Changing lives through coaching

Changing lives through coaching

After running in five Olympics, Francie Larrieu Smith turned to coaching as a way to stay involved with her sport and mentor a new generation of runners. She has served as head coach for Southwestern's track and field and cross-country teams since 1999.

Today, students who Smith coached at Southwestern are mentoring a new generation of track and field athletes across Texas.

Among them is 2006 graduate Manjah Fernandez, who just finished his third year as the head boys' track and field coach at Alief Taylor High School in Houston.

At Southwestern, Fernandez was Smith's first runner to win an SCAC conference championship when he took first place in the 110m high hurdles in 2004.

After graduating from Southwestern with a degree in biology, Fernandez returned to his hometown school district and became certified to teach through the Texas Teachers' Alternative Certification Program. His former high school assistant principal hired him to join his staff at the new Alief Taylor High School. He volunteered with the track team coaching the hurdles his first year while teaching biology full time. The following year, he was hired on to the coaching staff as a football and track assistant.

Fernandez said Smith had a major influence on his decision to become a coach.

"My passion and love for the sport has always been there, but at practice she would always tell me I would make a great coach," he said.

Fernandez said the most important thing Smith taught him was patience, which is critical in dealing with young, emotional athletes.

"I know I was a handful at times but she never gave up on me," he said. "The year I won my conference championship, I had a rough season and was not performing like I thought I could. She stuck by my side and kept pushing, she believed in me when I began to doubt myself. All these things I find myself doing naturally now and I believe it is because I watched someone else have the patience and the belief in their athletes, and I thank her dearly for that."

Several of Fernandez' runners at Alief Taylor have made it to the state championships and have received track and field scholarships to attend college. This year he was particularly excited to take his first hurdler to the state championship. Several of his runners also have signed to play football at major schools such as Oklahoma State, TCU and the University of Nebraska. 

2009 graduate Kristin (Lahaie) Mueller just finished her second season as head girls' cross-country/track coach at Cypress Ranch High School in Cypress, Texas.

Mueller said she wanted to be a math teacher and cross-country/track coach ever since she was in high school. She majored in math at Southwestern and became certified to teach high school math through the Education Department. In her senior year, she received a scholarship for being one of the best teacher candidates in the state. She also ran both track and cross-country under Smith.

"Many people warned me that most college students change their major at least once, but I never changed my mind," Mueller said "I only grew more confident in my decision to become a coach during my time at Southwestern because of the influence Coach Smith had on me." 

After graduating from Southwestern, Mueller got a job teaching math at Cypress Ranch High School, which is in her hometown. She also served as the assistant girls' track coach and assistant volleyball coach. When the head girls' cross-country/track coach retired in May 2012, Mueller took his position, fulfilling a lifelong dream.

"Although I didn't have any experience coaching cross-country or being a head coach of any sport, I believe that my experiences at Southwestern and with Coach Smith helped me get the position," Mueller said.

Mueller said she now applies what she learned from Smith while coaching her own athletes.

"One thing I remember Coach Smith saying is that she never did the same thing coaching-wise or used the same workouts from year to year because she was always learning something new, experimenting with different workouts, and trying to become a better coach," Mueller said. "I was shocked that a five-time Olympian still thought she had things to learn, but I think it really speaks to her character and shows that she is a great coach. As a coach, I am also always thinking about what I can do to become a better coach. I try to get to know my athletes and figure out what works best for them."

Like Fernandez, Mueller said the most important thing she learned from Smith is that coaching isn't just about helping an athlete become a better runner – it's about coaching the whole individual.

"Coach Smith knew that we weren't only athletes," Mueller said. "She understood that we were also students and young adults and was very involved in our lives. I remember her often saying that she loved seeing us grow and mature from our first year to our senior year. At Southwestern, Coach Smith was not only my coach, but she was my friend, my role model, and my mentor. I remember the impact that Coach Smith had (and still has) on my life and try to have a similar impact on my athletes' lives. Just like Coach Smith did with me, I try to let my athletes know that I care about them and that they can talk to me about anything. I recently received an email from a parent thanking me for building up strength, trust and self-esteem in her daughter where she couldn't. Knowing that I have made a difference in my athletes' lives is definitely the most rewarding part of coaching."