I was deeply saddened to hear that Gary Kessler, my high school cross country coach, died this week. Coach Kessler was someone I looked up to at a time when, like most 17-year-olds, I was struggling to figure who I was and where I was supposed to be going. I miss him already.
What I remember him for — as a cross country and track coach — was only one part of his very full life. He taught science at my high school, and he also coached the football and wrestling teams for awhile. He was a Marine, a veteran, a pilot, and a career reservist. Every now and then he’d be out for a weekend, at Quantico for training. A reserved, humble man, he spoke very little about himself or his (many) accomplishments, and in hindsight I feel a pang of regret for not asking him more questions.
But for the tiny slice of his life in which I knew him, he left a deep impression on me. I will forever remember him standing there on top of the windy hill on our cross country course, in his dark shorts and New Balance running shoes, stopwatch in hand, laughing at some joke that my teammate Jim just told, while the rest of us gasp for air from the last interval we’d run. I associate his voice with the wind and sun there, and the vague, rush-of-blood, oxygen-debt euphoria I usually felt during practice.
Although he coached several sports (and many track events) during his long career, I’m grateful he gave us distance runners a shot: skinny, gawky nerds in our muddy sneakers. He was utterly steady, a calm counterbalance to our maladjusted, adolescent uncertainty. He was always on time, always prepared. He was soft-spoken and seemed to have infinite reserves of patience. When he did speak, his words were considered. He had a knack for gently telling us what we needed to hear (or, in many cases, saying nothing and giving us the space we needed to work it out for ourselves). I hated to disappoint him. I would push myself far beyond what I thought I could do, just to see him click the stopwatch, smile, and congratulate me on a personal record. He knew everybody’s PRs.
Coach Kessler took over as our head coach at the beginning of my senior year in 1999. We’d go on to win the district championship, and to place at regionals — our best year as a team in a long time.
I was never a world-beating runner, even in my tiny school district, but running was, nonetheless, the first time I felt like I could make something of myself. Running is one of the few athletic things that came somewhat naturally to me. I loved falling into a rhythm after a few miles, so that my arms and legs seemed to move by themselves, my heartbeat and breathing the metronome driving them. There’d be nothing but the sound of the wind and birds and my feet lightly crunching on the path, and all my worries would slowly drain away. These days I still run, as often as I can, not only for exercise but also because it’s the best way to manage my anxiety.
Coach Kessler helped me understand this mental side of running in a way I’d never managed before. He taught me discipline, it seemed, without me realizing it. He would ask questions about my goals, listen very carefully, and then he would simply be there every day, helping me with the next step. I bet you can shave a few seconds on this interval. It’ll be hot tomorrow, drink a few extra glasses of water tonight. Your rival ran his last mile split 10 seconds faster, so let’s try some speed drills next week to help your kick. Without ever actually saying it, he helped my teenage brain finally understand the connection between “today” and “next year” — to understand that bigger accomplishments are built from single days.
This was a lesson that proved valuable in my adult life. Running, and the discipline Coach Kessler helped me build, is a gift that I’m deeply grateful for. It has, without exaggeration, saved me more than once. Coach Kessler himself has become a role model to me. When I direct other designers or teach my own students, I try to mimic his patience, his calm voice, his sincere belief in every single person he worked with.
Thank you for everything, Coach. I’ll miss you terribly, but I’ll try to live up to your example and pass on what you’ve taught me. Wherever you find yourself next, I hope the running trails are great.