With a pencil in hand and a keen interest in his athletes, Jim Holdren established a dynasty in track and field. Now that dynasty is ending.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, with forbidding skies spitting drizzle, rush-hour suburban traffic veers off Interstate 64 and snakes northward onto Parham Road. Just a few hundred yards away, on the playing fields behind J. R. Tucker High, the end-of-the season Colonial District boys' and girls' track meet is gearing up.
Pole-vaulters catapult themselves over a high bar. The boys either sail across easily or plunge indelicately a heap of jumbled limbs onto the squishy blue mat.
Nearby, impossibly long-legged girls warm up for the high jump. Some paw the ground with their feet to psyche themselves. Others prance in place to find their rhythm.
In the end zone at the far end of the football field, there's the boys and girls long jump. The athletes methodically plot their short sprints down an asphalt-paved lane. Then they hit a board, leap and hurl themselves upward, forward and finally smack into a sand pit. As they hop up and brush themselves off, officials descend to record the distances.
In bleachers nearby, other competitors huddle in packs and wait. They chatter, giggle and snack. Some just stare into space. A distance-runner is absorbed in a book, "The Awakening."
The teams aren't distinguishable so much by their jazzy, contrasting warm-ups as they are by self-imposed Balkanization: Douglas Freeman folks don't talk much to the Hermitage kids. Patrick Henry athletes have little to say to the John Marshall guys. And Tucker and Godwin keep their distance. This is the paddock, these are the racehorses.
And, as usual, Thomas Jefferson High School coach James G. Holdren, Jr., is pacing the field.
Holdren, 59, is just warming up for a tough couple of days. Although he's been coaching at the same institution, Thomas Jefferson High, since the 1960s, this meet is different. Not only is it a culmination of an undefeated season for his girls (if they do well, they advance to regional and state competition), but it's Holdren's final district meet after 37 years as coach of Teejay's Vikings.
Down on the field, the mood is as leaden as the somber skies. One of Holdren's stars, Cari Tusing, was diagnosed that day with a broken foot. Another standout, Anshon Mapp, has a pulled hamstring.
"This could have been a great culmination of the year," Holdren mutters. "It was an undefeated season." He trudges about despondently, staring at the ground.
"If she hadn't had those X-rays today she could have run," he continues. "But now that we know that her foot is broken, I'm not going to risk an athlete to win a district title. She was hoping I'd say, 'Yes, warm up and see how it feels.' But she is out, and I don't have anybody to take her place."
He steels himself. "Freeman will probably take it," he says gloomily. "Freeman will win."
Dick Anthony, Tucker coach and district meet director, rolls up in a golf cart. He has heard the news and consoles his longtime colleague. "Sorry, Buddy. That's a crushing blow."
Holdren doesn't protest. "The rest of them will have to rise to the occasion," he replies, already reconsidering strategy.
Tonight is one of Holdren's last chances to coach his beloved Vikings. Next year, he moves to the Maggie L. Walker Governor's School for Government & International Studies where he'll be co-activities director, a job that includes heading up athletics. Holdren said the decision to leave Teejay, his alma mater, was wrenching: "My blood runs red and white," he says, referring to the school colors. "Some people think I came with the building."
With all that involved, a district championship for his girls would be sweet.
But as Anthony wheels away toward the pole-vaulters and high-jumpers, he shouts back over his left shoulder at Holdren, "No one counts you out till it's all over. And I still don't count you out then."
obody counts Holdren out, at least not those who know how he operates.
Holdren is used to winning. In fact, he's one of the state's most successful high-school track and field coaches, in terms of regular season, district and regional wins in indoor and outdoor track and cross country.
One example: Between 1974 and 1991, his girls' track teams went 109 straight regular-season and district meets without a loss possibly a national record.
"Team records do count, but win-loss is not the only measure of success in track and field," says Larry Johnson, assistant director of the Charlottesville-based Virginia High School League, "It's also based on how well your individuals do. Jim Holdren has always been tops. He serves as our rules interpreter. And his reputation extends worldwide; he conducts clinics overseas."
And to hear his colleagues and athletes tell it, he's tops in growing a program. "He's known as the track guru," says Kim Bullock, who coaches at Hermitage and Virginia State University, and was once coached by Holdren at Thomas Jefferson.
Holdren's dizzying roster of winning track and cross-country titles dates back to 1964, when, freshly graduated from William and Mary, he took over the Teejay track program. His boys won the district in 1968 (in 1974 he would start a girls team), and throughout the '70s, '80s and '90s the Vikings captured a steady succession of district titles.
Teejay's girls' team won 16 consecutive district titles from 1974, when he started the team, through 1989. Since 1993, his girls have consistently won outdoor, indoor or cross-country titles. Last season, his girls won both the Colonial District indoor and outdoor titles. His boys have also done well.
"Jim has a desire to see high-school kids achieve beyond what they thought they could achieve," says W. Russell Flammia, who recently retired from teaching at Teejay and who served as Holdren's assistant track coach in the 1960s. "He can take kids who are so-so and turn them into winners. They realize if they do what he says, they are going to succeed."
The victories of Holdren's athletes depend on a combination of qualities. One of the most important is his instinctively analytical understanding of the sport.
Before each meet, Holdren prepares a spreadsheet with his numerical projections of what he expects each team to score in each of the 17 individual events. He predicts where his own athletes will win or how they'll place. As meets progress, he continually makes informed adjustments: If he finds he doesn't have to put a student in one event to gain points, he can save him or her for something else.
When a meet gets underway, there's as much activity on Holdren's clipboard as on the track or field.
"Coach Holdren can dissect a meet before it starts, point by point," says Hermitage's Bullock. "He can tell his athletes what they have to do to win or place in the top five. And that often allows them to go to the next level." Bullock pauses for a second and then adds with a huge smile, "Some day I hope to get that good."
"If you want to know numbers, he always knows numbers," agrees Kemper Towler, Mills E. Godwin's track coach who has coached against Holdren for 31 years. "Midway at an event one year, Jim came over and said, 'Congratulations, you've won the meet.' I replied that I'd believe it when I saw it. Then I looked at his projections and thought, 'Damn, we are going to win this thing.' I saw that we had it in the bag."
His secret? Holdren has an unwavering missionary zeal for the sport and believes that sports and track and field in particular can make a huge difference in a young person's development. "It changes their lives," he says, "That's why I get up in the morning."
"It has become a 'me' world," he reflects, looking back over how students have changed over the decades, "but I stress that there's no 'me' in team. When you're part of a team, and they are counting on you, it takes you to another level. Sometimes my athletes would lie down and die for each other. Success breeds success. Most of the teams we have had were much greater than the sum of their parts."
Says former protégé and Hermitage Coach Bullock: "He gets kids to come out at all levels, including kids who are starting out from scratch. He works with them the same as the kids who are tops in the state."
Richard Izquierdo, a former high-school coach and a historian of local track lore, has observed Holdren closely for years: "He loves to develop kids to do their best, and it shows." And unlike many coaches who are intense for a few months and then disappear until the next season, Izquierdo calls Holdren "a year-round coach, and that's how Jim can get a kid to go a notch higher."
And then there's continuity and Holdren's interest and involvement in track and field beyond the high school level: "He's been in the sport for so long and seen so many athletes come and go," says Bullock. "He's seen Olympic-quality athletes and junior Olympics athletes. He's seen a lot, and that makes him reserved. But deep down inside, he's overjoyed when an athlete has a personal best. It's often nonverbal with him, but he lets them know."
Holdren has found success. But it wasn't handed to him. Thomas Jefferson's well-worn, outdoor facilities are pitiful the scoreboard doesn't work, and the football/soccer field has as much dirt as sod.
Since the school's track is only a fifth-mile, instead of the regulation quarter-mile, Holdren hasn't sponsored home meets. It was just recently that a pole-vault facility was installed; for many years he was unable to enter students in that event.
"Jim makes up for [the school's facilities] in his knowledge of the sport," says Holdren's former colleague, Flammia. "His success is due simply to his ability. You do have to wonder what could have happened if he' d had better facilities. He stuck with Teejay through thick and thin."
Throughout his 37 years teaching and coaching at the same school, Holdren has worked through decades of shifts in the tectonic plates of Richmond's public-school system.
He graduated from Teejay in 1960 and, yes, he ran track the mile.
"At Teejay, he was our best miler, and he was competitive," says Flammia. "He was very driven, one of the few guys to run on the weekend when the rest of us would chill out."
When he joined the Thomas Jefferson faculty in 1964, Teejay was still the pride of Richmond's school system, considered by many to be one of the nation's premier high schools. In 1974, Holdren introduced track as a girl's sport.
Then, with school integration, many white families moved to the suburbs, and the city's school-age population shrank. As a result, in 1979, the Richmond School Board merged Thomas Jefferson with two other high schools to create Jefferson-Huguenot-Wythe. Still, Holdren's program continued to flourish.
In 1987, Thomas Jefferson began operating separately from Huguenot and Wythe again. And Holdren was back in the landmark building on West Grace Street and producing championship Viking teams.
In 1992, Holdren's playing field changed once again. The newly organized Governor's School for Government & International Studies was assigned space on Teejay's third floor, and its students became eligible to play as Vikings. Currently, Holdren also coaches students from Community High School who are eligible to play on Thomas Jefferson/Governor's School teams.
But despite decades of change, Holdren hasn't missed a beat. With the exception of 1997, in every year from 1992 to 2000 either his girls' or boys' track or cross-country teams has won a regional title.
"He is determined to have quality athletes coming out of the city of Richmond," says Bullock. "You can look at Coach Holdren year after year and his teams are always battling for district, regional and state titles. It never ceases."
Holdren is quick to point out that part of his success as a coach has been the support of his wife, Barbara, a retired high-school teacher. In the fledgling days of girls' track, she shopped for uniforms. They travel together to national and international track and field events, and at the holidays host an annual reunion of Teejay track and fielders. Holdren says she reared their two children while he followed his passion. They have one grandson.
Although Holdren taught chemistry and math at Teejay, he believes the playing fields teach lessons as important as anything students learn in class.
"When was the last time you had to use the Pythagorian Theory or the last time you had to recite 'The Song of Hiawatha'?" he asks. "On the other hand, when was the last time you had to make an ethical decision at your job? Once or twice a week, right? When do you learn that? In sports. It mirrors real-life situations but in a fun atmosphere.
"I think that most of the world views sports as a nicety, but it may be more important than anything they get in the classroom."
"I've had girls that couldn't run around the block when they started out and became champions," he says. He adds, paraphrasing a line from "Chariots of Fire," one of his favorite films. "But if you don't run, you can't win."
That's not to say Holdren has no regrets after coaching hundreds of youthful athletes.
"One of the things I've learned over the years is I once thought I could save them all," says Holdren. There was a time when he'd be "crushed" if he couldn't set a troubled kid on a positive track with his program, he says. "You can save a lot of them, but you can't save them all," he confesses. "It still bothers me when you see them gravitate to the darker side, it hurts. But you can't turn them all around."
At the meet, Holdren heads down the wet J.R. Tucker field toward the girls' high-jump area.
"I'll have to take a lemon and make lemonade," Holdren says to no one in particular. He's recouped from his earlier despair, and he pads along quickly in his slightly bowlegged, flat-footed stride.
The high jump is one event in which he's decided the ailing Tusing can safely compete. "She'll only have to take 10 steps and she can take off on her good foot."
Tusing is going to be in a shootout against Emily Tretiak, her formidable competition from Douglas Freeman.
Holdren stands as close as possible to the bar and coaches, coaxes and wills Tusing toward a win.
Tusing, with a pleasant open expression and long, brown hair pulled back tight in a ponytail, focuses on the bar. In track, visualizing success is half the battle.
"Come on, Cari," her coach hisses.
The bar is set at 5 feet, 4 inches. Tusing takes off and sails across smoothly. The bar is raised to 5-foot-5. She's never jumped that high.
"Get some pop on this one, Cari," Holdren urges, thrusting his hips forward. She goes over.
Coach and athlete huddle for a minute. He is thrilled. But Freeman's Tretiak also makes that height.
The bar is raised to 5-foot-6. Tusing finally misses.
In the end, broken foot and all, Tusing takes second place. Holdren is buoyed by her showing she has added valuable points to her team's tally.
Things are looking up. Sharp pencil in hand, the coach reworks his spreadsheet.
He's the best coach in the world; he takes care of us," says runner Anshon Mapp, a 17-year-old Teejay senior with an infectious smile, as she watches from the bleachers. She's second generation: Holdren taught her father math at Teejay.
Brian Glover, a freshman, agrees: "He's very supportive. If you have a bad day, he'll say. 'Good try, but next time, do better.' He encourages us."
"In a good way, he doesn't give us a break," says Arthur Vandenesse, a junior at Community High. "When the season is on, we don't get days off. If there's a workout, you're going to do that, and that's the way it's going to be. But he's easygoing at the same time."
"He loves what he's doing," adds Vandenesse. "You can see it in his eyes and in his voice and in his character how he carries himself. He loves what he's doing."
"We have a joke," says Glover. "He's teaching us one second, and then you turn around and he's across the field at another event. He's constantly moving."
Right now, Holdren is at the triple jump. "This is a pretty event," he says as he watches Aaron Anderson take a running start, then leap jump and leap again, finally landing in the sand. Holdren winces slightly. "He lost that one at the end," he says.
Anderson approaches his coach. "You had it," Holdren tells him, "then you lost it at the end. You want to skim like throwing a stone across water."
He moves on to the girls' pole vault. "This event is so critical to us," he says. "OK," he calls, "make it on the first one. This is crucial."
The girl misses.
"Turn over, kiddo, you're going to need to turn over." She gives him a half-smile and twists her body over on the next try.
"Let 'em go, kid," he encourages another pole-vaulter whose thigh is wrapped with a thick bandage. "It only hurts for a little while." She sails over like a feather.
"Good job," says Holdren.
He turns around and heads back to the pole vault in time to see Elizabeth Nall make her marks. He gives her a hug, "hurt leg and all," he says, sharing her triumph.
On day two of the district meet, things are looking up.
Holdren's endless pacing, cajoling and coaching are paying off. His girls are rising to the occasion. With some of the pressure off, Holdren is spending more time in the coaches' tent, watching tapes of the races, fretting about a misplaced score sheet and shooing students out of the restricted space: "You can be disqualified for being in here."
But mostly he keeps his eyes on his runners and sprinters.
"That's perfect, looking good," he says to his boys as the long-distance events proceed.
Toward the end of the meet, Holdren glances at his charts, which show his girls in a comfortable lead over Freeman. Ashley Seaton wins the 1,600, a personal best, while Jeannie Assison sets a meet record in the 3,200.
The girls have nailed the district championship. His boys pull off fourth place, with Viking John Piersol winning both the 1,600 and 3,200 events.
"I've always felt like you can look at barriers as obstacles or opportunities," says Holdren, his eyes dancing as he savours the girls district championship, "We almost lost two of our top athletes. This allowed the others to rally all the way down the line."
As his lady Vikings bounce joyfully to center field to accept their trophy, someone yells out for Holdren to join them. The coach declines, giving the girls the full spotlight.
Then, another announcement is made. Holdren is voted Colonial District coach of the year.
He trudges out a few steps to receive his award. The girls then gather round him for photos. Holdren looks sheepish, but tickled, amid the brief celebration.
It's 10:30 p.m., a school night. His students still have their homework to do.
"Coach, do we have practice tomorrow?" one of his boy distance runners calls out as he leaves the stadium.
"Yes," Coach Holdren replies.
On May 24, Holdren's girl Vikings went on to win the Central Region championship, ahead of second-place finisher Prince George High. The win marked Thomas Jefferson's second straight outdoor title and 16th regional title. The boys' team placed
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