Coach John Gard talks with Tips4Running.com
Tips4Running.com is happy talk to Coach John Gard of Green Bay Notre Dame Cross Country. He has been the head coach for three years and coached Allie Woodward who was one of the fastest runners ever in Wisconsin. Most people in Wisconsin are familiar with the name John Gard because he was a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly from 1987- 2007. He was also Speaker of the State Assembly for four years. We spoke to him about his running accolades and his experiences coaching.
David Tiefenthaler – For the first part of the interview, let’s focus on your running background. You had a bunch of brothers that were also runners. Were you the fastest? Any good stories of head to head competitions in races between each other?
John Gard – I have 5 younger brothers that ran at Lena High School. 5 of us were Conference Champions in either the 1600 or 3200. 2 ran at the State Meet. We were a small school so it wasn’t as if we were running against big-time schools but our family running tradition was very meaningful for us. We never all lined up and raced each other- although I would love to now because I’m the only one still running.
My Godfather and uncle is Greg Gard (not the basketball coach). Greg was a phenomenal high school runner and won 2 State CC Titles for Granville High School in 1959 and 1960. He won 47 cross country races in a row. Occasionally, someone will ask if I’m related and it is always special to hear about him. In that era he was the real deal.
DT – After high school, you went on to run for the hated UW-Lacrosse Golden Eagles (sorry about that “hated” part. I ran at UW-Oshkosh). What was your favorite part about running for a great Division III college?
JG – I was an average runner surrounded by unbelievable runners at La Crosse. It was a privilege just to be around those guys and they changed my life. Coach Phil Esten is one of the classiest men I have ever been around and he was a gift as a coach. I wish every kid could have a coach like that in life at least once.
We were really good and one of my favorite memories was the day our CC team had a perfect 15 at the WSUC Conference Meet. Our guys were so mentally and physically tough that their toughest competition came from their teammates. We worked hard, ran hard and played hard…it was a special program. We always called it the La Crosse secret because you had to be there to understand it.
I don’t even remember if Oshkosh had a team then (just kidding). It’s really amazing to think of the stud runners that have come out of this State Conference. What a group of legends.
DT – What do you consider your best race, or biggest accomplishment in running during your high school or college years?
JG – I wasn’t that good but I had the time of my life at UW-L. My biggest accomplishment was sticking with it all four years and making running a lifetime love. My times got much better but I wasn’t in the same hemisphere as my roommates who were constantly pushing sub 9 minutes in the 2 mile.
DT – According to the Green Bay Notre Dame team CC page, you ran the Boston Marathon in 2009 in a Personal Best 3:12. Are you still running or training for any upcoming marathons?
JG – I pr’d at Grandma’s last weekend with a 3:06. Everything was working that day.
I ran 3:12 at Boston in 2009 and am requalified for next year. Boston should be experienced by everyone at least once- it is magical.
DT – Congrats on the great race! Now onto high school coaching. Why did you choose to start coaching, and how long have you been coaching distance runners?
JG – I was involved in politics for a long time. When I was unsuccessful in my run for Congress, I immediately went to my bucket list and looked to do things I always dreamed of. Qualifying for Boston was first on the list.
Once I was re-dedicated to serious training, my son started running Cross Country at Notre Dame. We started running a lot together and it helped us become even closer. The coaching position opened up and I went after it. I’m entering my third year and love it. Both our boys and girls made it to state last year which was very special. I love Notre Dame Academy and those great kids.
DT – What is your favorite part about coaching high school distance runners?
JG – I believe running can change a kid’s life. I believe they become more disciplined, healthier and happier. I believe in trying to get every possible student I can to join. We have grown to 118 kids for boys and girls combined last year. My goal is to get more than 20% of the student body out for CC.
Most of these kids will never be in an organized team sport after they leave high school. I want them to experience what running can offer them and what they can offer running. Everyone gets to race and there are no playing time issues. Each runner gets to work to get better and the biggest challenge is personal in many ways. I love the PR’s. We had 335 PR’s last year and we celebrated every one of them.
DT – Now let’s talk about Allie Woodward, possibly the best distance runner in Wisconsin, and one of the best H. S. runners in the nation during the 2010/2011 school year. Did her presence improve the whole distance program at Green Bay Notre Dame?
JG – Allie Woodward is the most special runner I have ever been around, at any level. The best part is she is an even better person. I believe she is still so fresh and has so much untapped potential that her best days are ahead of her.
Allie has permanently changed our program at Notre Dame Academy. It is hard to describe the impact she has had on me. Many young runners have been inspired by her approach and her grace.
DT – Did you have to change any of the training over the past few years to accommodate for Allie’s talent level?
JG – I believe in the philosophy that the best system is built by the Coach and Athlete together. I designed an “Allie” program but it was fairly close to the boys program. She has a relentless work ethic so it is critical to keep the reins on her.
I always told her my number one goal was to get her to the starting line healthy. She made me look much better than I am. It was all her- what a true privilege to watch. I have assistant coaches that are exceptional, so they really made a difference and helped incredibly.
DT – Did she have to run a lot of workouts alone because she is so much faster than most runners, even the boys?
JG – She trained mostly with the boys but sometimes I would break her off on her own routine. Sometimes she had to run with me. The boys needed a break from her constant talking☺ Our boys were very good so that was always a good fit.
DT – What did you have to do as a coach as far as Allie getting attention from collegiate coaches? Did you have to talk to a lot of college coaches?
JG – I learned that you have to pick up the phone and call people. Several coaching friends of mine encouraged me to just start calling which I did. When Allie won the Griak invitational, people started to take notice but she really flew under that radar.
I mustered up the courage to call Oregon, as did one of my assistant coaches. I told them that we had this girl that I think they might want to check out. They probably thought I was just another nut at first but after Allie won the Midwest Foot Locker everything got much more serious.
I believe Oregon is the right place for Allie. I have total respect for their approach and coaching staff. I believe they just got one of America’s best kept secrets.
DT – What were some of the things the collegiate coaches wanted to know?
JG – I was very encouraged at how many coached immediately talked about academics. The programs that became interested were all outstanding academic schools and Allie is an outstanding student. It’s fun as a coach to be able to brag about someone that special.
DT – Allie Woodward is a once in a lifetime talent for a coach, so you probably won’t get to experience coaching someone like her again. However, what advice do you have for a coach who has a big time talent, and wants to make sure they help that particular runner do as well as possible?
JG – I was blessed that Allie has an amazing family and family support system. I just tried to not screw anything up too badly and let Allie’s talent prevail. Because she only ran Cross Country for one year- I was very cautious about not overtraining her. I would never have forgiven myself if she had gotten injured. As we moved deeper into the fall, the flower really began to blossom and it was special to just watch.
For me, it was very important to include Allie in on what I was thinking with the training and racing plan. Allie totally bought in and was extremely willing to learn. She is such an amazing talent that she will look good in almost every race. However, I really worked to teach her patience. Allie has heard that word from me more often than anything else. I believe it is critical for her to reach her potential at the next level. I’m sure some of the great high school cross country coaches in Wisconsin could have done better but I’m sure glad I had the opportunity.
I hope to be blessed with another superstar someday but the odds are against it. I know this- there will never be another Allie. God created a truly unique and special person in Allie Woodward and my family and I are better people for having had her come into our life. I just hope more people get to see just how special she is.
DT – Thank you very much for your time John. Good luck with your CC team in 2011. I hope you make it back up to Wisconsin Rapids!
JG – Thanks for what you do for all of us crazy runners.Notre Dame Academy Cross Country…DREAM COMMIT ACHIEVE☺