A great coach motivates, inspires, and brings out the best in their athletes. With over 20 years of competitive distance running under my belt, I have trained under a handful of coaches who brought out the best in me athletically. No one, however, deserves the honor of the greatest coach more than my middle school and high school track and cross-country coach, Sylvia Torres.
Her dedication to the sport and to her athletes inspired so many of us to chase our dreams across sandy beaches, grassy fields, and an all-weather track. Every morning, I sat on my parent’s washing machine in the utility room anxiously awaiting her arrival in my driveway. She would pull up in her red mini van, and I would scurry out the door to meet her. She had three young girls at home still asleep, so my spot in the van was always in Taylor’s car seat. Coach Torres always had a smile on her face when she picked us up. If she was tired, she never let it show. By the end of our route, the van was busting at the seams with athletes eager to start their morning run.
As we all filed out of the van and carried our bags into the locker room, she was usually trailing after us telling us how far we’d be running that morning. It was always still dark outside when we started. We ran a straight stretch from the high school into town and then turned around at a halfway point indicated by Coach Torres. These workouts were usually lighter than our afternoon workouts and provided ample opportunities to laugh and converse with our teammates.
After school, we piled into a school van to do it all over again. This time, though, Coach Torres would drive us across the causeway to the sandy beaches of South Padre Island. Some afternoons it was tempo or progressive workout along the shoreline. My favorite workout and oftentimes the most difficult was our weekly hill workout through the sand dunes. The soft sand was brutal on the calves, especially because getting traction was almost impossible. We would chart out a course in the highest dunes on the north end of the island, and she would time us with her stopwatch; yelling out our splits as we crossed the makeshift finish line drawn in the sand.
Coach Torres had an infectious laugh that was contagious. There are many times I remember her laughing so hard she started crying. Two instances that stand out in my mind both involve our rental car at the state cross country meet my sophomore year. The day before the race, we drove out to Roundrock to jog the course. On our way back, she kept saying that something seemed off about the way the car was driving. When we pulled into the parking lot of the hotel, we noticed the tires of the rental were emitting smoke. It turns out she had forgotten about the parking break and had driven the entire way back with it on. We both laughed and laughed about the error. I was so nervous that it definitely helped ease the nerves I was feeling about the big race.
The next morning we drove back to Roundrock for the meet. My stomach was in knots and traffic was a little heavy, so we arrived with very little time to warm up. To make matters worse, the parking situation was difficult, so we parked in a muddy field; she told me the jog to the starting line would be my warm up. I meandered up the road to the start, checked in with the line judges, and did some sprints from the starting box to finish warming up. Soon the starting gun went off, and I charged towards the front. After the first mile, I made a bold decision to take the lead. With second place, hot on my heels I pushed myself harder to extend my lead. I crossed the finish line first cinching the State 3A Cross-Country title. I remember the pride I felt as I scanned the crowd looking for her. She was beaming, and we embraced in a hug; relishing in the victory and everything it took for both of us to get here.
After the awards ceremony, we made our way back to the rental car only to discover that we were stuck. I will never forget standing behind the car with my gold medal around my neck, pushing the car as she steered with it in neutral; mud flying up all around me. When we were finally in the clear, I returned to passenger side of the vehicle, and we both laughed so hard at the predicament we had just gotten ourselves out of. With Coach Torres, there was never a dull moment.
Shortly before she passed away, my mom and I visited her at MD Anderson. I know she was in a lot of pain, but she still greeted me with that familiar smile. I shared running stories with her telling her about my running accomplishments since moving to Houston. That year, I received the honor of HARRA Open Female Runner of the Season. I had the Texas Runner Triathlete magazine with me to show her photos of me racing that season. And just like all of those years before, that same pride welled inside her.
Soon a doctor knocked on the door signaling the end of our visit. I hugged her, walked towards the door, and turned saying, “Goodbye, Coach Torres.” I remember the doctor saying in surprise, “I didn’t know you were a coach.” Almost out of earshot, I heard her say, “Yes. I was her cross-country and track coach. She was one of the best runners I ever coached.” My mom and I walked down the hall towards the elevator both in tears. This woman selflessly gave me a piece of her every day for five years. She lifted me up on the days I felt my weakest and pushed me further on the days I felt my best.
Yesterday marked her two year death anniversary. It seemed only appropriate to dedicate today’s morning run to you, Coach. I was blessed to have you in my life. Your leadership and direction as my middle school and high school cross-country and track coach laid the groundwork for my love of distance running. I know I am one of the many Tarpon athletes who still misses you dearly. Thank you for your tireless effort and unwavering support.