They count their state high school track titles as one. And why shouldn’t they? Gary and Michele Moore have amassed 43 of them at Hillhouse, the latest two in a sweep at the CIAC Class MM meet on Thursday, and their extended family of brilliant runners and throwers over nearly three decades is long enough to ring any track.
Hillhouse is a powerhouse. Mr. and Mrs. Moore have been more than successful.
“We’re one family,” Michele said. “All together.”
This year family takes on a little different meaning. This year, Mom, overseeing the Hillhouse boys team, is coaching her son Gary Jr., a ninth-grade wunderkind. Dad, overseeing the girls team, is coaching his sophomore daughter Leah, one of the top weight throwers in the state.
“It’s pretty exciting, especially knowing what they bring to the table,” Gary said. “It was great when Leah came, but Michele and I were saying when both get here it’s going to be wild. These two will contribute to the program, especially in the areas we were not as strong.”
In the winter, Gary is head indoor coach of the boys and girls. Michele is his assistant. They have cross-country duties, too. Gary began at Hillhouse in 1992 and is the winningest coach in state history. The individual state, New England and national champs, the high school All-Americans, Division I college runners who became elite national runners. Yes, the list is long.
Now, there are Gary Jr. and Leah. Mom and Dad still have pictures of the kids running the half-mile at the Faxon Law New Haven Road Race when they were 2 and 3.
“The truth is they’ve been around it since they were born,” Gary said.
Gary and Michele first took the two to the AAU Primary National Championships at Disney World when they were 6 and 7. Gary Jr. was fast, yet there were kids nationally who were faster. Dad started focusing him on multi-events.
“Leah was going through a growth spurt and her knees were really bothering her,” Gary said. “She was hurdling and jumping, doing some great things, but because of her knees we almost had to hold her out for a couple of years. Then we were, ‘OK, your body is changing, let’s try the throws.’ It’s history from there.”
It’s an interesting dynamic. Mom coaching son. Dad coaching daughter.
“It’s not hard,” Michele said. “It only becomes challenging when he gets into his pig-headed mode, but fortunately I’m a tough woman. So it doesn’t affect me and I have support from his dad. He’s usually cooperative. He has his moments, but it has been fun for me.”
The larger truth, Mom and Dad said, is they have coached high school for so long there already is a rhythm and culture of success in place. And Gary Jr. and Leah have been working with their parents so long, the individual pieces are in place, too.
“They can’t get anything over on us,” Michele said.
“I’m probably tougher on them, I think, than the other kids,” Michele said. “I raised them. I know what my expectations are and if they fall off, I guess I take it a little more personally. That’s probably the toughest part, that separation that I’m their mom and their coach.”
“Really, I don’t see a difference at all,” Gary said. “We coach them like we do the high school kids. We established the standards we wanted for the program, and those are the standards we have for our kids.”
The kids agree.
“I’ve been competing under them all my life, so nothing has really changed there,” Gary Jr. said.
“No real difference,” Leah said. “I’ve been doing it my whole life. They still make me work hard the same way.”
Gary and Michele met in the hallways of Hillhouse. She had completed her undergraduate degree at Southern Connecticut and was substitute teaching. They hit it off. Michele, now a science teacher at Hillhouse, did some volunteering before she became a track assistant in 2000. A few years later, she started coaching the boys outdoor team.
Michele didn’t compete growing up. She went to clinics. She went to college camps. She studied methods. She made herself a success.
“My son picks on me about that,” Michele said. “He says I can’t relate to their struggles.”
Mom and Dad are a team, of course, and teams face struggles in life. A decade ago, Gary started suffering from failing kidney function. In a 2010 New Haven Register story, he talked about the fear of not seeing his kids grow up. He would have a hip replacement, a thyroidectomy. He still gets up at 4 a.m. three times a week for dialysis.
A decade later, here he is, watching his kids grow up and still producing champions.
“I’m doing what I need to do,” Gary said. “It’s a bump in the road. I work on being positive. I kind of laugh, you know how it is with a dad and son, who’s better at certain things. I miss that part, competing with him. “
Dad makes an admission: son is a better athlete.
“He’s the best one overall at his age I’ve had at Hillhouse,” Gary said.
It was at the USA Track and Field Youth National Championships in 2014 that Gary Jr. said he was convinced the weights were for him. He won the 9-10 division.
“I was a runner before and I wasn’t that good,” said Gary Jr., who has grown to 6-foot-1, 197 pounds.
At 14, he’s that good. At the Class MM meet he won the shot put (with a PR 50-3) and discus (133-4) and took third in the javelin (150-4). His PR in the javelin is 165-4 and 139-6 in the discus. He enjoys the javelin the most.
“I don’t like disc at all,” Gary Jr. said, “but I’m pretty good at it.”
He already has competed at every level nationally. Still, the State Open on Monday will be new for him.
“I’m excited and kind of nervous,” Gary Jr. said.
“I try to encourage him, tell him he’s the only freshman in the field in all three events and he’s in position to place in all of them,” Gary said. “Your time is now. It was like this with Leah too last year, it’s all about learning. You don’t see many freshmen in state history doing what they’re doing, especially in the throws. And with the boys, a senior’s strength and a freshman’s strength is normally night and day.”
This is where the training the two have received, the mentoring from the right people, not rushing matters, is paying off. Mom put her foot down when Gary Jr. wanted to lift too early. Their technique is advanced for their years and now they have added the layer of weight training.
“The next step is refining things,” Gary said. “That’s what will set you apart.”
The shot put always has been Leah’s go-to event, although lately she has especially enjoyed the hammer. And like her brother …
“I hate discus,” Leah said. “It’s so hard.”
She thinks about her swift, lithe teammates and breaks into a laugh when asked about her hurdling and long-jumping days.
“A loooong time ago,” Leah said. “I can’t imagine doing them now.”
What she can imagine is being a part of the storied Hillhouse program.
“I’ve been part of it my whole life,” Leah said. “When I was young, I watched. It was cool. Now, to be here and winning is great.”
She has her State Open goals: “Win shot put. Place in discus.”
Leah, who won the Class M meet shot last year, won the shot at the SCC meet with a PR of 42-31/2, struggled some at the Class MM and took second to go with a second in the discus. Her PR in the disc is 121.
Before heading to the New Balance Nationals Outdoor in North Carolina, the plan is for Gary Jr. to compete in the CIAC decathlon on June 11-12 in Manchester, his first decathlon. He has been a U.S. age-group leader in the pentathlon the past three years. The one concern, Gary Jr. says, is the pole vault. Of course, he’ll work on it Sunday. Moore dedication.
“We’re trying to see about him being the first freshman to win the state decathlon,” Gary said. “You look at his size. He can run and jump and throw. This kid is something special. It’s about continuing to grow and wanting to be great. And I believe he does.