After struggling with nagging injuries and then getting sideswiped with food poisoning I was trying to be positive and not give in to self-pity. I mean, in the big scheme its such a tiny thing. Last night I received a call that I would have traded a lifetime of injuries not to get - one of my best friends was found dead.
Laird Prosser was one of the best of the many great runners I have been privileged to coach. But our relationship went far beyond just helping him run faster than anyone ever had at Dimond High where I coached for 20 years. It was the way he did it, the way he conducted himself and the way we supported each other even after his running career was over. Laird epitomized all the things I wish I could have when I was a young athlete.
Helping athletes go beyond what they think they can achieve requires so much trust on their part. As a coach you understand what a leap a young athlete makes when they believe in your confidence in them. The joy of success is obvious, but when things don't go well the disappointment is also magnified. On both sides athlete and coach share those moments on a more intense level. Seeing Laird put forth such effort inspired me to be a better coach.
Laird set still standing school and region records and his 800 and 1600 times haven't been matched in 15 years by any runner in Alaska. At Oregon Laird ran 3:46 as a frosh but the following year after running 3:45 he was left off the PAC-10 meet team. Hurt and embarrassed Laird struggled with how to deal with this seeming slap in the face by the coach. I had traveled to the meet in Seattle to watch him and another former runner compete. Laird still came to the meet and as we sat I watched as he was approached by teammates feeding him negative comments about what a raw deal he had gotten.
Rather than buy into the crap and the suggestion he should leave Oregon, Laird came home told me he wasn't going to let anyone make the decision for him in the future. He set himself to 90-mile training weeks all summer and gave all of us severe beatings when he did a couple of summer races. That fall he was the first runner for the Ducks in their first meet. I used Laird's attitude when I had to make similar decisions for runners whether they would run on varsity or not. I hated to make the decision and tell an athlete that I believed someone else would be "better" than them. I would pass along Laird's example and hope that they wouldn't allow someone else in the future to make that decision for them.
I thought Laird would be the first Alaskan to break four minutes for the mile. Unfortunately, injuries and the Bill Dellinger to Martin Smith change at Oregon kept that from happening. He would help coach with me at Dimond before heading back to school and then one year after he graduated. We added a few things that became staples of our program he brought to us from Oregon. I considered it a huge compliment that he wanted to be part of our coaching staff. I also ran at Dimond and because of the positive experience I had as an athlete I wanted to coach. I was honored that Laird felt the same about his experience.
Despite my sadness I'm filled with so many positive memories with Laird. The huge win his sophomore year in the 1600 defeating the defending state champ and running 4:15. His salute to the Dimond section on the backstretch of his senior year 1600 victory. Even him driving 120 miles from San Diego to LA to pick me up at the airport for the LA Marathon. Who drives that far to pick up a friend?
He was such a beautiful runner. So smooth and graceful. I loved running next to him because I could feel my form elevate in an effort to match his. I'm going to focus more on carrying that form in the coming miles as I think of him and the many miles we shared.
I've coached many excellent athletes, but Laird was one of the very, very rare who was just as special an individual. I just lost a great friend, but fortunately I'm left with nothing but special memories of him.