Issaquah cross country coach is inducted into hall of fame
March 5, 2013
By Sebastian Moraga
Longtime Issaquah High School Coach Gwen Robertson might just get used to plaudits in winter.
First, her husband was inducted in December 2011 into the USA Track and Field officials’ hall of fame. Then, in January of this year, Robertson received her own hall call.
The state’s cross country coaches association inducted Robertson, who has been involved with IHS teams since Ronald Reagan was a first-term president.
A distinguished career in both cross country and track and field seems like an appropriate progression for Robertson, a top athlete since her Midwest childhood and the scion of an athletic family.
Her mother was a top tennis player; her three brothers competed in football, basketball and track and field; and two of them went to college as quarterbacks at Dartmouth and West Point.
Robertson said a life devoid of sports was never really an option.
“My parents had five kids, so it was a way to keep us busy and active,” she said. “We were always doing something, running, baseball, throwing a football.”
She graduated from Saint Louis’ Lutheran High School North in 1974, a time in history that still resonates with her as a female athlete.
“If I had graduated five years earlier, things would have been much different,” she said.
In those pre-Title IX days, girls had to go the club route if they wanted to participate in certain sports, like track and cross country. Her school did not offer those sports.
Then, in 1972, Title IX was enacted, and the landscape changed. The school began offering her sports, for example.
“I went to college on a scholarship basically because of Title IX,” she said.
She majored in physical education with an endorsement in coaching at then-Kerney State College, now known as the University of Nebraska at Kerney.
She made the move to Seattle in 1977, so she did her student-teaching in the Northwest.
“I knew I wanted to be involved in education somehow,” she said. “And coaching is a way to teach. I got a lot out of sports, so I figured it would be a good way to give back.”
While in Seattle, she started officiating at University of Washington track meets. At the meets, she met Issaquah’s track and field coach Terry Kirkpatrick and he offered her the chance to help with the team. Ken Ruud, then the head cross country coach, echoed the offer when autumn arrived.
Twenty-nine years later, the facts alone are staggering: fourteen league titles, 29 state appearances, three consecutive state titles for the cross-country girls from 1985-87.
In addition, and this thrills Robertson, many of her former charges have become coaches themselves, including at Issaquah.
“It’s fun to work with staff who have come through the program and know what we do and give back to the kids,” she said. “In cross country, I have three assistants and they are all former athletes. In track, four of seven assistants are former athletes.”
One such athlete-turned-coach is Mitch Stuart, who helps her in both sports. Stuart spares no praise in his assessment of Robertson and the experience of working alongside her.
“It’s been beyond anything I could have hoped for,” he said. “I graduated from Issaquah, she was my coach and I never knew how much I would love coaching until I came back to coach, and it’s been incredible.”
Regarding Robertson, Stuart said she “taught me everything I know.”
Over time, the dynamics of the relationship have changed, now that they are both coaches, but Stuart said he still thinks of Robertson as his coach.
“Even if I’m not learning how to run, I’m learning how to coach,” he said. “It’s definitely a lot different being an adult and associating with her compared to the way it was. There’s so much when you’re a student-athlete that you just don’t know.”
The cross country runner is a very specific breed of athlete, brainy and hardworking, driven and thoughtful, Robertson said. The track and field teams get more of a variety, a little bit of everything, “a microcosm of the universe,” as Robertson puts it.
“I really like being around the kids,” she said. “Aspects of the job have become more challenging as we live in a society with more rules, but you have to adapt.”
After almost three decades of hanging a whistle around her neck, Robertson said she is taking her career on a season-by-season basis. Her husband is retiring next year and since they like to travel, that might be a factor in deciding when to call it a career.
“When that becomes something we can do during cross country or track season, I might be done,” she said. “But, there’s nothing that’s driving me out at this moment.”