Dave Rockstrom was lucky to find his life’s calling when he first started teaching at Kennewick High School in the early 1970s.
Back then, the youngster just out of Washington State University started coaching cross country, and he fell in love with coaching kids.
On Friday night, Rockstrom — now 65 — will be inducted into the Washington State Cross Country Coaches Hall of Fame at a banquet in Everett.
“It’s a real honor,” he said. “I thought you had to be out of the sport or dead to be inducted.”
Just last year, the WSCCC decided to allow in active coaches into the hall. Rockstrom, who coaches the Southridge High School girls team, as well as being an assistant track coach, will join Olympia’s John Amidon, Stadium’s Terry Rice, and O’Dea’s Andy Slatt Jr. as members of the Class of 2014.
Rockstrom definitely has the credentials to qualify.
He coached the Kennewick boys to state team titles in 1978 and 1979. He spent 29 years at Kennewick High, coaching both boys and girls. For the last 10 years, he has been Southridge’s girls coach.
In the 29 falls of coaching boys teams, and the 39 falls of coaching girls squads, he estimates his teams have had winning records in 55 to 60 of those campaigns.
“Of course I get excited about wins,” he admits. “I always want to be successful. But our angle is for everyone to get better during the season. I’ve had some teams that had losing records, but I enjoyed them so much.”
By his estimate, he has coached roughly 1,200 athletes, and he gets just as excited to see his slower runners improve as he does his elite runners.
Above all, he loves seeing kids fall in love with running.
“It’s that everybody in cross country is so positive,” Rockstrom said. “You get done exercising and you feel so good. My goal is to get these runners to improve.”
Most kids don’t want to run long distances.
Rockstrom has to be part recruiter, part cheerleader.
Just as he did when he first started coaching at Kennewick in 1974, he still has to beat the halls to convince kids to come out for his sport.
“We have this thing called Discovery Days at Southridge,” he said. “We get every kid on our team to talk to an incoming freshman.”
While Rockstrom has retired from teaching officially at the high school level, he still teaches science to home-schooled students. And because he coaches at the high school, he’s not allowed to go into the middle school buildings to openly recruit.
But he can attend middle school cross country and track meets, and he talks to the athletes there, always selling the virtues of running.
He has plenty of anecdotes. But one really explains his philosophy:
There is the girl who was skeptical about coming out for the team. But she did, and she fell in love with the sport.
“Now we’ve got to hold her back because she wants to run 8-9 miles at a time,” he said.
That’s what keeps him excited and positive about coaching.
“My excitement for sports has not diminished since I was in my 20s,” he said.Which is good, since he has no plans in giving up his gig anytime soon.
“I can’t quit now,” he said. “I’ve got this freshman kid I’m excited about and I want to see her all the way through (to graduation).”
Rockstrom’s wife Cherie and the couple’s two daughters will attend tonight’s induction. Their son lives back east and cannot come.
But you can’t be a coach for almost 40 years and not have a supportive family.
“My wife loves cross country,” he said. “Because it gets me out of the house.”
Cherie agrees. But she also adds, “He is such an amazing man. He downplays everything. I can’t go anywhere around here without running into someone who ran for him. People who will tell me ‘Your husband had such an impact on my life.’”
Rockstrom humbly downplays that.
“I think the big influence is the sport itself,” he said. “I’m just directing the sport, and I take ownership in providing the leadership.”
Cherie wouldn’t know what to do if her husband stopped coaching.
“I can’t imagine him quitting,” she said. “He’s like a kid. He gets so giddy just before the season starts. I think as long as (Southridge) will have him, he’ll do it. I’m nervous for the year he doesn’t coach.”
That won’t be anytime soon.
Of all the ailments a running coach should have, Rockstrom is just recovering from a hip replacement.
“I’ve taken just as many steps with my other one, and that one’s fine,” he said.
But it’s given him a goal for the spring. He’s been working out, getting the new hip in shape, so he can run intervals with his track team.
“These kids keep you young,” he said.
Which is why he wants to keep coaching.
“I like to say I coach smiles,” he said. “It’s just neat to see kids set and achieve goals. I absolutely love it. I got to coach our own kids. I got to coach other people’s kids. I’ve developed a close relationship with their parents.
“I’m excited to be recognized.”