WESTPORT >> Every day Malcolm Watson gets to be a kid.The 30-year-old laces up his sneakers each day and spends his afternoons running, laughing and a lot of times, outsprinting high school kids.
And it’s all for work.
Watson is an assistant coach for the Staples High cross country and track program.
For the past four years Watson has become an integral part of the success Staples has come to experience.
He’s helped coach near 20 All-American athletes in both cross country and track. This weekend at the Armory Track and Field Center in N.Y., he’ll have a chance to add to that number, as a handful of Wreckers will be competing at the New Balance Indoor National Championships.
“It was definitely something I always really wanted to do,” said Watson of coaching. “When you really have a passion for a sport, it’s really just fun to pass it on and see other people start to enjoy and cultivate a love of their own for it.”
MEANT TO COACH
Staples’ head track coach Laddie Lawrence said he’s had roughly 30 former student-athletes come back wanting to coach or found a coaching job outside of Staples.
But the transition from athlete to coach doesn’t always translate.
“You got to be able to relate well to the kids,” Lawrence said. “He’s (Watson) got a good rapport with the kids.”
Watson is a former Staples distance runner. He graduated in 2001, where he ran cross country, indoor and outdoor track. He went on to run collegiately for Ithaca College (Ithaca, N.Y.) and then attended graduate school at Columbia where he participated in the Columbia Club Track and New York Road Runners programs.
Watson said it was after he finished graduate school he was wandering around Westport doing nothing, and was asked if he wanted to coach.
“I had previously thought about it (coaching) and Laddie told me to beat up his guys on the track, and so I did,” Watson said with a laugh. “And it was a lot of fun to do it.”
But it’s not just Watson who has found a way back to Staples.
Amanda Morgan (formerly Parrish), ran for Staples graduating in 2000. She attended the University of Chicago where she ran collegiately.
She currently coaches the girls’ cross country team and is the assistant girls’ track coach.
The Wreckers have arguably the best one-two punch of assistant coaches in state.
“I can’t tell you, to have these two come back, it’s great,” Lawrence said. “The best thing about Malcolm and Amanda is they both went through this program; then they went through successful college programs. The way we communicate, I could write down tomorrow’s workout on a piece of paper, put it away, not tell them what it is, and tomorrow ask them what the workout is. It’d be the exact same thing or very similar.”
THE RIGHT APPROACH
Lawrence said from Day 1, there was no holding back with Watson.
“All of it,” Lawrence said with a laugh. “You see all of his (personality) in his coaching.”
That’s a big part of Watson’s approach to the job. His charisma and extroverted nature translates over to coaching.
“No kid wakes up and wants to run ovals till they black out,” Watson said. “The hard part is making them want to do it and be excited about it. And my main goal is to make it fun. It’s an after school activity and if it’s not fun, and you’re not enjoying it, then why come.”
The way Watson orchestrates workouts is, in a way, transforming into a kid again.
“We mix it up with trail runs, jokes at practice, just a really good vibe,” Watson said. “We have different names for the runs we do. I’m happy when my kid’s graduate and they say I would look forward to practice every day, it was the best part about my day.”
A typical day for the distance runners in any season with Watson and Morgan can consist of runs throughout Westport and even into Fairfield.
“We’ll go anywhere in a 12-mile radius running,” Watson said. “And it is fun out there.”
With that fun though, comes the teaching aspect. Watson said when he’s running alongside the kids, it’s a valuable time when he gets to know them and can help them become a better runner and person.
“I never stay away from the hard questions,” Watson said. “Because when you get a hard question, and you don’t answer it, it means you don’t care. I always want to show the athletes and the kids that I do care. I think our team really does care about each other.”
The same can be said about Morgan, who has a highly-decorated coaching background.
Before coming to Staples, Morgan coached at Fairfield Ludlowe from 2009-2012. She was in charge of the boys and girls distance runners and was the girls’ head coach for indoor and the boys assistant for outdoor track.
“I think the kids here appreciated her experience, and also her rapport,” Ludlowe boys’ head track coach Dave Nulf said. “She had particularly good relationships with some of our top runners and students because she is sincerely interested in helping kids find success, express their ideas, or just share funny stories.
The kids that work the hardest, I think, appreciate her the most, because they recognize how much she cares, and find even more motivation in her example.”
A SUCCESSFUL PATH
Watson never writes anything down. He has all of his athlete’s times, personal records and splits memorized. Call it crazy but it’s that border line insane passion for the sport that translates into success.
“He’s extremely optimistic, which is helpful to the kids,” Lawrence said.
Watson will be entering his fourth outdoor season this spring. He’s been part responsible for the development of two of the nation’s best distance runners. Henry Wynne, who graduated from Staples in 2013, and is now running at the University of Virginia, and current sophomore wunderkind Hannah DeBalsi.
Wynne was the national indoor and outdoor mile champion and part of the Staples’ gold medal indoor national distance medley relay team during his senior year.
DeBalsi is currently ranked No. 1 in the 2 mile and has a chance to capture a national title in that event on Sunday.
“Hannah and Henry would have been there regardless,” Lawrence said. “But they (Amanda and Malcolm) really brought out the best in them.”
Watson explained that when he runs individually with DeBalsi or when he ran with Wynne, he got to know them at a different level. He knew when to push on the track and trails and what makes them tick.
“When you run with someone you just know there cadence, how they run, when they’re hurting, when they’re tiring,” Watson said. “I knew I was pushing Henry when I couldn’t really breathe or talk. Hannah is more statistical. I know the pace she can run, I know the time she can run.”
Same goes for race day. As cool and calm as the racers look, there’s a lot more going on internally that Watson and Morgan tune into.
“With Henry (Wynne), he got so nervous, extremely nervous, surprisingly, he’d be literally vibrating,” Watson said. “Jokes, Henry would like jokes, anything to help keep his mind off it. Hannah (DeBalsi) and I do a similar thing but she needs a plan. And then she likes sort of out there pre-race speeches. Calling her a little dragon and breathing fire on people.”
MAKING AN IMPACT
Watson said his favorite memory was last March watching Wynne and the rest of the boys’ DMR come from behind to claim gold at the New Balance Indoor Nationals.
His second favorite race was last December, when him and Morgan traveled to San Diego, Calif. to watch DeBalsi win sliver in the Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships.
Those are two races he’ll never forget. This weekend as DeBalsi and the Staples relays compete, the two assistant coaches will be there watching.
“Laddie brought us up and not in the same mirror image, but we have the same philosophy,” Watson said of him and Morgan. “Care for your kid, show passion for the sport, be excited for races, be happy for them and that’s sort of what Laddie instilled in us. When you see Laddie’s emotion, and how much he cares, we have the same feeling.”