Tim Broe can still remember the turning point, the start of a chain reaction that turned him from athlete to coach.
It was late 2003, and he was in the clinic of Dr. Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt in Germany. By then, the Illinois native had been running in pain for more than a year, ever since stubbing his toe on a steeplechase barrier at the 2002 U.S. Championships in Stanford, California.
The injury was misdiagnosed repeatedly, but in Germany, Broe got the news he’d been dreading: His sesamoid bone (a pea-shaped bone in the ball of the foot that provides leverage when running) was broken, necrotic, and had to be removed.
Surgery followed that November. Nine months later, Broe climbed to the apex of his career: an Olympic 5000-meter final. But he went through hell to get there.
“It got to the point where I was tired of fighting it,” Broe says. “I was fed up.” After three years of chronic pain, Broe finally stopped fighting it. He officially retired from professional running in 2005 at just 28 years old.
For many, staying involved in the sport after that would have been too hard. But Broe was different. He channeled a lifelong sports fanaticism into dissecting every great athletic performance he could, whether on the track, court, field, in the pool, or anywhere else, to understand the science of why winners win. The more he learned, the more he desired to use his growing catalog of winning wisdom to inspire others. Broe realized his whole life and running career had actually been leading him to an inevitable position: coach.
The learning curve to earn that title, however, would prove to be steep.
He started small by lending a hand at his old high school in East Peoria, Illinois, in 2007. The former football coach had been coaching the boys’ cross-country team to little success, so the following season Broe took over as the full-time head coach. The one-time high school standout suddenly had a dozen teenagers under his wing.
“You start to realize, ‘Man, I didn’t know shit about coaching,’” he admits.
But he did know about positivity, motivation, and the value of hard work. Broe quickly found that teenagers are more driven than adults sometimes like to give them credit for. “They work really hard,” Broe says. “There’s so much more knowledge now, and kids are willing to work harder from a much younger age.”
Broe worked his way to head coaching duties for the boys and girls cross-country teams at Wellesley High School outside of Boston. Since his arrival in 2015, the program has become one of the best in Massachusetts and the Northeast region.
In 2017, while still coaching at Wellesley, Broe attained what he now realizes was a lifelong goal. That’s when Saucony launched its Freedom Track Club and named Broe head coach, where he oversees nine of America’s most promising young distance runners. But having once been in their shoes, could the satisfaction of coaching ever compete with the thrill of personal achievement?
“If anything, it’s more,” Broe says. “I put in a lot of work and energy and effort, and they do too.”
And that’s not just because they have big goals. Broe requires his athletes to maintain a certain mentality. “You need to bring a positive attitude to practice, to show up ready to encourage everyone around you,” he says of his coaching philosophy. “If I don’t enjoy being around you, I don’t really want you around.”
“At the end of the day it’s about not being afraid to run fast at practice,” Broe says. “Every athlete needs to learn how to coach themselves and I’m here to help them figure out what that path should be.”
Broe asks a lot of his athletes, but with American distance running being arguably as competitive as it’s ever been (the U.S. has Olympic medal contenders at every distance from 800 meters to the marathon), it comes with the territory. So far, Freedom Track Club Athletes have stepped up to the challenge. Sure, there are more bad days than good days—such is running. But certain moments make it all worthwhile.
In December 2017, one of the club’s best athletes, Tim Ritchie, smashed his PR to win the U.S. marathon title in 2:11:56 at the California International Marathon. Broe got the news at an indoor meet in Boston and jumped in the air, fist-pumping. It was the same feeling at this year’s Music City Distance Carnival in Nashville when one of his female stars, Helen Schlachtenhaufen, ran a PR of 4:05.49 for 1500 meters.
“You don’t always get the payoffs, but when you do, man, it’s great,” Broe says.
His athletes operate at high-performance levels but maintain a healthy outlook, empowered by Broe’s trademark optimism. “Saucony knows what their DNA is and has a focused approach of doing a few things really well and taking a lot of pride in those things. That’s our approach to training,” he explains. “We’re going to work really hard, but we’re also going to have balance in our lives. We really want to win, but we’re not desperate to win.”
Ultimately, Broe’s goal for the club is simple: “For everybody to continue to improve, whether their path is to make the U.S. Championships or make the U.S. Olympic team,” he says. “Everybody feels like they’re on a path to somewhere above what they thought they could do when they started.”
Having been there himself, Broe knows how hard it is to make an Olympic team. (“Most of the athletes in the group could not pursue this goal without Saucony’s support.”) But he’s here to push his athletes to make that dream a reality and celebrate every victory along the way. “Not everybody is going to make it. If we get one athlete to make the team we’d be thrilled, but if we’re trying to do it on our own, nobody is going to make it.”
It would be easy for Broe to look back and wonder, “What if?” Instead, the coach recalls his career with profound gratitude. The memory that stands out is the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, where he finished 11th in the strongest 5000-meter final ever assembled.
“I beat some guys I had no business beating,” he says. “I got the most out of myself and was able to finish every race and say, ‘That’s all I had.’”
As a coach, he wishes the same for his athletes.
“It’s about the self-confidence and self-discovery that comes with success,” Broe says. “I want to see good kids who work hard have that same experience.”