Sharpe Shooting: an inside look


Cross country Tim Sharpe. Credit: Jenny Li/Big Red

Jenny Li

The wooden arrow hurtled at cross-country coach Tim Sharpe’s thigh. Thirty years ago in the Michigan woods, his friend’s finger slipped while stretching out his bow, letting an arrow hurtle point blank at Sharpe’s leg. He fell to the ground upon impact, but something in his pocket had braced most of the hit — a small, dented quarter.

For the next thirty years, it was known as the lucky quarter. Every distance runner that has come through the program since Sharpe began coaching in ‘03 held it in their hands before each major meet. It blessed David Manahan ’14 before his 800 meter State Championship win. It followed Cami Chapus ’12 and Amy Weissenbach ’12 to the International Association of Athletics Federation World Youth Finals in France. Most recently, it was in the hands of the girls’ and boys’ varsity teams when they qualified for CIF semifinals last year. The little dented quarter, Sharpe said, embodied a sense of familiarity to the cross-country team.

“No matter how foreign the place was, it was what we always did,” Sharpe said. “Routine is good, and lucky items are a reminder to us to stay in routine. We do our warm-up, we touch the lucky quarter, and we go do our thing.”

This type of routine is a part of the distance team. Fall is cross-country season. Winter is pre-track season. Spring is track season. Summer is pre-cross-country season. Repeat.

It’s as familiar to Sharpe as his Sunday morning routine to “wake up, have a cup of coffee, kick back and go over all of the statistics.”

He tracks any opposition the team could ever theoretically run against. He follows trends he noted from previous years about the patterns and mannerisms of certain schools.

“I’m just a super nerd,” Sharpe admitted. This research paid off, with the help of head coach Jonas Koolsbergen.“It’s our combined brains,” Sharpe says. “ There’s a magic between the two of us. We complement each other very well.”

Sharpe credits this partnership to the success of the distance team. From 1993 to 2000, there had not been a single qualification for CIF or state on the girls or boys side. Upon Sharpe’s arrival in ’03 to ’06 to work with Koolsbergen and return in ’09, there was a dramatic  explosion of improvement in cross country, with 14 top four finishes on both sides. However, this sort of success is not the main reason Sharpe coaches the team, he said.

“The core of what it is, is that I help people,” he explained. “I sometimes help people discover something in themselves that they had not quite discovered. There’s an amazing joy that comes with being able to do that.”

Sharpe referenced fondly the story Sam Lyons ’13, who came into the program with the goal to run faster than 18 minutes on a three-mile course race. Sharpe recalled vividly running down to the finish life at the Wayne Walker Invitational five years ago to watch Lyons finish before the 18 minute mark.

“I sprinted over to the camp area, and we high-fived and jumped up and down because he did it,” Sharpe said. “It’s hard for people to understand that us jumping up and down like crazy in that moment is right up there with when our boys won our first CIF championships, when we were all sloppy and messy, and we ran around like idiots, jumping up and down, hugging in the rain. It’s all the same. That’s why I coach.”

The allure of coaching high school, Sharpe said, is the possibility of transformation for every runner.

“I get to help people go from the beginning to something,” Sharpe said. “You don’t do that in college. I like the journey I get to go on with every individual that comes into the program. The journey has a lot of ups and downs.  I’m at once thrilled with you and utterly defeated with you. I feel it with you, and that’s another amazing part of it too, how you get to know folks.”

Sharpe actively works to push the distance team beyond analyzing times and places, and toward creating an atmosphere of a second home, he said.

“I’d like to think we are a family that has this thing that we do,” Sharpe said. “It’s fun to do the work, even though it’s hard sometimes, we support each other, and we leave school with memories to last a lifetime. I genuinely am trying to make sure that everyone is a part of something and feels that this was one of the best things they’ve ever been a part of.”

This bond stems from the relationship between student to coach, and it noticeably affects the runners on the team.

“[Sharpe] is not the kind of coach who just barks out orders and books meets,” Alex Ankai ’19 said. “He knows the condition and skill level of every runner. He’ll know how long you’ve been running on the team and off, he can name every injury each runner might face, how you did at the last competition and how you could have done better. He helps us find inspiration in our lives so we, in turn, can inspire others, so we don’t quit when it gets hard and so we can run to the best of our abilities.”

Sharpe’s connection to the team is much more than just a coaching, Davis Cook ’19 said.

“He gives us on the running team an opportunity to make ourselves simply better as humans, but he’s constantly is working to improve whatever that opportunity is,” Cook said. “I cannot think of a gift for which I am more thankful, or something that spurs me on more to add to the world.  That gift he gives involves way more than running.”

For cross country captain Lila Cardillo ’18, the sense of family in the team provided an atmosphere where she could feel comfortable despite moving across the country in the middle of high school.

“Moving in from Boston as a new junior was a challenge made significantly easier once I found my place on the cross country team,” Cardillo said. “Having an incredibly passionate and dedicated coach to welcome me into the family while also pushing me to become a much more efficient athlete than I thought to be possible gave me a newfound confidence both in running and in immersing myself in the greater community of Harvard-Westlake. I would not feel as secure as I do now if I hadn’t had the powerful family bond of the team to support me then and now.”

The sense of family emanates from Sharpe to every runner. A couple months ago, Sharpe’s car was broken into, and his running logs, CIF rings and lucky quarter were all stolen. However, Sharpe said the spirit of the distance team goes beyond those lucky items; the team didn’t need them to keep running.

“I had always said, if the quarter ever left me, it went to someone who needed the luck more than me,” Sharpe said.