When J.B. Lopez joined the Army in September 1971, little could he have known what kind of race lay just ahead. The son of a World War II vet and a schoolteacher, First Sergeant Lopez spent the next 33 years of his life on the run, accumulating the life lessons which uniquely qualified him for his present job — teaching JROTC and coaching cross-country/track at Delta High School.
Here is a man who earned an anthropology degree from Fort Lewis College in 1980 and spent time digging up bones in southwest Colorado. Three times in his 23 years of active duty in the National Guard he received the Meritorious Service medal for, as he puts it, "just doing the mission right." He trained soldiers to become medics in the 928th Ambulance Company on the high-speed battlefield of Desert Storm and lived to see MASH units replaced by humvees and helicopters. He held the title of Master Fitness Trainer in the Army, and he spent time training adults to become Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for abused and neglected children in the early 2000s. At every turn on the track, J.B. Lopez has set the pace by playing multiple roles.
27 April 2012, 1530 hours — School's out. J.B. heads to practice, fielding questions and concerns from kids along the way: "Coach, I don't feel well today. Do you think I should practice?" "Coach, am I going to the meet tomorrow?" "What time are we getting home, Coach?" J.B. handles all comers with skill and diplomacy, even taking time to give a personal responsibility pep talk to a ninth grader who failed to communicate prior to missing a practice. Life lessons like these are standard curriculum from the First Sergeant.
"The whole thing about JROTC (an Army program for high school kids that J.B. teaches five periods a day) is to motivate young people to be better citizens," says J.B. "I tell kids that they're not getting in uniform to please me. This is to teach them personal responsibility and that there are some things in life that really don't belong to them, but they've got to take care of them anyway." Without a doubt, J.B. has a way of getting through to today's teenager.
"One of his best qualities," says Mary Groome, assistant cross-country coach and colleague at Delta High School, "is his ability to connect with kids. He can be straight up with them, but he does so calmly, without wavering, and in a way that they understand him."
Luis Meza, fellow assistant track coach, agrees: "The kids really respect Coach Lopez — especially the distance kids. Plus, he's funny! As serious as he is, he still reels off some one-liners that make everybody laugh."
The workouts, though, are no laughing matter. J.B. has been drafting peak performance workouts for distance runners at Delta High School since 2006. It was a natural transition for a man who once served as a Master Fitness Trainer in the United States Army. J.B. designed programs, including diets and workouts, to help soldiers pass their physical training (PT) exams every six months. Occasionally he would even tailor remedial workouts for soldiers struggling to make the grade. It's a skill that he's put to good use at DHS.
"His workouts are solid," says Meza. "Kids always know what they're doing."
Coach Lopez has pacing charts for every type of day (easy, moderate, or hard), customized for every single athlete under his supervision. The workouts are calibrated according to an athlete's best performance, so every kid is constantly challenged to do his or her very best.
DHS athletic director Bruce Keith hired J.B. in the fall of 2006 to direct a cross-country program on the verge of extinction. "We only had eight runners and we needed four more to have a team, so I told the kids to go find some more," says J.B. The kids found four more high schoolers that year and J.B. launched a middle school program to help sustain the high school program down the road. He saw 66 kids sign up for their first middle school race. Those kids, now in high school, helped turn the once-struggling cross-country program into a thriving entity.
"Some kids don't have enough talent to be a basketball player. Some kids can run, and they're good at running, but they don't have enough meat-eatin' attitude to be a football player. Some of them don't have the skill or quickness to be a volleyball player because they've never played, but the ones that say, 'Hey, I want to do something! I can do something!' I'm getting those kids, and some of them turn out to be incredibly good runners.
"What I like about cross country is that we have no cuts. If you come out and pay your $90 (pay to play fee), then I'm going to train you just as hard as I train the top runner. Show up, buddy! I don't care if you know how to run at all. I'll teach you how to run."
2 April 2012, 1630 hours — The Monday awards session, which touts the fab four of Cleo Whiting, Clarissa Whiting, Kyla Ownbey, and McKennea Broyles, all Lopez understudies and newly crowned school 4x800m record holders, concludes and J.B. chases the kids out to the track for a warm-up and 50-minute easy run. It's J.B.'s third run of the day.
Lopez still logs around 35 miles of his own every week. On most days he runs 3 1⁄2 miles in the morning, 1 1⁄2 miles with his seventh period cross-fitness class, and another 2 1⁄2 miles with his distance runners at track practice. He usually takes either Saturday or Sunday off, but not both days, and he even runs on Thanksgiving and Christmas. It's a habit he formed back in his Army days. "Running is just an Army thing to do," says Lopez, a veteran of seven marathons, all run for the Army between 1996 and 1999. His best time was 3 hours 19 minutes, and though he gets most of his competitive fix from coaching these days, he's not finished racing.
"Running's just a big part of who I am," says Lopez. "When I'm 80 I want to be out there pounding the ground instead of pulling the oxygen bottle."
The Whiting sisters called him in summer 2011 to run the Mt. Sneffels half marathon in Ouray. "We called him because we figured he was going to be running anyway," says Clarissa. "We took about five days off after track last year and then started running again. We figured he was doing the same. We'd never done a half marathon before or anything over three miles, so we asked him for help."
J.B. agreed to help the girls and even predicted their times. "I hope I didn't jinx them!" he says. Judging from their first and second place finishes in their division and a time around 1 hour 43 minutes (Lopez ran the course in 2 hours flat), no jinxing took place.
"Coach Lopez is so supportive of everybody," says Cleo. "He gives everybody an equal chance to be great. He's always encouraging."
"My favorite moments as a coach," says J.B., "are when kids have success — whether they win or have a PR (personal record) and I see that gleam in their eyes. I love it when I see self-esteem being developed and then they maintain that themselves through running. I also take satisfaction in seeing kids up on the school record board (for track) and knowing that I coached them. Maybe it's that they're all bigger, better, faster today, but I like to think that a little bit of it is that I've impacted their lives enough to make them want to do it."
27 April 2012, 1730 hours — Practice is over. First Sergeant Lopez calls it a day and heads home. He's run. He's taught. He's soldiered. He's coached. Yet at the end of the day, Lopez is still winning. Maybe it's just his way — he's a positive person — but a closer look at J.B.'s career sheds a little light on where he gets this perspective.
This veteran of the first Gulf War taught soldiers in the 928th Ambulance Company how to apply basic medical techniques in the field. He taught them how to survive and complete their mission on the battlefield, and he says this about his time at war: "You don't have to motivate a soldier once he's been to a different country because that foreign country motivates him for you. No matter where it is. We (the U.S.) have our faults, but we've got it better off than anybody I've ever seen.
"I learned about the big picture of life in the Army. I saw that what we live in is just so much different. You go to these foreign countries and realize you have it made in the U.S. and you get a different appreciation for it all. You feel like, 'Yeah, I'm going to protect this (way of life) at all costs.'"
In a mere 1200 hours, First Sergeant will be left-right-lefting it again, at pace, during his morning run. But for now, his mission is complete — his marching orders fulfilled — and the way of life he so bravely fought for carries on like the soldier himself: one stride at a time.blog comments powered by Disqus