Jim Holdren has coached runners for 60 years. As he expands his legendary impact, he believes he’s the ‘lucky’ one. – Richmond Times-Dispatch

Jim Holdren has coached runners for 60 years. As he expands his legendary impact, he believes he’s the ‘lucky’ one.  Richmond Times-Dispatch


By DYLAN GARNER Richmond Times-Dispatch

Sixty years of triumph lined every wall of Jim Holdren’s den. Photos and tapes in one corner, a tangled web of medals in another, and enough plaques and trophies that you’d have trouble counting them all.

Every medal, plaque and piece of paper in his office he kept served as a moment in time over the course of a long – as long as seemingly is possible – career as a cross country and track and field coach that just passed a major milestone.

Holdren, 80 years old, is beginning yet another season – his 61st overall – at the helm of the cross country team at Maggie Walker Governor’s School. His early-morning practices at Byrd Park began again this summer, training dozens of Green Dragon runners – many returning, some new – with the regimens he’s honed since he was a student.

This summer, he faced a new challenge: sorting through and consolidating every bit of his coaching paraphernalia for a move to a retirement community with his wife, Barbara. While he’s still active coaching, it was a move the two felt was for the best. But it involved having to figure out where all of these relics of the past should go – or which would make the move at all.

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While the moving process was difficult, it gave him a chance to look back on his own history. With all of it laid out in front of him, he threw around the idea of a memoir. He hadn’t gotten far enough to know what the purpose would be yet, whether it would be to teach fledgling coaches about mastering the art of mentorship or if it would just be a way to show his family the things he went through and valued over time.

But there’s one thing that Holdren believes has gotten him to the point he is now, as a coach, teacher, husband, father and everything in between: Every time one door was shut, another came open.

Coaching chemistry

Chemistry was Holdren’s first passion growing up. He called himself the “ultimate nerd,” claiming his home lab rivaled what you could find at any high school. He anticipated making his livelihood as a research chemist. After graduating from Thomas Jefferson High School, he followed the science path of his uncle by going to William & Mary.

Track and field was a big part of his life, even if his spikes took a back seat to his beakers early on. He was a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none type out on the track, but it was enough to contribute as a member of the Tribe.

Holdren’s analytical mind and enthusiasm caught the attention of his coach, Harry Groves. Groves didn’t have much help around him, and he eventually brought on Holdren, a junior at the time, as a volunteer assistant, which allowed Holdren to continue competing and get his first taste of coaching.

“That’s when I started falling in love with coaching,” he said. “I was having as much fun coaching and working and helping him as I was actually competing in the events.”

It was the summer before Holdren’s senior cross country season when he received a phone call. It was Groves, who was enlisted to be a part of an international coaching program where he’d lead meets and demonstrations in the Middle East.

The commitment wouldn’t allow him to guide the cross country team in the fall. So he asked if Holdren wanted to step in. Holdren almost couldn’t believe it – he remarked at the trust it must’ve taken for Groves to hand over his operation to a student – but he accepted.

Holdren said the team was young but talented. Holdren’s enthusiasm as a first-time coach was matched by their enthusiasm as underdogs in the Southern Conference. His team went undefeated in the conference, won the state championship and became the first W&M cross country team to qualify for the NCAA championships.

“I couldn’t dream it any better,” Holdren said.

Had his senior year been a bit more traditional, he may have faced a crossroads moment trying to choose between chemistry and coaching. That season made the decision for him.

Said Holdren: “My life totally changed, and it was because one coach saw something in me.” Now, in his words, it was time to pay it forward.

Meet the Supergals

After leaving Williamsburg, Holdren returned to Tee Jay to teach chemistry and coach the track and field team. He took key lessons from Groves’ mentorship and used it to shape his career, with his primary mantra being to treat every one of his students and athletes with the same level of respect and attention, no matter how talented they appeared on the surface.

“I get just as excited and feel just as good about it when they discover they can do something they didn’t think they could do,” he said. “That’s a big deal for them, and that’s a big deal for me. If you don’t get as excited about that as you do when some phenom wins a national title, then you’re kind of in the wrong business.”

In the early years of Holdren’s coaching career, Tee Jay’s track team was limited to the boys, partly because of resources and partly because of the lack of interest in a formal girls team. That began to change in 1973, when a group of girls started driving interest in starting a team.

Holdren was originally noncommittal. He didn’t have any assistants to help him, and he had no idea if these girls were willing to take the sport seriously. In 1974, the girls drummed up enough momentum to get a team going and got a parent, Jay Wallace, to supervise them.

Holdren saw the girls’ efforts and decided to bring them into his boys’ program. But he worked them as hard as he could, hoping to either motivate them or weed them out if they weren’t serious about the sport.

“We had to try to keep up with the boys,” said Deborah Snagg, one of the original girls on the team. “That’s how we got better every year, because of the guys. It was great.”

It was another crossroads moment in Holdren’s career that was decided for him. These girls were here to stay.

“At the end of a week or two, five [girls] became 25, and then we went 16 years without ever losing an outdoor [duel] meet,” Holdren said. “Think what I would’ve given up. I’m glad they came back.”

Former Times-Dispatch sportswriter Jack Berninger dubbed them the “Supergals,” an ode to their incredible success. At meets, they were equipped with the preparation instituted by coach Holdren – both during the school year and in the summer with the Richmond Track & Field Club – and the swagger of their new identity.

“We would go to invitational meets, and we didn’t really have serious uniforms at the time, so everybody had their own sweats,” said another one of the original Supergals, Laurita Harris Portee. “We’d get on the line and take our sweats off, and people would look at us like, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s the girls from Tee Jay.’”

The Supergals phenomenon would spread beyond Richmond, with Holdren taking his talented athletes to various meets around the country. It helped sharpen their abilities while providing more chances for them to be exposed to colleges.

The ability to travel and attend college wasn’t something readily available to some of the students at Thomas Jefferson. Some came from poorer neighborhoods and working-class families, meaning intracity travel was limited, much less traveling across the United States.

But Holdren was solely committed to meeting the needs of his athletes, whether that was just through his coaching or driving them home from practice.

“He never frowned upon where you came from, he just knew you had potential,” said Sandee Smith, who joined the team as a freshman in 1975 and went on to compete at Tennessee. “And he just wanted you to utilize that potential to advance your life and career.”

Holdren invested into their lives as much as their racing careers, setting the foundation of a culture that still lasts to today.

“I think he really raised the bar, and not just for our program,” said Portee, who went on to star at UVA and is now a track coach at the Sandy Spring Friends School in Maryland. “… He set the bar on how to coach a successful program in the city of Richmond and beyond.”

Championship spark

Competitive fire and passion are among the primary traits Holdren looks for in an athlete. Among the thousands who have competed for Holdren, few embody these ideas more than Piper Bressant Holloway, who graduated from the combined Jefferson-Huguenot-Wythe in 1981.

“Every day, I thank the lord for that man,” Holloway said of Holdren.

Holloway’s brother was on the basketball team at Thomas Jefferson, and she thought she was going to be a cheerleader. Holdren saw her compete in middle school and thought her home was on the track, as a possible replacement for the just-graduated Harris in the hurdles.

He could sense the competitive edge in her as she went back and forth in a junior high jump competition, tears running down her face despite a breakthrough performance. She cared about winning as much as he did.

Holloway gave cheering a chance, but there was something missing for the ninth-grader.

“I could cheer for them from the bleachers. This is not gonna get it for me. I had the drive to run track,” she said. “I went to Coach Holdren and said, ‘Sign me up. I want to run.’”

Holdren did everything he could to foster her talent, and the results came fast. He put her in races once she mastered her three steps between hurdles. That spring, she recorded the fastest hurdles time among every 14-year-old girl in the world. From the very start, she performed up to whatever competition Holdren put her up against.

“You just throw her to the wolves, and she became a wolf,” Holdren said.

In 1981, Holloway was gearing up for her final state outdoor meet. But she wasn’t herself; she was “livid.”

At the region meet, she got smoked. Hermitage’s Tamela Penny, who Holloway trained with and ran alongside during the summers, dominated in the events they faced each other in, usurping many of Holloway’s records in the process.

Holloway entered the state meet with an edge, looking to avenge her humiliating defeat. She began the first day of that Group AAA meet with the long jump. Her focus and desire to win was so strong she lost sleep visualizing how the event would go the night before.

She squared off with Penny again, and sparks flew from the sand pit. The two exchanged powerful leaps, with Holloway breaking Penny’s state record and then Penny taking it right back, eclipsing 20 feet.

With a mix of tears and fire in her eyes, Holloway landed the finishing blow in their duel. She jumped 20 feet, 6½ inches for the victory, the first of the weekend for JHW.

Holdren and Holloway came back to where the team was staying to report the news. Holloway loudly proclaimed her status as the long jump champion and state record holder to her teammates.

“That spark just set our team on fire,” Holdren said, recalling every step of the preceding events that led to their team’s state championship victory.

Trusting the process

Holdren’s success persisted through the rest of his time at Thomas Jefferson, regardless of what form the school took throughout the ’80s and ’90s. This includes the period where Thomas Jefferson and the Governor’s School shared space from 1991-2001, eventually opening the door for Holdren’s move to the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School just three miles away.

The success was immediate upon the move to Lombardy Street: The Green Dragons boys claimed the Group AAA state title in cross country in 2001. That success accelerated after the Virginia High School League’s major realignment in 2013, which split the three classifications in the state to six.

The Green Dragons have been nearly invincible ever since, with the boys and girls each tallying multiple state titles across all three seasons. The girls, in particular, haven’t lost a single region track or cross country meet since, managing to replicate the consistent brilliance of Holdren’s old teams at Thomas Jefferson.

Many of the top athletes at Maggie Walker have also earned individual honors or championships. They’ve also been among the best across Richmond, with All-Metro runners or athletes of the year like Khloe Pointer (2014), Emma Call (2015), Shanthi Hiremath (2016) and Mary Caroline Heinen (2017-19) coming from Maggie Walker.

“The old saying ‘success breeds success’ is very much true,” said Ryan Webb, one of Holdren’s assistants. “We’ve always been a program that even when we have really great individuals … there were still linking pieces below that. … There’s always somebody that any kid can look to and say, ‘I wanna be like that.’”

Holdren retired from teaching some years ago, allowing him to focus fully on his athletes. But over time, he has had to find other coaches to help him manage his teams, particularly as he rises in age. It wasn’t an easy thing for the coach who was used to filling any role needed at the beginning of his career.

Snagg, who went on to be an All-American runner at the University of Richmond after graduating from Thomas Jefferson, reunited with Holdren as an assistant at Tee Jay and has stayed by his side ever since. Bob Disse leads the pole vaulters, giving the Green Dragons an edge over a majority of track teams in the state. Then there’s the younger voices in the huddle like Webb, who competed against Holdren’s Maggie Walker teams as an athlete at Lee-Davis (now Mechanicsville High School).

“It took me a while for me to give that up, to some extent. … Now I have a great staff of coaches that are just as passionate as I am about it and working with the kids in specialties,” Holdren said. “… If there was any flaw in my career in coaching is that I didn’t learn that lesson sooner.”

The value his fellow coaches bring has been apparent at practices and meets, but also when unexpected hurdles have come Holdren’s way. Within the past decade, he suffered a stroke and battled an “aggressive” form of prostate cancer, both severe enough that he wasn’t sure when his time would be up.

He thinks of those moments and uses them as fuel for living every day to his fullest. But he also thinks about his time in the hospital and the time he had to spend away from his teams, and the trust he placed in his coaches to keep his ship afloat.

“I had my stroke in 2010. I was in the hospital for five days and rehab for two weeks, learning how to walk again. The program just kept going, just like I wasn’t there. It was humbling,” he said. “… It’s the program that wins the championships, it’s not me. I’ve learned to handle that and really enjoy that.”

Of course, not even a stroke stay could completely remove Holdren from his responsibilities. Sandee Smith was among those who visited him in the hospital at the time.

“You know what he was doing? He had a pad, a pencil and a stopwatch,” she said with a laugh.

Dragons in the rough

Heinen, now a runner and engineering major at Columbia, wasn’t a long-distance runner and had no plans to be one, until she received a letter from Holdren asking if she’d like to try out for the cross country team – a frequent token from the coach to incoming freshmen, regardless of athletic background.

“It was basically just encouraging everybody because he was not gonna cut anybody, he wants everybody. And that stayed true,” Heinen said. “Anyone who wants to be a part of the team, he wants them to be a part of the team.”

Heinen jumped head first into the training programs that Holdren had built over the course of decades. It didn’t take long for Heinen to find her stride in her new sport – she won three state track titles as a freshman, then she won the first of three state cross country titles as a sophomore. She also won in her division at the 2017 Junior Olympic Cross Country National Championship, earning national recognition just a little over a year into her career as a runner.

Heinen noted that her team’s workouts and runs were often longer and more strenuous than what she’s seen in college programs. But there was always a method to Holdren’s ways.

“Any time you had a question about why we were doing a certain thing, he could tell you why you were doing everything,” Heinen said. “… I would do a workout senior year before a certain meet, and he would be able to pull out when I did that workout before the meet two years ago. …

“I’m a big math person, so being able to look through the numbers and know exactly where everything came from was really cool for me.”

After Heinen came Catherine Garrison, who joined the track team looking to pole vault and sprint while playing basketball in the 2019-20 winter season.

Garrison, who previously did gymnastics for eight years, called it her “exploration phase,” as she was looking for a sport and team that she could really latch onto. The dawn of the pandemic threw a wrench into those plans for most of the next year, with the VHSL finally bringing back sports – although with the seasons out of place – amid her junior year.

Garrison thrived in the warped early-spring cross country season, finishing all-state at the Class 3 meet, but she sent coach Holdren an email saying she wanted to give softball a shot rather than continue running in the outdoor track season.

“He wrote me the nicest, most genuine email back,” she said. “It was very accepting and taking as much pressure as possible off me while still letting me know how highly he thought of me and how much potential he saw, but that he fully supported whatever I needed to do.”

Garrison was prepared to rejoin Holdren in the fall of 2021 for her first normal season of cross country as a senior. But early in the summer, she developed a digestive condition, called rumination syndrome, that caused her to lose a drastic amount of weight. She was hospitalized and then had to eat via a feeding tube.

As her condition improved, she tried to slowly work her way back into running shape, and Holdren was there to help. Garrison said he reached out to all of her doctors one by one to understand what she was capable of doing and build a customized plan just for her.

Just a couple months later, Garrison finished fifth overall and led the Green Dragons to a Class 3 state cross country championship. She stuck around for track season this time around, winning the state 3,200 meters title in both the winter and spring before joining the track and cross country program at William & Mary.

Heinen and Garrison are only the most recent examples of athletes discovering their potential and passion under Holdren.

“That’s one thing I’ve learned over the years. … They have to discover for themselves,” Holdren said. “So what you have to do is create an environment where they can discover that for themselves – and hope that they do and realize it.”

Lasting legacy

The national coach of the year honors, Hall of Fame inductions and 36 state championships can construct the timeline of Holdren’s historic coaching career. Countless anecdotes from the thousands of athletes and coaches who have learned from him paint in between those lines, with more championship triumphs, motivational moments and core pieces to Holdren’s story existing than can fit in one newspaper.

Many of his pupils were able to gather this summer thanks to a 60th “coachaversary” party that was planned by Quinn Neary and his peers at Maggie Walker. Every era of Holdren’s disciples was represented, either in person or through video messages thanking Holdren for his impact on their lives.

Holdren insists he’s the one “lucky” to have been a part of their lives. But he finds no greater joy than knowing he’s made a difference in the lives of so many people.

“That’s the greatest feeling,” he said. “A plaque or a trophy or a Hall of Fame induction, all those things are great. But still, you know you made the difference, whether other people know it or not.”

The younger athletes – ones who have only known Holdren as the wise patriarch of the Governor’s School, whose face is planted on a statue in the middle of the Maggie Walker track – still text back and forth with him, updating him on how their last collegiate race went, if he didn’t know already. Their parents do the same.

The older ones keep in touch as well, updating their old coach with whatever is new in their life or confiding in him when tragedy strikes. They also use Holdren’s guidance to shape future generations of their own families.

“He’s part of my family,” Holloway said. “He’s helped me pass along those life lessons.”

Added Portee: “As far as I’m concerned, he’s probably one of the best coaches ever. … A lot of my thoughts on competition stem from Coach Holdren.

“There’s a little bit of Coach Holdren in all of us.”

dgarner@timesdispatch.com

Twitter: @dgarnerrva

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