My freshman year of high school, my best friend Perry convinced me to try out for the cross-country team because she had a crush on Byron. She tried to convince me that it was important that we were on a team, now that we were in high school. I knew it was Byron. At first, I balked. What if it interfered with my cello lessons?
I succumbed to her peer pressure and went out for the team. That’s where I met one of the most important men of my life, Coach Patrick McMahon.
He was like an intense, absent-minded professor with a thick Irish brogue. Those first few weeks of training, I didn’t think much of him. And I’m sure he didn’t think much of me.
The girls’ team consisted of four girls. There were no tryouts. We trained with the boys’ varsity and JV team. At every meet, he’d line up all the boys, and then turn around and say, “Okay, where are the little guuils?”
Perry never finished a race. By the time she reached the woods, she was always nauseous. (But that didn’t stop her from trying to chase Byron.) I was fine in the woods, but struggled with the head winds every time I reached the edges of the soccer fields.
As time progressed, I discovered that running wasn’t so bad. And I was actually training under a local legend. Mr. McMahon represented Ireland in the 1968 Mexico Olympics for the marathon. He had also placed second in the Boston Marathon, losing by mere seconds. Until recently, his name was mentioned on television every Patriot’s Day because it was the closest Boston Marathon finish in history.
My heart ached for the guy just thinking about it. He injured his back in that race too, and never competed again.
He worked us hard. Pretty much every workout involved running through a .75-mile loop of the woods for a three-mile warm-up, followed by 15-20 steep hills. Three-quarters of the way up the hill, he stood, shouting, “Come on, come on, you’re slower than my grandmother and she doesn’t have any legs!” Then a mile-and-half cool down.
Once or twice a year, I think he sensed we were burned out, and he’d shake things up by organizing an impromptu soccer game. That’s when we were all shocked by his athletic agility. The guy had skills with a soccer ball and could easily dribble around us. (Then again, none of us made the soccer team.)
At the end of the season, he held a banquet for us at his men’s club — The Knights of Columbus. It wasn’t a fancy place, but you could tell he was welcome there. The guest speaker was Jock Semple, the man who became famous for pushing the first woman in the Boston Marathon off the course. Jock spoke to us about that incident and how sorry he was for his actions. (You don’t hear that much in the running books and publications.)
Still I wondered if Mr. McMahon would ever take me seriously. He seemed so pre-occupied. Then my sophomore year, there was a change.
He suggested that my mother take me to the Liberty Track Club for workouts. That’s where some of the area’s most elite women ran. I was shocked. He really did believe in me.
By my junior year, when we toed the line at cross-country meets, Mr. McMahon asked, “Where’s Amelia?” He made room for me at the front.
He has no idea what that did for me.
He taught me a lot about human nature. Sometimes people need to really see what your capable of before you can earn their respect. It’s not instantaneous. And that is a lesson that has served me very well in my career.
So, on this and every St. Patrick’s Day, I raise a greenie for Coach Patrick McMahon.