Linda Lanker is going national.
After 17 years coaching high school athletes, the University High School cross country coach has been asked by former Washington State University track coach John Chaplin to join the U.S. national team to coach hurdlers.
Earlier this month Lanker stepped down as the U-Hi coach. She will continue to coach hurdlers at Spokane Community College this season and will help coach Mead hurdlers in the spring before concentrating on the national team.
Linda Lanker has devoted her life to hurdles.
“I was so excited when he asked me,” Lanker said of her initial conversation with the former Olympic team coach. “He told me that he wants to bring women in to work with the men’s team because we bring so much to offer. He, along with Larry Beatty at SCC, told me that I have a rapport with the guys that men coaches can’t bring.”
One of her senior runners at U-Hi put it best: Linda is not just a coach. She takes care of her athletes and, as a result, they want to perform their very best.
“It’s ironic,” Lanker said. “When I was in high school – I went to a Christian school in Arizona – they wouldn’t let me go out on the track until all of the boys finished and had left. And I could have beaten most of them.”
Chaplin, a coaching pioneer in his own right, wants to continue to break new ground.
“He was the first coach to start a women’s program in this state,” Lanker said. “He told me that, since I’d been coaching guys, boys, for 15 years and working with college men for the past six, that he wanted to bring me in to help with the national team.
Dynamic is a word easily applied to Lanker, who coached Valley Christian to a State B boys track and field championship in 2000 and a girls title in 2001. And she’s had tremendous success coaching hurdlers for Spokane Community College.
Along the way she’s twice been named the Washington High School Track and Field Coaches Association Coach of the Year (2000 and 2002).
A masters class competitor today, Lanker ran the 100-yard dash as a prep athlete in the days before Title IX and fell in love with the hurdles.
“I was pretty fast as a 100-yard dash runner,” she said. “I ran 10.9 or 10.8 seconds. I remember watching the girls run the hurdles and telling my coach that I wanted to do that. My first year doing that I started winning races.”
In 1974 she broke the national record in the 400 hurdles and was the national champion, Lanker said. She competed in the women’s nationals at Irvine, Calif., as a 16-year old and placed fourth. She competed in the Pan American Games in Mexico City in 1975, earned a bronze medal, and anchored the 4x400 relay team.
She was even recruited by NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain to run the hurdles for his California club track team.
“He scared the tar out of me,” she said. “He had the deepest voice I’d ever heard and when he sat down, I looked him eye-to-eye when I stood up. I was just an innocent kid – as naïve as they come. I was an 18-year-old kid, and my dad had just become a pastor.”
Still, it’s hard to imagine the diminutive Lanker running the high hurdles.
“(Hurdling legend) Gail Devers is only 5-foot-3, and I’m almost 5-4,” Lanker said. “Gail was a 10.8 100-meter (hurdles) runner. My 100-meter times were more like 11.7. But the thing is, if you have speed, you can get over the hurdles, no problem. It’s all about technique.”
The Lanker technique is about combining equal parts passion and knowledge to the sport with an unabashed dose of love.
“That’s the thing,” she said. “You love kids. Out of love for them, you want to motivate them to do their best. There’s nothing better than to see a group of kids go out and accomplish something they never thought they could accomplish.”
Her final Titans team finished a remarkable season. Six of her seven varsity runners ran personal best times in their final meet. Saying good-bye to them was difficult.
“This was the best group of kids I’ve had in cross country, ever,” she said. “They had me in tears, giving me flowers and gifts. They start watching me rub my eyes, and the whole team came up and gave me this huge group hug. It really meant a lot to me.”
It’s also special to the coach to have one of her children take up her favorite event.
“My son (Joe) competed in the Junior Olympics during the summer, and I got to coach him,” she said. He was the No. 1 13-year-old 200-hurdler. It’s so much fun to be able to coach my son in the hurdles because the girls (Kristen and Alissa) never liked it.”
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