Running the course from athlete to coach

FROM THE EDITOR

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BRAD SPENCER

As athletes, they helped build the success of OPRF High School's sports programs. Now, as coaches, they are continuing the progress. This is the third column in a series that will profile current OPRF head coaches who once starred as athletes at the school.

ond memories? There are a million to choose from. A million, more than a lot, less than a ton, still too many for one to slip into focus right now. After all, it's been, oh boy, she's going to cringe when she reads this ?. 21 years since Sarah McCabe graduated from OPRF High School. It's been (oops, I'm mentioning it again) 21 years since McCabe ran like tomorrow the earth was going to catch on fire. Twenty-one years (now, I'm just being downright merciless) since McCabe ran like lightning for both the school's cross-country and track teams.

"The fondest memory of my high school athletic experience?" McCabe repeats my question methodically, no doubt rummaging through the file cabinet in her head. And then the statement: "There are a million to choose from."

McCabe picks one. It's not a fond one. It's not finishing 10th overall at State in cross-country. It's not when she ran in four track events to help the Huskies to a conference title. It's not the one where she won the 800 at the conference tournament.

McCabe picks a moment when she?#34;and this is the word she uses?#34;"choked."

It's a warm and beautiful day in May of '85, at the State Track and Field Meet, and McCabe has frozen up with anxiety. The senior was seeded third in the tournament, expected to vie for the title, expected to be running, at the very least, in the finals.

"I was nerve-racked, to put it mildly," McCabe remembers. "My mind was filled with unproductive thoughts. I just didn't have the mindset. I wasn't mentally prepared."

She fell flat in the prelims, but it prepared her for college competition. The anxiety was soon a thing of the past. McCabe went off to star at Division-III's St. Olaf College in Minnesota, even earned All-American honors in the 400-dash.

One person's memory of disappointment is another's person's memory of achievement. McCabe knew then, her senior year of high school, she wanted to be a coach. She knew she wanted to teach kids how to run and win and to have fun while running and winning. In the fall of '89, McCabe got her first gig. She was named coach of OPRF's girls cross-country team.

"I couldn't believe my good fortune," recalls McCabe. "Coaching is very different than being an athlete. It was a shock to me to have the gun go off and not be racing. I still get that flip in my stomach when the athletes are on the line; my legs feel jumpy."

Later, she became an assistant coach for the girls track team, where she found it odd referring to her former head coach Greg Dukstein, as Greg, and not coach Dukstein.

McCabe is a head coach now, training and teaching other people's kids on how to run. She's done a pretty good job. Such cross-country stars that have sprung from McCabe's teachings include Kristen Barnes, Jenny Donley, and Elaine Zelby, who finished ninth overall at State in '04.

McCabe has girls of her own now. Grace is 6 and Catherine is five months, and you can bet they'll be runners some day. McCabe's husband, Mark, is a track coach at Hinsdale Central High School.

"It's very rewarding being a coach," says McCabe. "The hardest and the most fulfilling part of the job is seeing the athletes graduate."

McCabe has been the head coach of the girls cross-country team at OPRF for ?. Oh boy, here we go again, she's going to kill me ?. 17 years.

Contact: bspencer@wjinc.com

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