Interview with Lowell HS (SF) coach, Andy Leong

1) What was your own running experience (before, during and after high school)? What other sports did you play? Highlights and proudest accomplishments?
I started playing organized sports in 3rd grade. I played basketball at the boys club and PAL baseball. In 7th grade, I went out for basketball and track teams at my school and my neighborhood CYO baseball team. In 8th grade I was on the baseball and track team for my school and played CYO basketball. In 9th grade, I was on the baseball, basketball, soccer and track teams as well as the CYO teen league basketball team. I started high school at Lowell and played basketball there through my junior year. I ran cross country and track from 10th to 12 grades. In track, I high jumped (5'8"), ran the 880 (2:12 soph year) and mile (5:03 on 11 miles a week senior year). My proudest accomplishment was winning the SF section cross country championship my senior year (I was the 5th man and captain).

2) You competed at San Francisco State after high school. Harry Marra was the coach at the time and for those that don't know him, he is the coach of decathlon world record holder, Ashton Eaton. Do you have any good (funny) Harry stories?
Harry was a ball of energy. I loved running for him. I was not the fastest runner on the team but he treated me like I was. With his encouragement, I was able to run faster than I ever had before. We also had some great talks. During the Olympics, when NBC played a video of Harry talking with Ashton, hearing his voice brought me chills and I felt like he was talking to me again. He taught me so much about being prepared as an athlete and as a person. The funniest story I can recall regarding Harry was during the season it rained a lot it would always seem to clear up at practice time. Harry would say he had a connection with the man upstairs and that all he had to do was invest one thin dime on a phone call.

3) What led you into coaching? What else do you do aside from coaching? Where was your first coaching experience?
When I graduated from SF State, I could only find a part time job and so I had extra time. Having organized three very competitive intermural basketball teams at SF State and with a strong understanding of basketball concepts during my playing days, I had always considered coaching basketball so when my high school track coach, James Thomas took over the girls basketball program, I asked him if I could help him as a volunteer. Two years later, Coach Thomas was asked to return to head the track team and he asked if I wanted to get paid to coach. I jumped at the chance. Two seasons later, he said that the track program was mine and I've been here ever since. When I'm not coaching, I'm an accountant for a real estate investment company in Burlingame.

4) Looking back at your first few years as a coach, what did you learn from that experience?
When I first started coaching track, I tried giving the runners the workouts I did in college. I toned them down but after a season or two, I realized I needed to tone them down even more because they struggled to finish the workouts. As I went to clinics and started reading more on the sport, I began to develop a series of workouts and the philosophy that I use for every season. I was also very short tempered in my early years and would go off at the smallest thing but with experience came more calmness so (hopefully), I'm not the wild person I was when I started. However, I can go there when I need to.

5) What was the state of the Lowell program when you started coaching there? Who were the athletes during the first few years that bought into your program and were rewarded with success?
Since the 1980's, Lowell has always been one of the top track schools in the San Francisco Section for both boys and girls. Our girls' success has been stronger than the boys. We have only lost the girls' section championship twice since 1978. During my first year coaching in 1988, we won both boys (tied with McAteer High and our first championship since 1949) and girls' championship titles but it would be nine years before we did that again in 1997. We then began our 14 year streak of winning both the boys' and girls' sectional titles. Though we have always been the big fish in our little pond, our runners were only average outside our section at best in those early years. Our section champions did not do very well at the state meet. I wanted to change that by giving my runners the opportunity to face better competition than what our small section offered. I was determined to make our runners the best they could be but I also knew I was not going to make just anybody into a state meet level runner. I hoped that one day we would get an athlete with some talent. That time came around 1994 when runners like Logan Hiroshima (5:08 1600 meters), Oasii Lucero (11:11 3200 meters, 5:08 1600) meters, Susan Chou (our section's first female state meet medal winner in cross country, 10:54.86 3200 meters, 5:04.33 1600 meters), Myesha Kirtman (56.79 400 meters,43.36 300 hurdles), Jennifer Akana (2 time state meet cross country medal winner, 3 time state meet 1600 meter finalize, 4:55.61 1600 meters, 10:41.0 3200 meters) and Sopagna Eap (11:28 3200 meters, 5:18 1600 meters, two time All America at UC Davis) came to Lowell.

6) Looking at your coaching career, who have or are currently mentors for you as a coach and what have you learned from each of them?
James Thomas, who is currently my hurdle coach, has been my main mentor. He has taught me to coach basketball, cross country and track. I learned the paper work side of coaching from Jim and how to place athletes in the best possible situation. Lloyd Wilson (currently an assistant at Sacred Heart Cathedral) and the late Herb Blanchard have also been mentors. Lloyd taught me to be honest with runners. Herb taught me that the first rule of coaching when you have an elite athlete is to not mess things up. I definitely learned a lot from Harry Marra (preparation, mental toughness etc.), Kevin Cruikshank (distance runners' mentality) and Mike Orechia (hurdling, staying focus) during my SF State days. Ken Reeves (former Nordhoff coach), Peter Brewer (Castro Valley and Northgate coach) and Ron DiMaggio (Westmoor coach) are people I love talking to about our sport and have always been open to share their opinion with me.

7) You coached the Lowell XC team for 15 years before losing that position to an on campus teacher/coach in 2005. Did you ever consider coaching XC at another school? Is there hope that you can coach the XC team again in the future?
After five seasons of not coaching in the fall, I decided to return to my original sport of basketball and started helping the girls program at Washington High. A season later, there was an opportunity to coach cross country at Balboa where I felt I could help one of their outstanding runners reach her full potential. When I asked some of my Lowell runners what they thought of me coaching cross country at another school, they ask me not to. It was then that I realized that continuing to coach basketball was the best situation as the chances of going against one of my track runners was low. As for the future, I've gotten use to not coaching year round and have discovered I have more energy during the track season than before. However I would be open to coach cross country again if given the chance.

8) Your girls DMR team finished 2nd at the just completed Stanford Invitational (photo above). What did you think your girls could run before the meet and what did they end up running? Will they be competing at Arcadia this coming weekend and if so what events are they doing?
I calculated that we could run 12:18 but I also knew that on a perfect day, we would have a chance to break a school record (12:00.29) I once thought to be untouchable. After the outstanding individual performance at Stanford on Saturday, I think we have a good shot of going under 12 minutes at Arcadia. Here we will also run the 4x800 on Friday and Kristen Leung will be running in the day meet mile.

9) You have had a lot of success with many distance runners at Lowell. What do you feel are the primary reasons for that success?
At Lowell, we get the hardest working kids. In order to get into our school, you need to have exceptional grades since 7th grade and score high on an entrance exam. They already know what hard work means by the time they arrive at our school, but no matter how hard working they are, they need to have talent to go far. We have been fortunate to have that talent at our school especially in the last 5 years. I also believe that I'm using a formula and series of workouts that has proven successful.

10) What does a typical training week look like for your runners from Monday through Saturday? Weights? Typical mileage?
Monday is long run day, especially if they raced the previous Saturday. Tuesday is track interval (we have a hard dirt track so we usually go to another school for this). Wednesday I separate the group into Saturday meet group and Thursday meet group. The Saturday group will run 50 minutes while the Thursday group will pre meet (about 2 miles). Thursday is league meet day (the Saturday runners will do either another track work out or a tempo run). Friday is pre meet day or 30 minute run and weight room. Compare to other schools, I coach on the low mileage side (25 to 30 miles for girls, 35 to 50 miles for boys), but our track intervals are run at a high intense level. We try to get into the weight room once a week and we work on are strength (pushups) all season.

11) What would you say are some of your key workouts for your 800m runners? What about your 1600m. runners? 3200m. runners?
I try to train all the distance runners to run all three races. On a typical interval day we start the workout at 3200 pace. Then we change it to 1600 pace and end the day at 800 pace or faster.

12) What do you say to the people that feel that schools in the SF and Oakland sections should be dissolved into other sections?
With the at-large marks and both sections now having minimum requirements to run at the state meet, this subject has become moot. There was a time I wanted to a part of the CCS but I have no control over that and it's also been about 18 years since the last time I heard of any talk of that happening. When I started coaching, I didn't like to hear people say we shouldn't be a section. I knew that our coaches were doing the best we could do with the students we had. They wanted our spot in track but what they failed to realize that this involved more than track. It involved other sports as well. This is also a money issue. As a public school, we survived on fund raising. We used to get $300 a season from the district budget and had only 2 paid coaches. It's slightly better now: our district budget has triple, we have more bus transportation and we have another coaching position. Through years of work, I was able to build a good cross country invitational to support all of our activities and I have a wonderful race director (Steve Woo of the San Francisco Turkey Trot) who has chosen our team as a main benefactor for his annual race. They also didn't know the obstacles we faced that are unique to San Francisco. We don't have the nice weather that other parts of the bay area have. It's cold a lot and the two tracks we train on can be really windy. We are a school with a good track team, but guess what? We don't have a usable track. Our track has no header board and is too hard to constantly train on. Our last track meet on our campus was in 1991. And to top it off, I now hear our district will not support putting a track on our campus.

13) During your tenure as a coach at Lowell, what are some of your proudest achievements by your teams and individuals?
In 1989 and 1996, the boys team that took 2nd place at our section championships losing by only 5 points. They gave it everything they had and left it on the track. In 1997, the girls team was probably the best ever as that team feature Jennifer Akana (State 1600 meter 3rd place), Susan Chou (3200 meter 10th place in 10:54.86) and Myesha Kirtman (10th place 300 hurdles). In 2010, the boys & girls team because I had 6 to 8 of our best athletes give up relay spots and learn new individual events to win the section championships. Jennifer and Susan during their time at Lowell as they were a big reason for the success we had during this period (best D1 Nor Cal team in Cross country 1996 & 1997, cross country individual top 10 finish, two DMR times in the national top 10 performances list in 1997, school records in the 1600, 3200, 4x 800, DMR and 4x1600). Jin Daikoku placed 2nd in the 1600 at the 2000 state meet 48 hours after catching a cold. Anna Li who went from a scared freshman section champion to a state level contender during her senior year. In 2008, the girls 4x 400 team of Echi Anoruo, Latasha Allston, Tamara Purpura and Katherine Jarvis who placed 10th at the state meet just missing advancing to the finals. Tamara Purpura took 5th in the 800 meters in 2009. Leo Harrington after getting injured in late March 2011, ran in a swimming pool the rest of the season and was able to win the 1600 at our section championship. William Chen, who at our 2012 section championship won the 1600, 800, 3200 and anchor the 4x400 relay to victory 20 minutes after the 3200 win. His times were 4:27.65, 1:59.61, 10:09.52, & 50.91 anchor split. Max Niehaus ran a 4.32 second PR to qualify for the 2013 800 state finals in 1:53.26. John Hogan ran 4:11.42 to place 7th in the 2014 1600 state finals. My distance relay teams in 2014. It was the first time I had top rank 4x800 and DMR teams in both genders during the same year.

14) Anything else you would like to add.
Thanks for asking me to do this. I had a good time recalling such great memories.