The discus sailed briefly across the cloudy sky, landing with a thud.
A beaming teen, his hands raised above his head as he watched the flight, proudly turned to his coach.
“Hey, hey, hey. Nice throw,” George Rowswell roared. “That a way. Now, you’re getting it.”
It was as if the teen’s throw of maybe 110 feet had just won a state championship. Instead, it was just another track practice at North Thurston High School.
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Based on Rowswell’s level of excitement, you’d have thought it was the first time he had ever seen someone throw a discus. Of course, it’s not. He’s coached track nearly every spring for 70 years.
In the spring of 1941, when Franklin Roosevelt was president and the United States was on the brink of war, Rowswell began his coaching career in eastern Washington. Later, in the spring of 1956, Rowswell began coaching at North Thurston, working with the shot putters and discus throwers in the school’s first year. He’s coached there nearly every spring since.
“I love the kids,” Rowswell said. “They’ve changed over the years. But down deep they’re still the same.”
That same spring 55 years ago, another young coach worked with North Thurston hurdlers and javelin throwers. That was Kay Thomas, just out of college.
All these decades later, Rowswell, who turned 94 in March, and Thomas, who’ll be 80 in October, are still coaching track at North Thurston. Combined, they have over 120 years of coaching experience.
“It’s the kids who keep me coming back,” Thomas said. “They’ll keep you young.”
Rowswell, who has had surgery on both knees, now walks with a labored effort. He sits in his walker/chair as he watches kids practice, giving instruction and encouragement.
“If you try as hard as you can, you’re a champion in my book,” Rowswell said. “That’s all that I ask. That you try hard.”
Both coaches, old enough to be the great grandfathers of those they coach, maintain a friendly rapport with them. They entertain them with stories of yesterday’s stars. They joke. They praise. And sometimes they even wager.
Going into the 1999 state meet, Thomas told Leslie Erickson, his prized javelin pupil, he’d loan her the keys to his restored 1957 Corvette if she threw more than 160 feet, nearly six feet beyond her best throw. She threw just over 170 feet to win the second of her three state championships.
“You know, my son hadn’t even driven that car,” Thomas said.
But while Thomas cherishes that day Erickson won a state title, it’s not just working with champions that motivates Thomas.
“What I like is taking a kid who knows virtually nothing about an event and teaching them,” Thomas said. “There’s so much to learn.”
The payoff is watching a young athlete throw the javelin an extra 20 or 30 feet.
“And they look at you with a big surprise in their eyes,” Thomas said. “That’s fun. That’s what I enjoy.”
These experienced coaches are like gold to the kids.
“They both know a lot,” said Caleb Richards, a junior who throws the shot, discus and javelin. “I think everyone respects what they say. They always have stories to tell us. Everything they say really helps me a lot.”
Brent Warner, the head track coach at North Thurston, enjoys having them on his staff. Warner ran track at North Thurston in the 1970s and remembers Rowswell and Thomas coaching when he was in high school.
“They’re an inspiration to all of us,” Warner said.
Rowswell graduated from Washington State College (now WSU) in 1940. He played football for the legendary Babe Hollingbery. In track, he threw the shot and discus, winning what he called the Northern Division shot put title.
Rowswell’s teaching and coaching career began in the fall of 1940 in a rural schoolhouse in eastern Washington. With his new bride, childhood sweetheart Maxine, on his arm, Rowswell moved to Nespelem, where he taught and coached one year. Short stops in Waterville, Winlock and Chelan followed before they landed in Centralia, the Rowswells’ hometown.
They made their final move in 1955 to North Thurston, where Rowswell retired in 1977 as athletic director. But he continues to coach, usually as a volunteer.
“It’s always been about teaching kids principles,” said Rowswell. “It’s about teaching them how to handle life. That’s what keeps me coming back.”
Thomas threw the javelin and ran hurdles at Everett Community College, then finished his degree at the University of Washington. He said he earned $3,200 as the head of the history department his first year at North Thurston. He earned an extra $100 for coaching football and another $100 for coaching track.
Thomas, still fit and trim, gives an occasional demonstration at practice in how to hurdle. However, during a recent demonstration, he clipped a hurdle and landed on his back.
“I was just trying to show them how to move their hands,” he said. “I’m fine. No problem.”
Thomas served 17 years as vice principal at North Thurston and was principal for four years, retiring in 1986.
But retiring hasn’t meant resigning as coaches for these men.
“I’m not bored with coaching,” Rowswell said, adding with a grin: “Disgusted once in awhile. But not bored. I’m having too much fun to be bored.”
Gail Wood: 360-754-5443 firstname.lastname@example.org