If you attended high school in Quesnel between 1972 and 2015, you will have known, or at least known of, coach Pat Marsh.
Pat, by all accounts, was one of those special teachers who went above and beyond for her students, and not just for one athlete: after decades spent as the cross-country running and track-and-field coach at Correlieu Secondary School, Pat was considered a mentor by thousands of Quesnel athletes.
On Jan. 2, after a two-year battle with cancer, Pat passed away. But the impact of her work and her dedication to students reaches far beyond the borders of Quesnel’s community.
On the field and in the halls
Pat began coaching track-and-field and cross-country running in 1972 at age 25, first at Quesnel Secondary School and then at Correlieu, and quickly became known for her success with her teams.
From 1980 to 2015, her Correlieu girls track-and-field teams won the Zone Championships 20 times, and finished in the top three a total of 30 times. They went on to top 10 placings at Provincials 13 times.
The boys track teams were Zone Champions 10 times and in the top three 18 times. They had six top-15 finishes at Provincials.
But it’s more than just the wins and favourable stats that made Pat such an influential coach.
Scott Trueman, a teacher at Quesnel Junior School (QJS) and coach of the cross-country running team, met Pat when he was in high school. Having been a mentee and colleague of Pat, he says she was a compassionate and committed coach.
“Pat often walked with athletes, with her arm draped around their shoulder, speaking words of encouragement and motivation, never allowing pessimism to be invited into the conversation,” he says.
“She preached the importance of supporting each and every team member as though they were family, chanting “we love hills” in solidarity, every step along the way.”
Scott says Pat was as keen to turn a student’s life around as she was to polish an already gifted individual into a remarkable athlete.
“Her unwavering effort to persuade kids from all backgrounds to give sports a try was nothing short of extraordinary.”
Cassaundra O’Brien, who attended Correlieu from 2004-09, was one such student who needed a little extra push to join in, something she says Pat seemed to instinctively recognize.
“Going into high school, there were some sports I tried out for, but nothing was really sticking. I was on the basketball team, and I guess Mrs. Marsh noticed I had a talent. She started following me around in grade 8, saying, ‘Hey, you should come join track, we think you should join.
“She followed me around all over the place and finally I said, ‘If I try it and hate it, will you leave me alone?’
“She said, ‘Yes, just come out and try it!’”
Almost 10 years later, Cassaundra is a coach with the Prince George Track and Field Club.
“Here I am, still in track-and-field, and coaching it. If it wasn’t for Mrs. Marsh, I wouldn’t be here.”
For others, it was a matter of helping them see their potential.
Chris Dinsdale, who attended Correlieu in the same years as Cassaundra, was on Pat’s cross-country running team as well as the track-and-field team.
He ended up attending Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, and running cross-country and track for the school.
“Mrs. Marsh believed in me running at that next level. Being in Quesnel, I wasn’t as exposed as Lower Mainland students might be to that next step. Mrs. Marsh felt I had that potential, and she sent some recommendation letters out for me to some coaches.
“It was pretty awesome of her to put that belief in me and make those connections.”
Chris says that as a coach, Pat was never one to get angry; she led with compassion.
“It wouldn’t matter if it was the top runner on the team or someone who walked on yesterday. She gave her all to coaching every person on the team. That was something I really admired about her,” he says.
A lifetime of achievements
Pat was respected by students and colleagues alike, and worked hard to establish programs in the region.
Prince George Track Club founder Tom Masich wrote on his Facebook page: “In the many years I knew Pat, I witnessed her zeal in seeing her athletes’ accomplishments in competition, whether it be in victory or defeat. In my personal project of building a strong track-and-field program – in Central B.C. in particular and the province in general – no one made a contribution to that end greater than Pat Marsh.”
Pat was inducted into the Quesnel Sports Hall of Fame in the category of Outstanding Contribution to Athletic Development in 2006, and was an Honourary Life Member of the B.C. High School Track & Field Association.
She received the Quesnel Community Coach of the Year award and the Sports B.C. President’s Award.
She was also instrumental in having the track installed in the field at Correlieu Secondary. In 2013 a plaque was unveiled with her name on it, in front of the space where she spent so much of her time.
“She was always on the move – in the hallway, in classrooms, on the track – doing whatever she could to support students,” comments Scott.
“When I became a teacher, I learned of the support she gave her colleagues – the same unwavering love and support she gave everyone else.”
One of her students, Josh Guggenheimer, who graduated in 2000 and was one of Correlieu’s promising young track athletes, credits Pat with helping him get where he is today: he works as an assistant professor of exercise science at St. Catherine University in Minnesota.
”I went to the University of Idaho on a track scholarship, and I stayed and did my Masters and Ph.D, and now I teach; I met my wife, and now I have a son. None of that would have happened without Mrs. Marsh.”
It’s a common refrain from many of Pat’s students.
Josh continues: “Now I truly appreciate the impact she had on me and so many others,” he says.
“A few years ago I thought, ‘I really want to take some time and reflect on the people who’ve influenced my life and who I want to reach out to and thank.’ I was going through that list; who are these people, my mom, my sister… and Mrs. Marsh was the third person who came to mind that really had a huge impact on where I am now, and the person I am now.”
When Pat passed away, Bevin Thompson, one of her former students, contacted Pat’s son Tyson to see if there was anything she could do to help the family.
“Tyson asked if I could let people in the track community know [that she had passed away]. I felt the easiest way to do that was on Facebook.”
Bevin started a Facebook group message, adding about 35 members, to break the news, and invited members to add other athletes or students who would want to know.
The group now has more than 200 members, with each offering condolences, sharing memories and stories of Pat, and adding photos.
“People kept adding more and more people, and it grew. It’s so amazing that there are so many people, all connected through one person,” says Bevin.
A lasting legacy
Pat took a leave of absence from Correlieu in 2015, when she learned she had cancer.
On Jan. 2, 2018, she succumbed to the illness at her family cabin, survived by her husband, three children and seven grandchildren.
But although she is gone, future generations of Quesnel athletes will continue to benefit from the influence and support she offered so many: her family has set up a scholarship in her name.
Members of the public are invited to contribute, and can do so by contacting Correlieu Secondary School for details. There will also be a Celebration of Life to honour Pat at Correlieu School on Jan. 21.
So many in Quesnel will miss her, but the foundation she built at Correlieu – instilling in her athletes qualities such as dedication, strength, drive and also compassion – means that an entire generation of students, wherever they’ve ended up, perhaps stands a little bit taller, and sees things a little bit brighter, because of her leadership.
“As a young runner, Pat always reminded me to never look over my shoulder while heading to the finish. She stressed the importance of looking forward to the finish line,” says Scott.
“More importantly, she insisted that a runner must imagine the finish line is actually a few steps beyond the chalked line on the ground.
“In life, Pat, the eternal optimist, fought hard until the very end. She didn’t look over her shoulder, and never let up until after she reached what others thought would be her finish line.
I like to imagine that when she saw that last, long hill she chanted, ‘We love hills!’ and all those whom she supported for so many years gave her the lift she needed, when she needed it most.”