Okay, okay, I get it. He’s not dead.
He’s not even fully retired.
But this last state meet was Jim’s final appearance as head track coach at Fremd before he moves on to bigger and better things like sitting around in his jammies watching soaps all morning before heading over to practice at Burlington Central where he will coach the throws starting next year.
And moments like that need memorializing.
The first time I met Jim was at my first ITCCCA clinic. I believe the year was 1993, my rookie season as throws coach at Wheaton North. He did a presentation on discus technique with one of his athletes performing drills using a traffic cone in place of a disc.
He had just had a state champion in the shot, was about to have another one, and had survived getting hit in the face with a discus–so you can imagine how much I looked up to him.
Funny thing. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that as bad as that athlete probably felt, Jim was the perfect guy to get a discus in the face. That kind of stuff just does not bother him. If you ever find yourself sitting next to him at an establishment, it would be worth the price of a drink to get him to tell you the story of the time he took a lightening bolt to the head. It really happened, and may well explain why wherever he is on the planet he always gets four bars worth of reception on his cell phone.
Anyway, after Jim’s ITCCCA presentation I tracked him down in the cafeteria at OPRF, asked him about 8 million questions (all of which he answered with great patience), went home and embarked on a nearly quarter-century crime spree during which many, many traffic cones disappeared from road projects in my neighborhood.
And here’s the funny thing about Jim. Even though there are vicious rumors out there that I am actually older than him (you all can Donald Trump me as much as you like, I am not producing a birth certificate) ever since that moment in the OPRF cafeteria when I made his chicken get cold (not a euphemism) while asking him all those questions, I have always considered him a mentor.
And if a mentor is someone who is wiser, more patient, and more generous than you, and is able to walk you back from the brink when you are really fired up (i.e. my social media war with Those Who Shall Not Be Named over the condition of the throwing rings at a Place That Cannot Be Named a few years back) then Jim, no matter his age, qualifies. And seriously, when you are a national treasure like a redwood tree or a moon rock, does age really matter?
Over the years, Jim and I bonded over our shared OCD-level love of the throws. We constantly traded film, ideas, and opinions about throwing technique, and it never bothered us when those in our general vicinity (wives, friends, colleagues) would excuse themselves and drift away rather than endure another debate over who had the better power position throw, Franz Kruger or Virgilius Alekna.
Speaking of those fine throwers (Franz earned discus bronze in 2000, Virgilius gold in 2000 and 2004) one of the highlights of my friendship with Jim was our trip to Germany in 2001 with our dear friend Shawn Schleizer to attend the annual Zurich track meet (then part of the “Golden League,” now part of the “Diamond League” circuit) and the since-defunct Stein Am Rhine throwers meet.
The photo at the top of this article is from that trip. If you see Jim, be sure not to point out that while Schleizer and I have not visibly aged, he with his white beard could today play any number of parts in a church pageant: Moses, Santa Claus, Hemingway on a bender.
One thing I remember from that trip was that Jim actually paid attention to the running events at the Zurich meet and (I hate to say this about a throws coach, but…) knew what constituted an excellent time in every event. Schleizer and I were amazed, and it was only our great affection (and perhaps concern) for Jim that kept us from moving to another section when he started cheering during the steeple chase.
But that is Jim.
I am so obsessed with the training and performance of my throwers that I’m sure every day in the hallway at school I walk by numerous kids from other events without ever realizing that they are part of our track team.
For the past several decades (I think he assumed the head coaching job during the Harding administration) or at least for a very long time, he has taken great interest in the well being of every kid on the Fremd team, from the skinniest, most Star Wars obsessed distance runner to the flightiest (and no, I do not mean that as a compliment) pole vaulter.
And for that, he deserves our great respect as well as unlimited drinks at all future ITCCCA socials.
Pardon me for one second while I philosophize.
It is my great hope that people like Jim are not a dying breed. Coaching for all those years while teaching and raising a family is no easy task. That Jim was able to do it, that any of us are able to do it, is as much a credit to our spouses as it is to us.
But, there is no other way to build a great program than to have a staff who is in it for the long haul. As mentioned above, I have coached the throws at Wheaton North since 1993. With nearly 25 years in my position, I am the least experienced member of our boys track coaching staff. That’s why we are forever in contention for the conference title. That’s why we always have kids in the finals at the state meet.
It warms the heart of us old campaigners to see a young guy like Chris Arthurs willingly take the reigns at Wheaton Warrenville South. Chris, I hope 25 years from now, someone writes an article like this about you.
And I beseech all young coaches to consider taking the path set out by guys like Jim Aikens. Yes, you will spend endless hours agonizing over who to put in the four-by-two relay. Yes, you will find yourself freezing your whatever off on long Friday nights in April and May when it is supposed to be nice out. Yes, you will die a little bit inside every time a talented athlete quits track because with just the right amount of exposure they will be the first 5’11” power forward to receive a scholarship from Duke.
But when you buy Aikens that drink and he finishes telling you the lightening story, ask him if it was all worth it.
I think I know the answer.