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The Best Coach I Never Really Had

April 4, 2019

Jack Kaelin

I though for sure that I had written something somewhere about Jack Kaelin when he retired in 2013. I’ve spent the last four days looking for what I should have said then and can’t seem to find it to re-state it. Since that would be the easy way out, I guess it’s appropriate that I couldn’t find it, since cross country is not now, and never has been about the easy way out. And for God knows how many years, Jack Kaelin coached cross country. So I’ll say what I should have said then now.

Jack Kaelin was everything you would ever want in a coach. He was stern when he had to be. He was encouraging. If he had the sense that you weren’t living up to what he saw as your potential, he would remind you without being caustic – the coaching version of “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.” Whatever was happening, he would say something as you passed him on the course. He did this for me every time I ran past him.

Here’s the thing. He wasn’t my coach.

I went to a small high school called Covington Latin filled with largely unathletic humans (and for a brief, glorious stretch eventual National League Rookie of the Year David Justice). And while I fit the mold of the unathletic in most other situations, I was skinny (then) and could run reasonably quickly for very long stretches. So cross country it was for me. As a small school with not much of a focus on sports, we had more of a coordinator than a cross country coach (to be clear, I loved our coordinator. He was great). Often we would drive ourselves to meets. There wasn’t a ton of instruction.

Jack Kaelin was the cross country coach at Covington Catholic (yes, that Covington Catholic). At that time Latin School had one legitimately good sports team – our soccer team – and Covington Catholic was the only team in the area better than us. As a result, I hated Covington Catholic LONG before hating Covington Catholic became a national obsession.

Mr. Kaelin never knew I hated the school he gave 50 years of his life to. He may not have cared if he had known. He knew my dad from St. Pius X Church in Edgewood, so he knew who I was. He saw me at meets. I was near enough the front of most races that he saw me among his runners. The first time I noticed it was at Boone Woods, sometime in my junior year. I was running past Mr. Kaelin and I heard him say, “get your knees up.” I looked and there was no Cov Cath runner within ear shot. I was a runner he knew. He knew I didn’t have a coach. He was a coach. He coached.

Cross country is different than most of sports. The shared misery of its basic pursuit has a tendency to bind competitors and teams in a way that doesn’t happen in other sports a lot of the time. I had friends I ran against that I still talk to today. In soccer, I have people that I played against that I’m friends with now. It’s a subtle, but real, difference. That doesn’t mean that what Mr. Kaelin did for me is unheard of in other sports, but it wasn’t even common in ours. It was just who he was.

Mr. Kaelin passed away on Saturday. He was as universally beloved as most of us can only hope or wish to be. He will be laid to rest today out of that same St. Pius church where I first met him (ok, out of the “new” church). Six years between retirement and passing doesn’t seem like enough for a person who gave so much of himself to so many — even those he wasn’t really responsible for; though I feel like he got all he needed from this world through his family and the work he did for so long. I hope he did.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Kaelin. You were the greatest coach I never really had, and I never have and never will forget that.

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