If you attended the 2021 All-City Athletic Conference Middle School Cross Country Championship at Webster Middle School, you noticed Coach John Zehr. It was impossible not to.
He was running around, energetically cheering on and motivating the Titans of Roosevelt Middle School. It’s quite possible that he covered as much ground as his athletes that day. Of course, if you know the young, passionate coach and former college runner, this wouldn’t surprise you. He simply loves the sport of running—cross country or track, it doesn’t matter.
After a decorated high school career at Oklahoma Christian Academy and a college career at Southern Nazarene University, Zehr discovered his love for coaching and developing young people. At Roosevelt Middle School, his experience and passion for the sport are creating a track and XC culture his Titans are buying into. And we’re here for it.
So lace up your comfiest reading shoes and join us for a quick lap with John Zehr, Roosevelt Middle School’s cross country and track coach, in this Simon Greiner Track & Field Program Coach’s Spotlight.
Where and what do you coach?
I coach cross country and track at Roosevelt Middle School.
When did you realize you wanted to be a coach?
I have loved the sport of cross country since I was in middle school and even ran in college, but I realized I loved coaching when I volunteer-coached at Bethany High School while I was a student-teacher there.
What is your favorite thing about being a coach?
I absolutely love the sports of cross country and track. I am passionate about imparting my knowledge of running to my kids. At my core, I love developing people. I love working at something, trying to reach goals, and helping people reach theirs. I love creating a family within our team and a positive culture around it.
What is the most difficult thing about being a coach?
Having kids who don’t want to be at practice. Of course, no one likes doing something they don’t want to do. As a coach, I don’t want to force them to do something they hate, but I feel like if they bought into what we’re doing, they would have an amazing time.
What has been your favorite or most memorable coaching moment?
My favorite coaching moment so far in my young coaching career has to be during the All-City Athletic Conference track meet. My team was aiming to win the meet as a team and everyone bought in. Every kid ran in four events each and gave it their all. The specific moment was when one of our runners won the 800-meter race by literally diving across the finish line for the win! I picked him up and we all celebrated!
Did you have a coach that greatly impacted you or taught you something you still remember today?
I had a couple of different coaches who inspired me a lot. When I first started to pursue running at a higher level, I ran for a summer track club and was coached by Hannah Fields, Coach Helker at the time. She taught me all the fundamentals of running, from form to workout types to confidence and race strategy. And then the other being my college coach, Billy Miller, who taught me that coaching is about more than just running and results; it’s about life mentorship.
What do you feel is your biggest responsibility as a coach?
I feel like it is split between pushing each runner to be the best version of themselves on and off the course and teaching them how to compete in the sport at a high level. This includes creating warmup routines and weekly workout structures, utilizing techniques and strategies to improve practices and races, and, finally, making sure each athlete is taken care of as a person.
What strategies are you using to build your XC/Track program?
First, I try to make it an environment that is fun to be a part of. I do this by creating relationships with my athletes. Most of them are on my team because they like me. I also challenge them to be the best. I give them a chip on their shoulder, something to prove, so we can accomplish it together.
What is the greatest challenge you face in building your XC/Track program?
I think many schools in OKCPS face a huge disadvantage when it comes to sports access and opportunity, and it hinders my team as well. It can be very hard for kids to stay academically eligible when parents aren’t able to be as involved in their school life. It’s difficult, but still possible, to overcome those hurdles and stay on track.
Do you feel new fields and facilities have a positive impact on a school’s student-athletes and sports programs? How?
It has a gigantic impact, in my opinion. First of all, the fields and facilities we have access to affect how and what we train. For example, having a long jump pit means we can be better prepared for a long jump competition. Secondly, it levels the playing field in their minds because they have access to everything other schools have.
Fields & Futures believes sports help kids reach their full potential. What is one thing that people may not realize about the kids you teach and coach?
My kids are the most resilient in the world. They come from very diverse backgrounds so it is hard to generalize, but every one of them has a hardship to face. Despite this, they find a way through and persevere, and even find great success. Many people look down on my students and athletes but they are just as capable as anyone else. Even more capable, in fact.
In what ways is the Simon Greiner Track & Field Program impacting the running sports culture in your school and across OKCPS?
It shows my kids someone cares, that someone believes in them and their potential so they can become the best. I truly believe and appreciate what the Simon Greiner Track & Field Program does.
Why is it important to have supporters like Don and Shellie Greiner who are willing to invest in the district and its student-athletes?
It means so much to the kids. It shows them that people care and are willing to take care of them. There are so many positive stories because of supporters like the Greiners, even ones we have no idea about.
How have your cross country and track teams benefited from the support of the Simon Greiner Track & Field Program?
Over the past couple of years, Roosevelt’s running programs have received team shirts, equipment, and financial support. Most importantly, though, the Simon Greiner Track & Field Program has provided moral and emotional support.