DELHI — The chill in the air. along with the sound of runners slapping their bodies.
“Have a good race, gentlemen,” announces the starter.
Bang! The runners are off.
All of these actions are took place at every cross country meet around the state this fall.
However, at Maquoketa Valley’s meets, there was something else. There was Coach Pat Meehan.
Meehan is giving his runners a pep talk, following them around the course or distributing handshakes after a hard ran race. But there’s something more than this, something that has taken decades to achieve.
In the early 1960s, Meehan was a fresh body in the sport of running. He was a standout individual in long-distance events, which led to his running career in college. Meehan ran at Loras College in Dubuque before graduating and moving onto things bigger than himself.
In 1969, Meehan graduated college and volunteered for the Peace Corps. In the 1968 Mexico Olympics, Kenya won its first Olympic medal — and ended up with eight more that year. This sparked American interest in the people of Africa, which added to the civil rights movements of the time. As an advocate for civil rights throughout his college years, Meehan saw this as an opportunity to do something truly monumental. So, after enlisting in the Peace Corps, he chose Africa as his desired location.
Meehan was sent to the upper regions of Ghana for his assignment, which included starting a regional track and field and cross country team and taking it to the capital to compete. Not only did he create these teams, but he coached them to be national runner-up and national champion finishes.
“It had nothing to do with my coaching, but more so the act of getting people to run,” he said. “... I coach much better with teams who don’t have a lot of talent.”
After his four years in the Peace Corps, Meehan returned to the United States and attended UNI, getting his coaching certificate. He coached UNI for two years before he leaving to coach high school, thinking it would be a better fit. In 1977, he moved to Waterloo and created a high school track team there.
In 1980, Meehan was hired as the girls’ track and field and cross country coach at Maquoketa Valley High School. Unlike some of his previous assignments, this one was destined to be an extended stay. He tried to retire in 2008 but was brought back in 2014.
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“The reason I came back is because I felt something was missing,” he said. “It was the interaction with people. When I quit, I felt numb.”
Meehan’s experiences have led to a vast bank of knowledge. Throughout his 50 years of coaching, Meehan has had some great success, but that’s not what’s important to him.
“I always say, you can win the state title, but when you go out in the real world and tell someone you were on a state championship team, that won’t matter nearly as much as how you conduct yourself,” he said.
Another slice of knowledge is about knowing how to coach.
“(Coaches) have to know their stuff,” he said. “That stuff includes: how to train, running form, the ideas behind it ... lots of stuff. That’s what Coach (Sara) Dever brings to the team. Her knowledge on some of these things is deeper than mine. You also have to be able to relate to people and be sure of yourself. You have to have a plan.”
Meehan’s favorite experiences in coaching are very diverse — from winning a state title, to seeing his runners improve, to knowing his runners are walking away from this sport with class.
Meehan loves it all.
But he said one of the best feelings is seeing the people he’s coached in the past.
“Highlights have to do with winning, but they also have to do with former athletes making the time to just come up and say ‘hello,’” he said.
Meehan’s life has certainly been interesting, but he remains humble.
“It’s ironic that the main topic (of this story) is about me when I always say ‘it’s more important than the individual,’” he said. “What’s more important is outside of yourself. It shouldn’t be about me as a coach, but rather about us. I don’t make the team, you guys do.”
The Maquoketa Valley boys’ team qualified for state on Thursday while the girls’ team finished seventh in the state qualifier.