On a Friday in the orange hues of the 5 p.m. sun, the track and field team assembles on the red asphalt course. One assistant coach dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops scatters wickets around a pocket of the track. Another sits in shade near the periphery, watching as women’s long distance runners make their way over. And a third pulls equipment out from a back shed, stopping to joke with students along the way. If it weren’t for the equipment they were carrying, the assistant coaches might blend right in with the students. That’s because three of Occidental’s track and field assistant coaches are recent college graduates, all under the age of 27.
The youthful assistant coaches bring an unusual approachability and relatability to the profession. Yet, at the same time, they face additional challenges: balancing casualness with authority, setting clear boundaries between personal and professional life and making ends meet to finance their budding careers.
Jonathan Padron, assistant sprint coach, graduated from Occidental just two years ago in 2014. For him, it has been fun to coach many of the same sprinters that were his teammates during his junior and senior years of college.
“I still get dinner with some of those that I ran with,” Padron said. “Of course you can’t go to a lot of the functions they go to as students, but you can still hang out with them out of school.“
For Padron, the transition from student athlete to assistant coach has not seemed so difficult, but he acknowledged that it may be disorienting for some of the students to go from treating him like a teammate to accepting his feedback as a coach.
“That’s why I am not their head sprints coach,” Padron said. “They will come to me for some things, but a lot of time they will still go to Tyler [Yamaguch, head sprints coach] because he is the overseer of whatever we do.”
Beyond assistant coaching, Padron maintains close ties to Occidental when he is out of season. This summer he will be participating in the college’s Children’s Theater production, starting rehearsal in mid-May and performing at the beginning of the fall semester. The role allows him to combine his passion for acting with his love of athletics.
“For the Children’s Theater, we have to train for it because it is very physical based theater,” Padron said. “There are a lot of lifts, so I still train but not as intense as I used to for sprints.”
Despite being so young and connected to the college, Padron is not wistful for his time as a student at Occidental.
“A lot of times I’ll miss it, but I sorely believe that I got in a good four years here,” Padron said. “If I could do it over, I would probably do almost all of the same things that I did. For the most part, I did what I came to do and enjoyed it a lot.”
On the opposite side of the field, Amanda Solly assists the distance runners. She graduated from SUNY Fredonia, just outside of Buffalo, New York in 2013 and moved out to LA to coach in November of 2015. Though she knew she wanted the job, she didn’t have any friends or family in LA at the time.
“It was a little scary at first, but now definitely an enjoyable thing,” she said.
Though Solly doesn’t think it is a good idea to hang out with students outside of practice, she is forging close bonds with many of the athletes on the track and even runs with them during training.
“There was no female coach before her,” Sarah Ruiz (first year) said. “It’s nice to have a lady to relate to.”
Solly said that practice is the highlight of her day. She enjoys it so much that she endures a grueling workweek. Some days she gets up as early as 3 a.m. to assist with early morning shipment at her second job at Old Navy, then comes to work at Occidental for the day, staying as late as 7 p.m. to run practice.
But if she’s unhappy with her work schedule, she doesn’t let on.
“There’s always coffee,” she said.
In the very back of the field near the high jump pit is Dave Foley ’12. Foley’s high jump career in college and his subsequent choice to stay on as an assistant coach are owed in large part to a happenstance encounter his first year at Occidental.
As a high school student, Foley had competed in high jump with little practice or proper equipment. He enjoyed the sport, but just was not good enough to get recruited for college, so he assumed his high jump career would end after high school. In his first year though, his quadmate in Norris (then a first-year dorm), encouraged him to walk on to the team, and the coaches pushed him from there.
“That one encounter led to four years and then another four years,” Foley said.
As an Occidental alumnus, Foley can connect to students about their experiences beyond the track team.
“The young coaching staff makes everything a lot more relevant to what we are learning,” Claire Strohm (sophomore) said. “I can talk about my school, and Dave had the same geology professor I had.”
Additionally, being an Occidental graduate gives Foley a leg up in his work as a recruiter for the college.
“It’s really easy for me because, you know, I friggin’ love Oxy,” said Foley. “This is the place I didn’t want to leave and it’s part of the reason I am still here, so it’s not a hard sell for me to be like, ‘No, this school is really good, trust me.’”
The students on the team seem to love Dave nearly as much as he loves Occidental. They tease him about his knowledge for the sport and life, calling him nicknames like “PhDave.” He even encourages this teasing, allowing students the strange privilege of influencing his facial grooming.
“Whoever gets the highest mark at the previous meet gets to choose the beard style for the next meet,” Austin DeWitz (first year) said.
So far he has attempted an Iron Man look and mutton chops. Soon, he will be sporting a new style, following the weekend’s track and field meet.
Despite their many similarities in terms of age and shared challenges to coaching, Padron, Solley and Foley diverge in their personal outlooks on life and their strategies for building a successful track team.
“I think what’s interesting is that I was always a sprinter here at Oxy, Dave was a high jump and then a long sprinter because he did the 400 and the 200 and then Amanda was a distance runner in college,” Padron said. “So we have all the events coming together, which is really fun. And what’s funny is you can tell the different personalities, because I feel the different events attract people of different personalities.”