time student. I never left and continued to commute once or twice a week--even on the Amtrak for a few semesters. There were some semesters that I coached until 5:00, made it to Albuquerque for a 7:00 class, and got home around 11:45. I wrapped everything up in 2011. I believe God wanted my wife and I at Rehoboth and used the whole PhD thing to get us to New Mexico.
Although there are challenges, we have had a wonderful experience at Rehoboth and in Gallup. The community we have in Rehoboth and Gallup would be difficult to find somewhere else. As far as running is concerned, we have beautiful trails behind campus that lead up into the hogbacks and provide great views of Red Rock State Park. In the middle of a run where I need to keep an eye the whole team, I look around and realize how blessed we are for running. I have also been blessed with excellent people to coach with, including one of Alan V's products.
What else do you do at Rehoboth besides coaching cross country and track?
I'm the athletic director, teach some high school and middle school PE classes, and also coach JV girls hoops. Wearing the different hats is a challenge, but it also keeps every day interesting!
If I asked you to pin down two or three highlights from your years at Rehoboth, could you do that?
Last season one of my track athletes was so disappointed that she didn't get on the awards stand for the 3200. I found her all alone under a pile of blankets and I was thinking to myself, "What in the world am I going to say?"
She ran smart, set herself up well, but other runners beat her out in the end. We talked, and she started thinking about the 1600. The next day she finished sixth in the 1600 and had a smile from ear to ear. She found me soon after her race and tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around to find her with a huge grin. A highlight of mine is making a positive impact on the athletes. To get e-mails from or have former athletes drop in to say hi makes me realize that all the time, effort, and energy is worth it!
The last few years we have taken our cross country team to a cabin in Vallecito, Colorado, for a weekend retreat. Spending time with kids in such a beautiful setting has been awesome!
Another highlight would have to be a few of our athletes and teams finishing well at state. In my first season coaching the sprinters in track, I was nervous about how the sprinters would peak. I didn't know what to expect. We had a few runner-up relay races, some great PRs, and a 300m hurdle state champ. Getting three teams onto the awards stand the last few years has been icing on the cake.
I enjoy working with the athletes but I also really enjoy the camaraderie that exists in cross country and track. Shooting it with other coaches or picking other coaches' brains is always a highlight. I'm sure it isn't only New Mexico, but with there being so few schools in the state, coaches are able to get to know one another rather well. Whether it be reading the blogs or tossing bean bags with another coach, the relationships with the other coaches make meets, coaching, and competition fun!
How does the NMAA move to six classifications impact Rehoboth?
On one hand, in a state with so few schools I don't really like so many classifications. It makes winning and competing at state a bit less of a challenge. I want my kids and kids around the state to learn what it means to work for something and realize what it takes to be successful. However, when I think about the purpose of high school athletics, I think the number of classifications in NM is just fine. If more kids are able to have a chance of experiencing a state cross country meet and what it means to compete to be the best, great. In the small schools, with just a bit of summer running a team has a chance to compete well at the state level. At Rehoboth, it gives us a shot to hopefully find a way to the podium, but we will miss the competition we have had with several of the schools that will be changing classification.
Are there any big goals you have in mind you'd like to help make happen at Rehoboth?
I view there being so much more to running and athletics than just winning. Don't get me wrong, I love to win, the thrill of competing and the efforts it takes to prepare a team to be their best. However, I think I'm missing out if I make it all about winning or thinking of success as how high my team can finish at the state meet.
My goal is to continue to use running as a tool to positively impact lives. I am hopeful that my athletes can grow in their running, but also to develop into men and women who live Christ-centered lives. When the kids develop passion, desire to be their best, and have their priorities in the right place, they will be successful. This success will also translate into running well and hopefully running well at the state meet! With that said, a cross country state championship would be sweet! It has been a few years for Rehoboth!