While many coaches are worried about their team bringing home championships, Desmond Dunham his eye on a bigger prize.
The cross country coach at Wilson High School in Washington D.C. (now at St. John’s College High School, also in D.C.), who has been coaching for 17 years, said he measures his accomplishments by the success his athletes have later in life, once they’ve put their running shoes away.
“The true measuring stick for me is what has my program done for the kids over time: when they go to college, they go in their careers, they have their family,” he said.
Dunham, who coaches the girls cross country team as well as the co-ed track team, takes a holistic approach to coaching, focusing as much on their emotional well-being and academic performance as their achievements on the track. One of his favorite parts of coaching is to see how his athletes are able to carry the lessons learned in running over to other parts of their life.
“You have to learn to give your best even when you don’t feel your best. My athletes often hear me say you have to be willing to give 100 percent even when you don’t feel 100 percent,” he said. “I try to get them to realize that applies to everything you do in life.”
Hear Desmond Dunham on an August 2019 appearance on Pace the Nation
Marika Walker, a second-year PhD student in kinesiology at the University of Georgia, said the discipline she learned on Dunham’s cross country and track teams from 2004 through 2007 has gone on to help her in other aspects of her life.
“Running with him was difficult, and we achieved lot of stuff I wouldn’t have imagined before I started,” she said. “Now looking at other things, I can do a lot more than I think I can. I put more effort into all the other things that I do.”
Walker also gained some more concrete benefits from her running career on Dunham’s team: a scholarship to North Carolina State for her undergraduate education.
“Track got me through college, basically to where I am today,” she said. “I don’t know where I would’ve gone to school if I hadn’t have run for coach Dunham.”
While Walker no longer runs competitively, she continues to workout and maintain an active lifestyle.
Other athletes have benefited from Dunham’s holistic training more immediately. Despite being the new kid at school in August 2013, Julie Rakas, now a junior at Wilson, said being a member of the team made her feel right at home.
“I joined cross country when I first came here and he really made me feel included,” she said. “He really makes the whole team feel like a family almost.”
She said Dunham makes sure athletes are doing well academically, giving time off from practice to get caught up on work or visit teachers and getting permission before taking kids out of class for a competition. She also said he’s there emotionally for his athletes.
“He’s always there to talk to us. I’ve come to him with a lot of personal problems and he offers really good insight,” she said. “I feel really comfortable with him and I completely trust him.”
Dunham has overcome some of his own hurdles as well. He grew up in Gary, Ind., which he calls the “murder capital” of the country at the time. It was his own cross country coach who made sure Dunham and the other athletes learned the value of hard work and discipline – a coaching style he tries to emulate today.
“He was a father to many of us, the guys on the team,” he said. “We were able to just overcome a lot of adversities that we were facing in Gary, from the educational system to the violence, and he made running our outlet. He held us accountable no matter what the circumstances were, no matter what our backgrounds were.”
When Dunham moved to D.C. to attend Howard University, he volunteered with a local running program before getting a gig coaching for St. Gabriel’s Catholic School while working on his master’s. He coached at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt and the University of Maryland, in addition to coaching a junior olympic running team, before taking a job at Woodrow Wilson High School in 2012.
“The ability for me to be able to put a smile on a child’s face through the sport of cross country and track and field, it was the most rewarding experience that I had as a person,” he said. “I’ve always felt like after my first year of coaching that it was not only my passion but I also had a purpose in it as well.”
Dunham was so devoted to his athletes that he and his wife dipped into their own bank account to ensure all athletes on his junior olympics team, regardless of their economic background, could participate and travel with the team.
“We used to give all of our money to making sure kids could travel and have the same experience as everyone else,” he said. “There was a time when our utilities were being cut off so we could make sure we gave every single kid in our program the same experiences.”
In addition to coaching, running all three seasons and working full-time as a physical education teacher at Wilson, Dunham also coaches his own two kids in a variety of sports from baseball to basketball to tennis. He also is a board member at Capital City Little League.
“Somehow we manage everything,” he said, noting that he couldn’t do it without his “awesome wife.” “We try to keep a balance where we make sure if we do have busy weeks, we try to culminate the week making sure there’s a focus on our kids to make sure we’re still in tune with them.”
On top of everything, Dunham is involved with the D.C. Cross Country Project, an initiative with Pacers to increase participation across the city, improve programs at schools and increase awareness of the sport. He said he is excited to be part of an organization that lets him help even more young athletes succeed.
“I could do great things within my program to help a good amount of kids, but if I can be involved with something on a much larger scale, it’s definitely way more fulfilling to be able to help the masses to be able to have the experiences I once had,” he said.
Dunham still manages to find time to log about 30 to 40 miles a week, as much for the physical benefit as the emotional release.
“After finishing a run,” he said, “I feel like I shed so many pounds of stress.”
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2014 RunWashington.