St. Thomas women's track and XC coach Joe Sweeney has led the team to unprecedented success. He gives us his insights on the program and what makes it successful.
Down the Backstretch: You went from a successful running career of your own into coaching, why? Why St. Thomas?
Joe Sweeney: I did teach English and coach track at Hill Murray for two years right out of college from 1977-79. I felt a desire to spend more time coaching and less time teaching, so the college level was a natural draw. I returned to St. Thomas for grad school in 1979, volunteered with the men, then the women's job opened up the following year. I decided to give it a try, and I've been doing that ever since. St. Thomas went co-ed in 1977, the year I graduated, so it is a bit ironic that I returned to what I had only known as an all-male institution to coach the women, and have done it all these years.
DtB: Winning MIAC championships has become rather routine for your teams. The triple crown of XC, indoor, and out for the third straight year with the combined men's and women's teams on the verge of 100 team titles. That can be either a source of pressure or an inspiration to keep the tradition going. How do you deal with the pressure and inspire the athletes to produce year after year?
JS: Three titles for the year for three straight years, we call that a three-peat-repeat; we stole that from the Chicago Bulls. The athletes love to win and I enjoy inspiring them to achieve their dreams. There is a lot that goes into it, mainly strong support from my staff. I have six assistants who were all highly accomplished athletes and do an outstanding job preparing our athletes in every event area. It all comes down to a combined effort. We have a saying UST/TTE, Total Team Effort. That is our battle cry in every championship meet and is the driving force behind our success.
DtB: What is the most satisfying aspect of coaching for you? What keeps you motivated?
JS: I get satisfaction taking care of the people, making sure everyone--athletes and staff--are having an enjoyable experience. Our athletes would probably tell you that I inspire them and make them laugh. Practice should be the best part of their day, and that will keep them happy and excited about track. We work hard--that is accepted, a necessary part of being successful. But it is the people and positive environment that makes it all work.
DtB: Did you have any role models or people who inspired you to get into coaching?
JS: My coach at St. Thomas, Larry Russ, was a great role model, a first class gentleman who encouraged me in coaching and had a huge impact on me. We were all like sons to him, and that meant a lot to all who ran for him. I was also strongly influenced by my high school experience at St. Viator in Arlington Heights, IL. They instilled in us a great sense of school pride, to be men of Viator and give 100% for our school and team. It was a disciplined environment, one that shaped me as a leader. The public school coach in my home town of Palatine, IL. also ran a summer program so I got to know him well. His name was Joe Johnson, and is a legend. He taught me what it took to become a champion and to build a winning program. Though I attended a different high school he took a real interest in me, and I am always grateful for that.
One last influence, I was raised in a family with seven boys; talk about a competitive environment! My mother was a tough German farm girl who had six brothers herself and LOVED sports. Between playing against each other in backyard games and cheering for the Bears, Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks, we learned the difference between winning and losing. It was a great environment, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.
DtB: You're from the Windy City, but have settled here in the Twin Cities. Any desire to move on to something bigger, other challenges?
DtB: I love St. Thomas and am a firm believer in a faith based/liberal arts education. Just like summer training builds a base for your season, a St. Thomas education builds a foundation for life. You will learn the specific skills for any particular job once you enter the work force. But to have a moral compass, to learn to work as a team, to be a strong role model, and to give back--those are the things you learn here and will influence you the rest of your life. It is the personal experience that makes St. Thomas special. It influenced me in a big way, and I enjoy providing the same life changing experience to our student athletes.
DtB: What do you get back from it?
JS: I have passion for St. Thomas and for seeing young people reach their full potential. I believe that we can make them as good in their events here as they could be at a D-I school, but we can provide so much more. Along with reaching their full potential on the track, they also have opportunities to study abroad, do internships, volunteer experiences,etc. I really enjoy giving student athletes the opportunity to "have it all." More than anything else, we provide many great leadership experiences for our students. I enjoy shaping them in this way and take my role in this process very seriously. We volunteer as a team at Feed My Starving Children, and also hosted a track meet for inner city youth two weeks ago. The athletes did all the work, I just provided support. It is very rewarding to see them take charge, develop as leaders, and be a high achieving team as well.
DtB: I don't mean to single out one individual, as the whole team contributes to winning a championships, but Katie Theisen has played a big role in the team's success over the past four years and seems to have a rather wide range. Running a leg on the four by 400 and winning the steeplechase is an unusual combination. Can you talk a bit about her and her contributions over the years? Any particularly memorable performances?
JS: Katie is a special person. She has achieved so much and squeezed everything out of her St. Thomas experience she possibly could. Above all she is driven--in a positive way--to be as good as she can be, and to take others with her to the top. She possesses a special brand of toughness that is refreshing, something you don't see everyday. Her versatility makes her a track coach's dream, because we can use her in so many ways. At the MIAC Meet she ran on the winning four by 400, four by 800, was first in the steeplechase and second in the 400 Hurdles. She just received the NCAA Central Region Outstanding Track Athlete Award, one of many honors. She has a 4.0 grade point average, was awarded an NCAA post-graduate scholarship, and will attend medical school at the U of M this fall.
DtB: Are there any memorable moments from the past season that stick out from the rest?
JS: We won the Distance Medley Relay at Drake this year. This was the first time a St. Thomas Relay team has ever won at Drake. The last MIAC school to win a relay there was Carleton back in 1932, so I guess it was a big deal. The athletes were a junior, Kelly Russ (1200), junior Nikki Arola (400), junior Erin Sprangers (800), and senior Katie Theisen (Mile). They got Drake Relays Champion watches, t-shirts, and got to do a victory lap waving these little flags and high-fiving the fans. They want to do it again, and I know the men want to achieve this too. That's the amazing thing about breaking down barriers. Once you do it, it inspires others to do the same and establishes a whole new level of expectations.
Also, we won the MIAC CC title by two points for the second year in a row. To win two close meets in consecutive years by such a slim margin was super exciting; it tested my heart, for sure.
DtB: What are the plans for the upcoming Division III NCAA meet?
JS: It is hard to predict. We have eleven athletes going, which is a nice group. Placing in the top ten as a team would be great; if we get a few top three finishes, we could go higher. They do a team power ranking for Division III (www.d3rankings.us), which is equivalent to True Team in the high schools, where we score the top two people in each event. We are ranked third in the nation there. This shows the total strength of your program, so I am particularly proud of that. Our focus at Nationals will be for everyone to achieve a PR; we'll try to do that, and see where that takes us. If we get a UST/TTE, everything will work out just fine.