How I Became A Coach, Part 2 – The UCLA Manager Years
Previously I wrote a blog about how I became a high school cross country and track & field coach at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory. But thinking back on the events of my life, my road to coaching began as early as my sophomore year at Lowell High School.
It was the spring of 1987 and the coaches at Lowell were James Thomas and Kevin Fong. Kevin was the head coach that year; he would later become an assistant coach in charge of the throwers for me at SHCP. In my sophomore year Kevin made me one of the team captains and I loved it. Up until that point in my life I was much more of a follower, going along with my friends and not straying very far from my comfort zone. The only reason I was even a runner was because my friend Eugene Cho encouraged me to join cross country my freshman year. For some reason, however, I thrived in the leadership role on the Lowell track & field team.
My high school career came to an agonizing end when my team failed to qualify for the State Meet in the 4X400 meter relay; I felt an emptiness in my stomach. For four years cross country and track & field had been my life. Training was hard and I sometimes dreaded it. High pressure meets and big races made me nervous, but they were also thrilling. I knew I had to do something to stay involved with the sport.
The summer after my senior year I attended Lowell’s summer running practices as a sort of uninvited assistant coach. Coach Lloyd Wilson, who has now been my assistant coach at SHCP for thirteen years, didn’t seem to mind – or at least he tolerated me. I wrote evaluations about all my former teammates in a notebook: what their strengths were, what they needed to work on, what would motivate them the most. I was eighteen years old and just out of high school, and I was thinking like a coach.
When I began my freshman year at UCLA, I decided I would see if the cross country team needed a manager. I went to Coach Bob Larsen’s office. Coach Larsen politely told me that he already had two track & field managers (one of those managers has his own coaching story) and that he didn’t need one for cross country. I walked out of his office a little disappointed, but later realized that Coach Larsen was strictly the men’s cross country and track & field coach at UCLA. The women’s team was totally separate. I then went to Coach Bob Messina and asked him if he needed a manager for the women’s cross country team. Coach Messina seemed a little surprised by my question. I don’t think he’d ever had anyone ask to be his team manager before. Certainly not a geeky looking Chinese freshman boy from San Francisco. Coach Messina told me that if I was really interested, to come to the first meet, which happened to be the next day. I had to be at the Morgan Center steps to ride a van to UC Riverside at 5:30 A.M. I believe that was my first test, to see if I was serious about being manager or if I just wanted to hang out and gawk at the pretty UCLA distance runners.
The next morning at the van my days as the UCLA manager began. That first van ride was quite an experience. The women on the team were used to only having females (and Bob) around. They weren’t going to change their behavior or conversations because I was around. In fact, I think they purposely acted more outrageous just to see how I would react. I must admit I was asking myself, “What have I gotten myself into?” as we stopped so that Jennifer Smith could go pee on the side of the road, and the women kept modeling their tight uniform tops in the van.
My job as manager initially required a lot of writing. There was no internet for posting results, so at the end of meets I had to copy down all the statistics. At practice I was responsible for logging everyone’s workout splits. (UCLA is where I developed my counting system, 98, 99, 1:40, 1:41, … and an ability to call out and record splits at the same time.) On some days I would run with the team. It was sometimes a challenge to keep up!
What made the job special was how nice the upperclassmen were to me. Seniors Laura Chapel and Laurie Chapman were super welcoming to me and the rest of the team followed suit. Laurie Andeen went by the nickname, “Andee” because there was already a Laurie on the team. Being low man on the totem pole, that meant I needed a nickname because I couldn’t be “Andy.” Because of my last name, the girls called me “Charlie.” But that only lasted for a year and then someone started calling me Chanman, a nickname that has continued for the twenty years since.
Two memories I especially cherish from my UCLA days involve Pam Thompson and Kira Jorgensen. Pam was a first year assistant coach and she admitted to me years later that when I first came on the scene she didn’t like me because she thought I posed a threat to her authority as an assistant coach. “But you were so nice and so good at what you did that I couldn’t hate you,” she later told me. We’ve been friends ever since. Kira was the all-everything high school phenom of the late 1980’s. A multiple-time state champion and national champion before she came to UCLA. I had read much about her and watched her race a few times. It was a real thrill to meet her in person and find out that she was the funniest, teammiest, most spirited person you could ever meet. We formed a special bond through our UCLA days and I still consider myself lucky that I ended up being friends with someone who in high school I had considered a hero.
The days at UCLA flew by. Each year I would get (and take on) more and more responsibility. I eventually had my own group at practice. I was included in meetings where we discussed the training. Track & field meets were exciting because my job was to have an accurate, up to the minute, score so the coaches could make appropriate line-up changes to win the meet. (My current dual meet strategies were born from this.) My junior year Coach Messina went to part-time, which meant I was even more vital to the team, sometimes directing a workout session by myself.
My senior year Coach Messina did not return and UCLA merged the men and women’s cross country and distance programs into one. Coach Larsen would be in charge of both the men and women. Ironically, three years after saying he didn’t need me as a manager, Coach Larsen was eager for my help. He knew that I knew the women’s team very well and that I would be a real asset during the transition to a co-ed program. He recruited me by inviting me to a sold out Arizona-UCLA basketball game. I felt loyal to Coach Messina and even interviewed for a coaching job at a nearby high school. But in the end, I decided to stay on so I could help the women who I had grown close to over the years.
My senior year was a magical year.
The UCLA athletic department paid for two-thirds of my school my senior year. I even got my UCLA varsity letter in 1993.
Coach Larsen let me give a lot of input about the workouts. I remember writing different workouts for different people and walking into his office to discuss them. Here was a multi-time coach of the year award winner being lectured to by the manager about why Kira Jorgensen should run 300 repeats that afternoon instead of 600 repeats.
One memorable day at the end of a team meeting, I asked Coach Larsen if I could speak. I got up and gave a passionate speech about how the distance women needed to step up their game. After I was done, Coach Larsen looked at me then looked at the team and commented how lucky they were to have a team manager that cared so much about them.
I developed a strong relationship with both Bobby Kersee (then the head women’s track & field coach) and Jeanette Bolden (who would become the head coach the next year). We had a great time together. I got to hang out with Jeanette and sometimes help work out people like Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Gail Devers. That May when Jeanette was named head coach, she asked if I would return the next year as an assistant coach. I decided to pursue podiatry school instead but it sure was an honor to be asked.
The end of my senior year turned into a series of recognitions from Bobby and Jeannette. They decided to fly me to New Orleans for the NCAA Championships; this was my first NCAA meet after four years as manager. I dutifully drove the rental van back and forth between the track and hotel, supported our one distance runner, Beth Bartholomew, and kept the scoresheet that found us in a surprise third place team finish.
At the end of year UCLA athletic department awards banquet Bobby was supposed to present an award to Beth for distance runner of the year. When he got up to speak, instead of introducing Beth, he introduced me and said that it was more appropriate for me to present the award.
Jeanette put on various track & field clinics for her asthma foundation. Bobby was supposed to go with her to Philadelphia for one of these but at the last minute couldn’t make it. Jeanette asked me to step in for Bobby. In this pre-9/11 era, I flew to Philadelphia with a ticket with the name “Booby Kersee” on it. At the clinic, most of the clinicians signed autographs and put their highest achievement (e.g. “1984 Olympian”). I decided I needed something but wasn’t sure what to do. I ended up signing, “Andy Chan, 6/12/93.” Hey, that way the kid collecting the autograph would remember what date they got all these cool autographs.
Even as a recently graduated high school senior I think deep inside I knew I was interested in coaching. All through college when I was bored during lectures my doodles would be training plans and workout ideas. From 1989-1993 I had one of the greatest coaching mentorships anyone could ever ask for. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was developing a love for the sport, knowledge about training, and ideas about how to motivate from great athletes and coaches in the UCLA program.