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University cross country coach still contributing despite illness

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University cross country coach Jim Tracy was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2010, but still manages to teach and motivate his athletes. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • University cross country coach Jim Tracy was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2010, but still manages to teach and motivate his athletes.

Jim Tracy lived to run. He loved the physical exertion, the opportunity for self-improvement and the ability to push the boundaries of what he thought was possible.

And he ran everywhere: through the Presidio, across the Golden Gate Bridge, down the Great Highway.

“I saw the whole city through running,” Tracy said.

He ran to a fifth-place North Coast Section finish in the 2-mile race as a sophomore at Riordan High School, he ran fast enough to win a Northern California community college championship at CCSF in 1969, and throughout most of his 40s and 50s, he ran alongside the runners he coaches on the University High School cross country teams during practice.

In 2007, Tracy ran for the last time. He was struggling to complete routine jogs and they depleted his energy, so he started taking long walks. By 2010, he started using a cane and doctors eventually diagnosed him with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a terminal illness commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“The doctor said, ‘You’re going to get worse and if you live long enough, you’ll get so bad you won’t even recognize yourself,’” said Tracy, who is 63.

Nowadays, Tracy uses a wheelchair, but his passion for running continues through coaching. His girls’ cross country team has won four straight Division V state titles since his diagnosis, and with a record 10 state titles in his pocket, he will be inducted into the San Francisco Prep Hall of Fame on May 18.

“He hasn’t thrown in the towel,” Bay School cross country coach Bob Darling said. “He’s determined to continue doing what he can do.”

Tracy started coaching the University boys’ and girls’ teams in 1993, and he built his dynasty by tapping every runner’s full potential. He’s strict, blunt and sometimes harsh, setting a high bar for everyone and expecting 100 percent effort on a daily basis.

“He believes in us more than we believe in ourselves, and if we’re not putting ourselves into it, he’ll call us out,” senior Jennie Callan said, adding: “But when Jim says ‘Good job,’ it’s satisfying because you know he certainly
means it.”  

Tracy said even the slowest runners on the squad develop confidence by setting high goals, trying hard and being part of a team.

“I look at each athlete and I try to create a plan for their improvement,” Tracy said. “If they can reach my goal, it should be enough for them to begin to understand that higher goals are still out there.”

Midway through the 2010 season, athletic director Jim Ketcham gathered the boys’ and girls’ teams together to break the news that their coach had been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

“Half of the room broke down crying,” Callan said. “It was strange to see someone with such a strong exterior have a weaker side.”

Tracy never addressed the issue with his runners and his intensity never wavered. But Callan said his illness gave the team a new purpose.

“I know it pushed me in my workouts,” she said. “I think we all wanted to take advantage of the opportunity that we had to get better when we knew that he couldn’t anymore.”

Senior Connor Clark, who finished second at the state meet in 2011, said Tracy’s perseverance inspires him to push through the pain when he’s running.

“His struggles just fit so perfectly with the struggles we go through every single practice, every single race,” he said.

A few months after Tracy’s diagnosis, the Red Devils girls’ team captured the state title when Holland Reynolds crawled over the finish line after collapsing with dehydration. Before the opening gun, the team had dedicated the race to Tracy.

The girls won the state championship again in 2011 and they nabbed their fourth straight title last fall, despite losing their top two runners.

When Tracy isn’t winning championships, he devotes much of his time to raising awareness about ALS, attending fundraisers and sharing his experiences with the recently diagnosed.

“If I can pass on a few bits of knowledge to somebody who’s just trying to get a handle on their illness, it might help,” he said.  

He plans to coach again next season and continue until he doesn’t have the capacity to climb out of bed in the morning.

“You wind up losing something every day that you thought you couldn’t do without, yet somehow you must,” he said. “You’ve just got to try, try, try until you’ve got nothing left.”  

pgackle@sfexaminer.com