The Enduring Leader

It’s been a rough day and I am not sure I can emotionally handle this phone call. I can’t make excuses. I need to do this. The dial tone begins, “ring, ring.” Ok, no going back, now. Please don’t answer. 

“Cody Inglis.”

“Hi! It’s Bethany Marinelli…err, Ferdinand.” Maiden name? Married name? I don’t know. This is awkward.

“Hi! How are you? Thanks so much for calling, Beth!”

Ok. This is right. Relief. 

Emerging from the Middle of the Pack

A balance between serious and fun deepened our trust in Coach

Like many teenage girls, I had low self-esteem, low self-worth, and I felt like I generally didn’t belong. In middle school I waffled to find acceptance, going out for every sport I could and spent a lot of time with balls in my face. Track wasn’t so bad, though, and I was recruited to the cross-country team. 

Freshman year of high school I was proud to be considered varsity (it was a small Division C rural high school). I quickly found admiration for my new coach – his second year teaching and coaching. He was fun, extremely encouraging and pushed us to be just a little better than we were yesterday. 

I hovered in the middle of the pack into my Sophomore season. I started to see improvements. I started to see this man who believed in me when I didn’t know there was anything to believe in, pushed me, and lifted me up when I was down. He always had a sound reason for everything he asked us to do.

Coach Inglis always wrote every single athlete a personalized letter of encouragement before a big meet. I have kept every single one of these letters. He communicated in my love language, easily earned the trust and respect from all of his athletes, and I wanted to follow his leadership however I could. And I did. And I started to get faster. I began to sneak into the front pack of runners. Then one day, it happened. I passed the fastest girl on our team and WON a race!

Stats from my winning season

The start of that sophomore season, my first few 5Ks clocked in around 24 minutes, but by the middle of the season I was regularly in the 20 minute range. I qualified for the State Finals. 

As I ran in the MHSAA finals that cold day in early November, Coach yelled out each mile split and I knew that I was flying. Every bit of me was operating like a fine tuned machine. My legs and arms worked harmoniously to propel myself smoothly forward. My lungs grabbed the air and released it in a steady rhythm. My mind ticked off each runner ahead of me as I seamlessly followed my race strategy. 

Then I almost blew it. I got overconfident in the last half mile and surged too soon. I was passed by at least 5 or 6 runners but I kept going. I wanted this! I reached the finish line, stumbled over to my coach who stared me in the face and said, “Beth, you are All State!” I started weeping. I didn’t believe him. It was one of the highlights of my entire high school career…truthfully, my life.

My time was 19 minutes and 27 seconds. Exactly 5 minutes and 27 seconds faster than my slowest race at the beginning of the season. Unheard of. But my coach knew how to lead, knew how to train an athlete, and knew how to elicit my untapped potential. He saw something in me that I didn’t know I had. 

Hitting the Wall

Every runner has done it. You train your heart out, then when the big race comes, you make it through the first half or the first third of the race and then you just hit a wall. All of a sudden you feel like you’re moving in slow motion and breath escapes your lungs and doesn’t seem to fill them again. 

Have you ever had a dream where you are running away from a terrifying evil, but for some reason you can barely move your legs the closer it comes? That’s what hitting a wall is like – your legs slow down but time speeds up.

All of a sudden, in my junior year, I fell back towards the middle of the pack. I just couldn’t get that kick I had the year before. I didn’t have that fearless sense of grandeur that I experienced previously. My identity was being stripped away. 

Worse yet, I had a huge falling out with the girl who was supposed to be my best friend who told me that our best guy friend was suicidal. She swore me to secrecy. But I told Coach. And my friend circle nearly fell apart.

I sunk into a deep depression. I contemplated suicide. I started thinking about how I could do it. Thankfully, I never attempted (I probably would have failed) and a large part of that was the belief Coach had in me. I was so enamored with his leadership and inspiration in my life that I hated to think I could ever let him down. 

I believe the juxtaposition of my sophomore and junior years were my first major manic-depressive episode. One year I was able to just push and push and I found the energy to get faster and faster. The next year my world came crashing down and it weighed down my whole body. I hit a perpetual wall and I just couldn’t keep up with the pack.

At the time I was completely ignorant about mental health. I disregarded it’s commonness. I rejected help. My mother begged me to let her take me to a psychologist. I didn’t want help and she didn’t force me.

Coach, however, got to me. He, a believer himself, responded to my hunger for spiritual input and spoke truth into my life. He also knew that I was an aspiring writer. If I was having a hard day, I would run to his office between classes. He sat down at a lunch table and would listen and encourage. On a few occasions, he would give me a piece of paper and say, “Write about it.” So I did. That push got me through a really dark period in my life and writing about whatever was going on in my life got me through many more dark places. 

Picking Up the Pieces

At 14 years old, having been raised Lutheran, I was confirmed in the church. That Sunday, I sat in the front pew with the confirmands and completely zoned. God spoke to me – he challenged me to get off the fence of “I can do it my way,” and “I believe in Jesus.” I didn’t really understand the Jesus aspect of Christianity, that it was about having a relationship with Christ so that my relationship with God could be restored. How many times had I prayed to God and yet felt so disconnected from him? Well, that day, in that conversation with God, I told him, “I choose Jesus. I want to follow His Way.” 

Throughout my high school years people started showing up in my life who pointed me to Him. Coach was one of those people. I continued to seek God and I grew. I read my Bible, not because I felt like I was supposed to, but because I wanted to. I had a few verses that became my mantra and Coach harnessed them and repeated them to me regularly. He encouraged me to pray and trust God. In his humility, I am sure he would be surprised to know that he made such an impact in my faith, but he did. 

My faith, in hindsight, was the one thing that brought me through those hard times – and continues to this day. 

Time and hard work restored my gifts by my senior year track season. I crushed all of my personal records. I anchored my 3200 meter relay team, which smashed a school record and performed well in the State Finals. I was recruited to a Division 3 college where I ran for 4 years – continually experiencing the ups and downs as in previous seasons. 

Coach and I kept tabs on each other – his current teams, my failures and successes. 

Separate Paths

After college I lived at home for a while where I ministered to high school students from my alma mater. Once I moved to work in Ohio, we slowly lost touch.

After a period of flying high being that crazy high-energy youth minister, I dove into depression once more. Coach wasn’t there this time, but the Lord put other Godly people in my life and I was continually carried to the cross. I was transferred to Orlando, Florida, to find help and healing. I left my ministry role, met my husband, opened an auto repair shop, and had a kid. Life.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I was in a Zoom meeting (because all meetings are on Zoom in the middle of a pandemic) with the Central Florida Christian Chamber of Commerce. The presenter challenged everyone to make a short list of people whom you would regret calling. Then call them. Today. My mind was pretty blank even though he gave many examples of who that person might be. 

Less than a week later, another presenter was talking about the qualities of a great leader. He was describing Coach exactly. The floor was opened up for discussion. Who is the most influential leader in your life?

I raised my hand, “Without a doubt my high school coach.” I gave a few examples of why. 

“Are you still in touch with him?”

“No.”

“You know what you need to do, right? You need to call him TODAY.”

A quick Google search of “Cody Inglis” brought up…a famous Canadian hockey player. Coach is from Canada and he loves hockey, but no. About 30 seconds later, I saw his picture and an article about his hire into the Michigan High School Athletic Association as an Assistant Director. I called – the office is closed due to COVID-19. I filled out the website’s contact form.

Reconnection

About a week later, I got an email. From Coach! He was excited to hear from me and wanted to catch up. I replied with a summary of the last 15 years of my life to abbreviate my talkative nature and told him I’d call in a few days.

Then, I procrastinated calling. What if…what if…what if…Then I wrote it on my daily agenda. Call Coach. 

I had been going through a depressive episode and had been tearful all day to the point that I just couldn’t work anymore. I spent a couple hours sorting, trashing, and organizing as if that would clear the cluttered noise in my head. Pictures and albums from highschool of friends and running and Coach. Sort, trash, organize. I was feeling a little better. A little nostalgic. But what if my son wakes up from his nap? 

No more excuses, Bethany, call!

I had a hard time finding his contact information in the email thread. 

Well, maybe I won’t call

I found it. I struggled to copy and paste it from my email on my phone to the dial screen. This isn’t going anywhere. I got it. I tapped the green phone icon. 

It rang. 

And we had such a great conversation! We both were so encouraged by each other. His weariness of working from home when sports were all on hold came through. What a great pick-me-up! We wanted to know everything about family, career, life. A mere 30 minutes later, Arthur woke up from his nap and Coach needed to get back to work, anyway, so we bid our goodbyes and “call me anytime.”

The Lesson

A lot of who I am today is because of the belief, values, and characteristics Coach Inglis instilled in me in my 4 years under his coaching. God puts people in your life for a reason. Hold onto those who have made the biggest difference in your life. Tell them!

I failed to do this with a dear woman, Michelle, who helped me through my darkness that led me to Orlando. She got very ill with cancer. I was afraid that I would be a bother if I checked in with her. How ridiculous. Michelle went to be with Jesus and I never got to say, ”You made such an impact on my life. Thank you and good-bye, dear friend.”

If something like that had happened with Coach Inglis, I would have a LOT of praying to do to forgive myself. Not only was the phone call a huge encouragement to me, but he said over and over how pleased, encouraged, and excited he was that I reached out. And we will keep in touch. I will make it happen. 

Who is that influential person in your life? Are they still with us? Are you still in touch? Find them, call them, go to them. Tell them how much they mean to you. 

As someone who has led her whole life valuing building relationships and bringing truth and encouragement into their lives, I know that I don’t often get to see the fruit of those relationships. Either it comes so slowly that you don’t notice or the fruit ripens after you have both moved on with their life. Don’t let that fruit go un-savored by the one who sowed it.  

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