A Focus on Female Distance Coaches: Sara Slattery of Grand Canyon University

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Sara Slattery is the focus of our first in a series on female distance coaches. Cait Chock will be writing this series. We hope that you like the topic and see how all of the things that Sara Slattery has partcipated in have come together to support her coaching profession. This is the nature of coaching. It is part science and part art. Coaches are advisors, cheerleaders, confessors and salespeople as well.

We wish Sara Slattery best of luck in her second season as a coach. And thanks again to Cait Chock, who challenges us with new ideas on covering the sport.

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A Focus on Female Distance Coaches: Sara Slattery of Grand Canyon University

By: Cait Chock

I was asked to write a series delving into the topic of female head coaches, more specifically the lower numbers of them when compared to the higher volume of male coaches. It made me think back and realize I've only had male coaches, but what's interesting is that I never really felt it made a difference. It wasn't until I was writing this series that it even dawned on me that I've never had a female coach because in my mind I always trusted my coach 100% and just wanted someone who could do the best job regardless of if they were male, female, or otherwise...they could be a unicorn for all I cared.

That said, this series did get me thinking because I wondered why more women weren't going into head coaching positions. I know plenty of high caliber and professional female distance runners but only a few of them go into coaching for a college or for elites. Most of them stay involved in the sport in some form (physical therapy, writing, brand development, etc.) but why not coaching?

Going further...when I thought about the numbers of women coaches I see more of them coaching on the high school and recreational levels than any other level. I can name some amazing female head coaches on the collegiate level, but then I went blank trying to think of even one that coaches on the professional level. So I wanted to dig a little deeper into this. I started to reach out to some of those incredible female coaches I do know and asked them the questions that were going through my own mind.

For the first in this series I talked with Sara Slattery, formerly Gordon, who has been a rockstar since high school. She went on to be one of Colorado University's most decorated runners (10 All-American Honors, 2 NCAA Championships, 4 School Records), and then went on to run professional from 2005-2016. Towards the end of that time Sara started working for a digital marketing firm and started a family, all the while still running and training. At that time, she was being coached by her husband, Steve Slattery.

In August of 2015 she was sought out by Tom Flood of Grand Canyon University in Arizona. "Two weeks before the XC season started, Tom gave me a call saying he lost his distance coach and offered me the position if I was interested," recounts Slattery. "At the time Cali was only four months old. I was thrilled for the opportunity to be the head coach of a Division I program in my hometown. It was exciting to have the opportunity to develop the distance program and be a part of an already successful track program. However I was also a bit nervous having two children under the age of two."

She asked for a few days to think and talk things over with Steve. Ultimately, they both agreed this was a position Sara was perfect for and an opportunity that she couldn't pass up. She got on the phone and told Tom she was in. "Every day I am grateful for this opportunity and love being a coach. It is very challenging balancing everything but it is very rewarding and I am having so much fun!"

Sara ended her marketing position and dived headlong into her duties as head distance coach. Mother of two, and still training and racing, even with all of that she's still within spitting distance of her all time best. "I qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 10K last year and did a marathon in the fall. I ran within 15 seconds of my 10k PR after having two kids and coaching full time. However, I thrive when I am busy."

Busy is probably an understatement. But, like most runners can relate, running keeps her focused and helps her be more productive throughout the entire day. So how is it possible she fits everything in? Slattery is quick to admit that she pretty much doesn't sleep, but outside of that, a huge factor is the support system she has. "I have been very lucky because GCU and our head coach, Tom Flood, and my husband Steve Slattery have been very supportive of me balancing my coaching and motherhood. I took the job when Cali was 4 months old. I am in the office 2-3 days a week and do most of my paperwork, emails and correspondence from home."

Between her children's naps and sleep schedules she crams in as much as she can. To Slattery, being sleep deprived herself is worth it, "I love spending time with my children and I love being a coach! I am a mother 24-7. When I am not with my two kids, Stevie and Cali, I am with my other 32 kids at GCU!"

But not everyone can handle burning the candle at both ends and Slattery is quick to point out that family may very well be the main reason we don't see as many female coaches out there. "I don't know what the statistic is for the number of men vs. women in the coaching field. I think in the GA and assistant coaching positions there is a high number of women. However when women are getting the opportunities to be head coaches in their early 30's they are often starting families. Most often the women take care of the children in their families and they have to decide to stay home with their children or work. Coaching is a huge time commitment. It is more than a 9-5 job. I think women get nervous about missing out on that time with their children."

Coaching is an all-consuming job and for the most part the pay...well, we'll just say it's not that of a doctor or lawyer. So for a position that requires so much of one's time, and often travel, the draw for women with families of their own may not be a strong enough pull.

On the flip side, times are changing and even just personally I've seen more of my friends go into coaching. Some are mothers, some are not, and keeping in line with the changing times theme, not every woman is going the family with children route. Similarly, there are more wide stream media and brands targeting women specifically in our sport, both on the recreational and professional level, and women's distance running has undergone a major surge.

As for Slattery, she believes we will reach a point where more women are coaching on the professional level. "I think it will come. Women have only been able to run the marathon in the Olympics since 1984."

Has she ever felt like she was treated differently as a female coach than a male coach may have been? "Honestly, no. I have always felt very respected. I actually feel like I have a lot more opportunities than my male counterparts. I think a lot of programs are looking for qualified women coaches. There aren't as many women seeking out coaching as men. I think people are more concerned with whether or not I am qualified to do the job. Do I know what I am doing more than the fact that I am a woman."

In the same vein, Slattery felt she was treated pretty equally throughout her professional running career as well. In fact, she points out some interesting statistics, "I think in track and field women get treated pretty equally. Especially compared to other sports like basketball. Track and Field contracts are pretty equal for men and women. Comparing track to the NBA and WNBA track is a very fair sport to women. The average contract for a man in the NBA is almost 10x's what a woman in the WNBA is making. As an athlete, I never felt like I was treated differently because I was female. The expectations when I was in college and post collegiately were equal to the men."

Perhaps the only proof they needed came in the way of Slattery's results. GCU had been a successful program before Slattery joined, but that was because Tom had built up a power force of sprint, jumps, hurdles, and throws teams. But they had never had a strong distance program. Thanks to Slattery, in just the short amount of time she has been there, "Last year was the first time both the men and women won both the Indoor and Outdoor WAC Titles. It is exciting to help our program succeed."

Being the incredibly selfless and supportive person that she is, Slattery cites the 'smaller' victories as the ones most fulfilling to her. Looking at the personal PR's and milestone achievements of those 32 kids of hers. She points out one case in particular, "My best male XC runner, Sam Proctor had a rough indoor and outdoor track season last year. He was hurt and battling through a few injuries. He had had a huge breakthrough in cross the previous season and was expecting to have a stellar track season and couldn't train consistently. He took the summer to build back his base and fitness and came back in XC and got 2nd at conference beating guys that had run 2min faster than him in the 10k in track. His highest previous finish ever was 7th place at a conference meet. It is so much fun and rewarding to watch my athletes set goals, work towards them and then accomplish their goals."

Looking beyond this year, Slattery has big goals and one would expect nothing else. She wants to bring home a WAC XC Title on both the men's and women's sides, she wants to take a team to the NCAA Championships, and over the course of the next 3-5 years she wants to make that NCAA Championship appearance the regular. "I want GCU to be one of the top distance programs in the country."

Knowing Sara Slattery personally I can say with full confidence they will be just that.

It was interesting to hear her perspective on this topic and I look forward to sharing more in this series...so stay tuned!

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Caitlin Chock (caitchock.com) set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004 and went on to run professionally for Nike. A freelance writer, artist, and comedian in Los Angeles, you can see more of her work on her website, Instagram @caitchock, and Twitter @caitlinchock.

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