Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Thirty-five years ago, Renee Williams-Smith became the first girl to compete in cross-country at Mira Costa High School—literally sewing her own uniform because there were no female jerseys available. Decades later, after leaving successful consulting career, Renee returned to Mira Costa to take the girl’s running program from an afterthought to one of the strongest in the state of California. Last night, we had the chance to sit down with Renee (and bask in her infectious glow) after she beat out 1,200 other coaches to be awarded Brooks Most Inspiring Coach of 2014.
Congratulations! You are amazing.
Thank you so much.
It’s so cool that you were the first girl on your high school team. What motivated you to do that?
I was on the soccer team my freshman and sophomore year, but I wasn’t going to make it my junior year. I was complaining about this to my English teacher who was the cross-country coach at the time. He said, “Oh just come out and run with us.” He didn’t tell me there weren’t any other girls! The next day I brought all my friends out. I was like, “I’m not doing this alone!” I actually started a team.
What made you go back to Mira Costa to coach?
I’d been in business for 17 years, mostly in consulting. I was a workaholic, working 80 hours a week and traveling a lot. I woke up one day and said, “There has got to be more to life.” I quit without another job lined up.
At that time, someone invited me to a track meet at our high school—I hadn’t been back in 20 years. At the meet I noticed the girls being ignored. They had to go find the coach [instead of the other way around]. I thought, Wow not a lot has changed.
Literally in three days, I started volunteering as the assistant cross-country coach, thinking I’d do that until I found another job. But almost immediately I realized, this is what I should be doing.
Why do you love to coach?
To be able to influence kids in the direction they’re going is so amazing. There are so many things that can go wrong; to feel like you’re a part of something that’s positive in their life is a gift. I’m blessed to have that.
Tell us about the moment when you found out you Brooks Most Inspiring Coach of the Year.
Honestly—shocked. Truly. My friend told me to prepare a speech for the awards ceremony [that I attended with the 24 other finalists]. I thought, “No way.” I’m just honored to be here with all of these amazing people. I never considered myself to be the most inspiring coach. There are just so many incredible people here.
How will this shape your team going forward?
I actually feel a little bit more confident in myself now. Maybe I’m okay at this! I think the whole team is going to be excited about it. I just talked to them on Skype. They all got together to have a little party tonight. They’re going to be even more unified than they already are.