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College Coach Spotlight: Sara Slattery

The former pro athlete celebrates the success of her athletes as head coach of men’s and women’s cross-country and distance track at Grand Canyon University.

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From early in her running career, Sara Slattery had outstanding coaches.

At Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix, former pro runner Sabrina Robinson guided her to 10 state championships—and trained alongside her as a master, making the 2000 Olympic Marathon Trials at age 42.

“She wasn’t afraid of barriers in terms of gender or age,” Slattery says. “She pushed the envelope. I learned a lot from that.”

Then, Slattery ran at Colorado University under the legendary Mark Wetmore. There, she was a four-time NCAA champion, 10-time Big 12 champion and 10-time All-American—and observed how Wetmore instilled confidence in athletes.

When Slattery went on to run professionally, she struggled to find a situation that worked for her. “There just wasn’t the coaching structure out there; there weren’t the groups and other options like there are now,” she says. “That’s where I realized how important coaching really is.”

Now, she’s entering her sixth year of filling that critical role for the next generation. At the small but up-and-coming GCU, she’s built a program from nearly the ground up. Taking lessons from her early influences, Slattery has perfected her own style and never stopped learning along the way.

From Water to Land

Slattery started off a swimmer. From age 8 on, she dreamed of representing the University of Michigan, whose accomplished aquatic athletes include Michael Phelps. But her running talent showed early, when she beat all her classmates except for one boy in the timed mile in P.E.

Her freshman year at Mountain Pointe, she ran track over the objections of her swim coach—and placed second in the state in the 800 meters and two-mile. From there, she decided to pursue her potential on the track and roads instead of in the pool.

During her professional career, Slattery had sponsorships from both Adidas and Nike; won gold in the 10,000 meters at the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro; served as an alternate for the 5,000 meters at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing; and won the Bolder Boulder 10K in 2006.

Sara Slattery coaching
Photo: Courtesy Sara Slattery

Stepping Into Leadership

Slattery got her first taste on the other side of the stopwatch while she was still a pro runner. On the side, she worked with Ric Rojas—the first-ever Bolder Boulder winner and father of this year’s ninth-place Olympic Marathon Trials finisher Nell Rojas—to coach a group of corporate employees of WhiteWave Foods.

In 2013, she and her husband Steve moved to Phoenix. She started both a family and the South Mountain Striders, a training group for moms looking to regain their fitness. “I wanted to get into coaching somehow, and it was a way that—with the kids—I could still do something,” she says. “I really loved it.”

After she had her second child, Cali, Slattery got a phone call she wasn’t expecting. Tom Flood, the head coach from nearby Grand Canyon University, was on the other end of the line. His head distance coach had resigned. Would Slattery consider the position?

Though she loved coaching, Slattery hesitated. Not only was she a new mom again, she still had big goals for her own running: She planned to run the Olympic Trials in the marathon and on the track in 2016.

Flood persisted. He promised to make the position work for her. Practice required her attendance, but otherwise, she could work from home and continue prioritizing her own training and family. Slattery ultimately couldn’t pass up the opportunity to coach in her hometown, for a distance program that was just getting started.

Small Steps and Big Goals

For all its elasticity, the role was still demanding. When she started, GCU was moving from Division II to Division I, which meant the team couldn’t go to regional or national competitions for the first two years. Recruiting high-caliber athletes with that restriction was challenging. “I had to learn to sell myself and sell what we were trying to do with the future of the program,” she says.

Marketing was just one of the many skill sets she had to develop. “It’s almost like running a small business as a head coach,” she says. “There’s so many little facets—the recruiting, creating the team and the culture, the training, all the administrative stuff within the athletic department. You learn a lot.”

When it comes to the culture, Slattery has a clear vision of what she’s trying to build: an atmosphere like the one she had in college, where she made bonds that are intact to this day.

“I tell my athletes, your teammates become your family away from your family,” she says. “You count on each other. You’re not going to get along with everybody all the time, but you respect each other and you try to help make each other better.”

Of course, competition matters too. Already, Slattery has guided Paige Hildebrandt to the school’s first Western Athletic Conference title in the 3000-meter steeplechase.

Of the 10 conference titles the GCU ’Lopes have won on the track, “we’ve contributed a lot on the distance side and gotten better each year,” Slattery says. “We’re finally getting to the point where we have a shot of winning conference titles as a cross-country program and I’m taking kids to nationals.”

Her big goal is to take a whole cross-country team to NCAA Nationals, something she knows might take a few more years to achieve. Beginning this fall, she’ll have a little more help: Hana Hall, the daughter of Olympian Ryan Hall and current elite runner Sara Hall, is now part of her team.

This story is part of a series on women in coaching, where we highlight female running coaches and their individual paths to success. Find more here, and discover tips from these women to improve your own running here. Feeling inspired? Check out our in-depth look at how to become a college running coach with advice from the coaches featured in this series.