CEDAR RAPIDS — Nate Hopp is an effective cross country/track and field coach due in part to his varied life experiences.
His competitive running life is replete with successes, failures and a host of relatable lessons learned, any of which can be quickly culled to inspire a student in need of motivation.
“Right now in this stage of my life, coaching is my first priority,” said Hopp, who will run in the Health Solutions 8K Race for the 14th time during the Fifth Season Races on Wednesday in downtown Cedar Rapids. “I want to try to do the best I can as a coach and help younger kids succeed and be successful like I have been. A lot of it is just finding the time. Like I tell the kids, ‘There is no secret when it comes to being successful. You go out, you put in the work. It’s not going to be easy, otherwise everyone would be really good. It’s something you’ve got to embrace and you’ve got to love what you do.’”
Hopp, 35, serves as coach of the Cedar Rapids Xavier boys’ cross country team in the fall, then shifts to Marion each spring to lead the Linn-Mar girls’ track and field squad. In addition to providing the normal verbal coaching instruction, Hopp maintains the physical skill to practice what he preaches. For example, when his Linn-Mar team competes at the Forwald/Coleman Relays in Iowa City each season, Hopp dons his running shoes and participates in the Mixed Masters 800-meter run, an event out of his comfort zone but one that always delights his students.
“I always do it and part of the reason I do it is just to show them that this is a lifelong thing,” Hopp said. “It is something you don’t have to necessarily be the best at to do. … Sometimes they get discouraged because they think running is something you have to be really fast at and I keep telling them, ‘It doesn’t matter how fast it takes you to get from point A to point B as long as you enjoy it and can tell it is something you love doing. That is all that matters.”
Running success did not come quickly or easily for Hopp. At Clear Creek Amana High School, Hopp never competed at the state meet in cross country or track. As a senior, he was one spot short of state track qualification in the 3,200-meter run with a time just six-tenths of a second off the necessary pace.
“I use that to help motivate kids,” Hopp said. “One of the things it shows you is it doesn’t matter where you’re at. Part of it was I really didn’t put much effort in high school as I wish I would have.”
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Prep shortcomings fueled collegiate improvement. At Mount Mercy, Hopp struggled as a freshman and finished second-to-last at the conference cross country meet. The following season, he jumped all the way to sixth overall and was rewarded with all-conference honors.
“There was just a lot of motivation that year to do better and I knew we had a good team at Mount Mercy that year,” Hopp said. “I wanted to be part of the reason that we were successful and bought into that.”
Hopp duplicated his sixth-place finish as a senior before earning a degree in Education. The coaching bug arrived in the form of a one-year stint at English Valleys High School in North English, where Hopp coached both cross country teams that began with just seven runners.
He still beams when recalling the runner that improved his 5K time from 31 minutes to 20 in one season.
“I always tell the kids, ‘Don’t limit what you think your potential is,’” Hopp said.
As he shifted his energies to the pursuit of his own performance goals, Hopp coached at Cedar Rapids Track Club from 2008-10 where he helped tutor youth athletes who eventually moved on to area high schools and colleges.
In 2010, he was hired as an assistant girls’ track coach at Xavier, which eventually led to the head job of the boys’ cross country team. Hopp was hired as the Linn-Mar girls’ track and field head coach in 2013 and has led the Lions to a top-5 finish at the state meet in each of the last five years, including a runner-up finish in 2015.
“When I took the job, one of the things I said in the interview was, ‘I want to build a program and build a culture,’” Hopp said. “That is something we talk about is building a successful culture and finding what everyone is successful at and trying to embrace all 85 girls on the team and try to help them find success as members of our team.”
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His best finish in the 8K at the Fifth Seasons Race was in 2014 when he placed eighth overall with a time of 25 minutes, 42 seconds. It is the only time he finished the out-and-back route from Greene Square Park to Bever Park in under 26 minutes.
“It would be nice to do it again,” said Hopp, who finished 13th overall last year in 26:24. “Realistically, it could happen on Wednesday but it is hard to say. Last couple of years I have ran pretty consistent 26.20s, so we’ll see. It’s always a challenge, but I embrace the challenge. Like I tell the kids I coach, ‘You’ve got to embrace the challenge. You go out, just lay it on the line. You can’t get in your head. You just have to do what you’re capable of, trust your training and let things happen.’”
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