Athlete to coach: 'I discovered something I enjoyed'

Northwestern graduate Jessica Watson recaps her high school and college running career. The 2001 graduate talks about her second year coaching at Carolina Forest.

Full name:  Jessica Watson     
Date of birth:   December 25, 1982
Hobbies:   painting, running, watching movies
Event personal bests:  400 meters-1:01; 800 meters-2:16.4; 1600 meters-5:35; 5K-19:35; High jump - 5’6”
Brothers/sisters:  Joel 13, Karis 16, Asa 18, Matthew 21, Benjamin 28
Career:  Art teacher (elementary)
Major:   Studio Art (BA), K-12 Education (Masters)
Interesting fact: When I was a sophomore (my redshirt year) at Coastal Carolina University I learned how to throw hammer and weight.

scrunners: Can you recap your academic and athletic career prior to coaching?

- Competed in track and cross country for Coastal Carolina University

- All-Conference honors 800 meters (2002 Indoor, 2004—second place outdoor)

- All-Conference in high jump (2002—second place in outdoor, 2004 second place in indoor),

- Conference champion in the distance medley relay (ran 400 leg) Indoor Big South Championship (2004).

- helped the Lady Chanticleers’ win the Big South Conference Championship in indoor and outdoor track in 2004.

- graduated in 2005 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art Studio

- earned a Masters degree in education in 2006.

High school
- graduated with honors from Northwestern High School (Rock Hill) in 2001

- favorite subject was art

- lettered four years in cross country and track

-  All-County (800, 1600, 4x400, 4x800, HJ)

-  All Region in cross country and track (800, 1600, 4x400, 4x800, HJ)

- Two-time Class AAAA State Champion in the 800, consecutive years (2000 and 2001)

- Ran lead leg on Northwestern’s State Champion 4x800-meter relay squad in 2001 with elite distance runner, Angelina Blackmon

- All-State performances (finishing third) in the high jump (2001, 1999) and the 800 meters in 1999 as a sophomore

scrunners: What made you decide to compete in the sport?
watson: When I was young, my dad thought I would be good at running track.  He was partially responsible for piquing my interest; but the real reason I started running track was so that I would not have to ride the school bus home in the afternoon.  I’m dead serious.  I hated riding the bus with wild kids. There had been fights on my bus and all-out chaos.  The first year I ran was when I attended Sullivan Middle School in Rock Hill.  I had the best time running on the 4x200-meter relay team and high jumping.  After that season, I knew I would run track in high school, because I discovered something I enjoyed.   I started running cross country because I needed an afterschool activity so I wouldn’t have to ride the bus. And since I didn’t make the volleyball team, that was the only thing left.

scrunners: What made you decide to become a coach?
watson: I started coaching because wanted to help kids learn to love the sport and find something in which they are talented.  I want to help build positive traits in young people that are going to stay with them throughout their lives, because that’s what my coaches did for me.

scrunners: Was there a key moment that made you become a coach?
watson: I had some really great coaches in high school.  I really respected them and what they did and how they helped me believe in myself. The way they coached me has influenced me a lot.

scrunners: Who do you go to for guidance in life and coaching? Please explain.
watson: My mom.  She is a very wise woman.  She’s a superwoman in my mind just for the fact that she has successfully raised six children and we have all turned out quite well. She has always been the one I talk to about everything, good and bad.  If she doesn’t have all the answers, at least she makes me feel better for a while.

scrunners: How long have you been coaching?
watson: This was my second season.

scrunners: What have you learned from being a coach?
watson: I’ve learned that kids need a lot of encouragement --it takes patience to coach them to the level they need to be.  I’ve also learned that self-discipline does not come naturally to most; but it can be developed.

scrunners: What do you think it takes to be a coach?
watson: It takes knowledge, experience, enthusiasm, patience, diligence, confidence, integrity, ambition, and initiative. I think you also have to have connections so that you have people who support you.  It takes a lot.

scrunners: How have you seen the sport at the high school level change since graduating high school?
watson: South Carolina seems to be catching up with other states in its level of competition.  I think there are more people in the sport now than there were when I was in high school.  More kids are hitting the marks they need to be become nationally competitive and to get looks from college coaches.  It’s not just one or two teams battling for the state title anymore.  More and more schools are developing stronger track programs.  Media exposure is better now, which of course helps to popularize the sport and attract more athletes.  

scrunners: How long do you see yourself staying involved in the sport?
watson: For the rest of my life.

scrunners: Do you hope to become a head coach in the future?
watson: Someday, perhaps, but I see no magic in having the title.

scrunners: Do you have any family members that are involved in the sport?
watson: Yes, track is one of our favorite sports in my family.  (I would say it’s in second behind football). My younger brother Asa and sister Karis are currently on Rock Hill High School’s track team.  Last year Asa got second at the state meet in discus.  They both qualified for state this year--Asa in discus and Karis in high jump.  All of my younger siblings competed in youth track (AAU and USATF) when they were little. Matthew went to AAU nationals in 1999 for the 80-meter hurdles and finished 10th. 
My older brother Benjamin ran track for Northwestern High School 1997-1999.  He went to state in the 200-meter dash, 400 and 4x400 in 1999. My dad ran the 400 (or 440?) and the 4x400 relay back in high school and was All-City (Norfolk, Va.). My sister went to AAU nationals for shot put in 2000 and was ninth.

scrunners: What has been your biggest challenge as a coach?
watson: Getting kids to “buy in.”  First, kids have to believe that track is going to benefit them in some way.  Once they decide to come out and try it, it is a challenge to keep them coming back; and it’s a challenge to find ways to motivate them to do the hard work that is necessary to become great.  I am not asking that they always like the hard training, but I just want them to see why it is necessary to do it to get to their maximum potential.
Another challenge is coping being patient with obstacles I did not encounter as an athlete coming up.  I did not realize that until I became a coach that a few things are different with track in this area:  1. Rubberized tracks are few and far between. Most high schools have cement tracks.  2. There are no middle school track programs. 3. There was not a community program for youth in track and field.  But that is changing.  I think with the Myrtle Beach Track and Field Club starting up, we will see a big jump in numbers of youth that are involved in track.  Exposure and community involvement will help the sport improve tremendously in the Grand Strand area.

scrunners: When not coaching what do you do for enjoyment?
watson: Well, I definitely don’t run as much as I used to, but sometimes I enjoy going for a run -- especially by the beach.  Being able to run is still a gift I do not take for granted, but now I just run when I want to. When I feel inspired, I like to paint or draw.  Art has always been my thing. Traveling is something I wish I was able to do more.  If I’m in a city I’ve never visited before, I usually try to hit up the art museum or a few galleries because I love seeing new and different styles.

scrunners: What do you think needs to happen to continue to see the sport move forward in the state and in general?
watson: One of the struggles of track and field across the state is consistency.  I can’t speak for other states because I’ve only had first-hand experience in high school track here in S.C.  My guess would be we more certified officials and better qualified coaches.  Among other improvements, those two changes would help meets run more smoothly and result in fewer disqualifications at crucial meets.  Coaches at every school need to educate themselves in all the events. 

scrunners: What is the one thing you would want to say to those that influenced your decisions in life relating to the sport?
watson: Thank you so much (Coach Gainey, Coach Clark, Coach Hudgins, Coach Jenkins, Coach Vaught, Coach Lane, Coach Connie) for taking the time, pushing me, believing in me and convincing me to believe in myself.  You each have made in impact on me in your own ways for the better.

scrunners: What do you see your team achieving at the state track and field meet?
watson: We are taking two athletes to state.  We have a senior, Lakeitha Alston, who has medaled twice at state finals.  She won as a freshman, and took bronze as a junior.  This year she is going for gold again.  We also have a freshman high jumper, Christian Stevens, who has shown great potential in his first year doing track.  He has jumped 6-2, and we will look forward to him getting a personal record and making a run for the medals. They will represent Carolina Forest well this weekend.