Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Runner's Runner

I've long wanted to write about Justina Cassavell. My sister has been the cross-country coach at Voorhees High School in New Jersey since the mid 1990s. She is also the head track coach (boys and girls). She announced her resignation yesterday - within minutes it seemed, the story was posted on

Under her leadership, the girls cross-country team has been one of the best teams in not just the state, but in the northeast. One local paper summed up her accomplishments: "Cassavell is recognized as one of the top coaches of distance runners, male or female, in New Jersey state history." She was inducted into the NJSIAA Athletic Coaches Hall of Fame. Her team has won [thirteen] state sectional titles, nine state titles, and three Meet of Champions (all group) titles (thanks to my brother-in-law for keeping the stats!). In recent years, they've also qualified for national competitions three times (placing first or second in the northeast in 2007, 2010 and 2012). In addition, she's coached individual runners on her teams to national ranking and helped them establish a foundation for their development as college athletes.

My sister is known for helping runners realize their talent (e.g. gifted athletes like Liz Wort who graduated from Duke in 2007, was a 3-time all-American in the steeplechase and is now head cross-country coach at TCU, and Melanie Thompson, a University of Oregon runner and 2-time All American, also in the steeplechase). But my sister is also known for cultivating the good runner, the life-long runner. Running, I've heard her say again and again, should make you happy. I've also heard her say that she thinks of herself as a coach who really enjoys coaching a team.

That's a special thing: because that coach takes an interest in the All-American but also in the struggling athlete, the injured, and the ordinary hard-worker. She knows that a good runner can be any and all of these things. Journalists covering high-school sports in the area tend to describe her as a "whisperer" - signaling the degree to which such attentive coaching seems like magic in a world that sells us pretty much one vision of what an effective coach looks like (a man) and does (yells, a lot) in the service of a single aim (win at all cost).

In his most recent column, Dave Zirin argues that youth sports culture seems to cultivate aggression of the worst sorts. Increasingly, people experience youth sports as an apparatus that enables the abuse of power and authority. (My experience with AYSO in Los Angeles sadly affirms this.) Even as youth sports operates in American mythology as a kind of idyll - as a place we imagine as innocent and good - the reality is quite different. Zirin asks, "Why do 70 percent of kids quit youth sports by age 13? Why do parents get so unbelievably nasty? Why, and this is the most serious point, can it turn suddenly violent?" He writes:
I spoke with Joe Ehrmann, former NFL player, pastor and founder of Coach for America. Ehrmann has devoted his life to fighting this societal tide and making youth sports and coaching a positive for children. He said to me, “My belief is that while youth sports originated to train, nurture and guide children into adulthood many programs/coaches have taken over to meet needs of adults at expense of kids. Sports should be a tool to help children become whole and healthy adults who can build relationships and contribute as citizens, but the social contract between adults protecting and providing for the needs of children [instead of their own needs] is broken.” ([Zirin's] emphasis.)
Those are strong words describing the experiences of a great many parents and kids. Where some aspects of youth sports has been taken over by selfishness, greed, and cruelty, I've had the distinct pleasure of seeing the other side: The world being cultivated by the women who entered sports in the 1980s with a little help from federal legislation (my sister's scholarships were no doubt created by Title IX equity requirements). Those women ran in college and now they coach other young women at high schools, colleges, summer camps. Athletics is a way of life for them. And it's a sustainable way of life. That way of being in sports nurtures competitiveness, because that kind of competition is good for everyone. One person inspires another. A collective feels wonder at what one person among them can do. There is something both humbling and empowering about running alongside someone who is much faster, stronger than you.

Over the past fifteen+ years, I've loved going to watch the Voorhees girls run. There's something so perfect about a cross-country meet. About being outdoors, about running along the course to cheer. About watching teams try. I love seeing how teams gather together at the end of the race - how the older athletes look after the younger ones. How kids look after teammates with different needs, how they lift each other's spirits. It's so damned nice to be reminded of what youth sports can be.

As a person coaching teenagers, my sister quite literally coaches her athletes from childhood to adulthood. The high school coach has an incredible responsibility. I think she's really joyed in watching the people on her team mature, take responsibility for themselves and each other. If she likes to coach a team, perhaps that's why - part of being an adult involves learning to understand oneself in relation to, among others. Cross country is just a cool sport when it comes to that balance of the self with others. Nobody can run for you; everybody needs you to run your best.

While my sister is eloquent on the thing that makes for a great competitor (the insane drive that will make a runner not just want but need to win the race) she has dedicated years of her life to helping young women find balance, to run their best, together.

When I go home, I run with my sisters (both of whom ran track at Rutgers, my other sister worked with autistic children for years, and is an equally gifted teacher). Justina has taught me to keep myself relaxed, to take hills slowly, to let myself take my time so I can run long (after one session in which she talked about pace, I nearly doubled the amount of time I was able to run). I learned to listen to my body. I learned to notice when I was holding myself back.

Running with Justina has helped my writing. It's helped me to take notice when I begin to move away from trying. When I think I can't do something, I put on my shoes and run. It seems like an escape, but it's really a kind of meditation. A practice, a way to tune in. The things you learn from having a holistic approach to a sport carry over into other areas of your life. We hear that all the time. But there's something to it: you don't just work out a problem through the mind or the body. You can work something out in one domain and bring the wisdom you found there to the other. Sometimes you need to do both at once, to trust yourself and give it a shot. She's the person that taught me this.

I wish that when I was in high school I'd had access to coach like her. It's hard to imagine what a difference having a person like this can mean to a teenage girl - having access to a role model in the form of a grown-up woman, a person guiding you in developing a healthy relationship to your body, and doing so in a way that isn't about being pretty or cute or skinny or perfect but is about being strong, healthy and balanced.

Anyway, all this is just to say I'm fiercely proud of my sister and all that she's accomplished as a coach at Voorhees High School.

1 comment:

  1. So much of this sums up exactly why I just flew home to be part of her surprise retirement party. She saw a runner, not a scrappy punk-rock kid, and I cannot imagine my life without her influence. I'd never have literally run into you guys in the Gorge that one day and discovered UCR. I don't know if I'd be in Seattle. So many threads trace back to Justina and the amazing influence she's had on my life, and how much she genuinely cares about her athletes, regardless if they win titles or simply take down their own PRs a few seconds.


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