America’s Most Inspiring Coaches

Featured Article, Fitness, Motivation, News and Advice
on November 19, 2012
The best school PE teachers and coaches.

The unsung heroes of the education system aren’t just found in the classroom—they’re on the sides of the court, field or gymnasium, cheering on young athletes. In a nation that faces an alarming childhood obesity epidemic, athletic coaches and P.E. teachers are doing their part to get young people excited about being active. More than that, however, they’re teaching our kids crucial life skills that can’t be forged in the classroom alone—values such as teamwork, perseverance and discipline. While every single P.E. teacher and coach deserves to be applauded for their efforts, these seven inspiring coaches and physical educators truly go above and beyond to make a difference in young people’s lives.

Chris Powell is one of the nation's most inspiring high school coaches.

Mike Powell (in blue shirt) with students

Mike Powell, wrestling coach, Oak Park River Forest High School, Oak Park, Ill.

A lifelong wrestler, Mike Powell, 32, has fought opponents on the mat for years. But in 2009, he squared off against his toughest challenger yet. Powell was in his tenth season of coaching varsity wrestling at OPRFHS when he began to experience flu-like symptoms—low energy, weakness and stiff muscles. Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with polymyositis—a rare inflammatory disease that results in the destruction of muscle cells. Facing a debilitating disease that has racked both his body and his immune system, Powell continues to serve as head wrestling coach. “My hope is that some of my strength will bleed through to the athletes I coach. I strongly believe in leadership through action,” Powell says, whose professional accolades include the 2009 Illinois Coach of the Year Award and the 2011-2012 USA Developmental Coach of the Year. In his 13 years of coaching, Powell has built a robust wrestling program, leading the team to its first state championship in 2009 and coaching several all-state wrestlers. Powell credits wrestling as an instrumental factor in helping him stay strong in the face of an uncertain prognosis. “I plan on living a good and fruitful life for a long time,” Powell says, adding that his “pitbull-like wife” motivates him every day to keep going.

Motivational quote: “When you love life, life loves you back.”

Marcie Adame, P.E. teacher, Kimberlin Academy of Excellence, Garland, Texas.

Marcie Adame, P.E. teacher, Kimberlin Academy of Excellence, Garland, Tex.

As a physical education teacher in a state with one of the nation’s highest obesity rates Adame, 42, was determined to do something about the inactivity she witnessed in her community. And she stepped up to the challenge with gusto: With Adame’s help, her school was chosen to participate in the world renown Cooper Institute’sHealthy Zone School Recognition program, a six-year initiative to fight childhood obesity. Adame, a member of the Texas Association of Health as well as the National Association for Sport & Physical Education (NASPE), recently launched a “Back to Fit” campaign for the 2012-2013 school year, which includes community events, such as a 5K Fun Run, in addition to classroom initiatives. To promote healthier behaviors at the local level, Adame established a social walk/run club for individuals of all ages and fitness levels called the Garland Groundbreakers. Says Adame, “I am committed to providing my students, their families and our community with the resources and tools they need to fulfill their personal health goals.” An avid runner, Adame leads by example and truly practices what she preaches. In fact, Adame recently finished her first marathon, helping to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Sandy in the process (she had been scheduled to run the ING NYC Marathon, which was cancelled after Sandy hit).

Motivational quote: “I wanna do something that matters…  I wanna do something better with the time I’ve been given, and I wanna try to touch a few hearts in this life and leave nothing less than something that says ‘I was here.’” (From the song “I Was Here” by Lady Antebellum)

Mike Powell, wrestling coach, Oak Park River Forest High School, Oak Park, Ill.

Mike Simons, assistant crew coach, Cedar Creek High School, Atlantic City, N.J.

Mike Simons, 28, refuses to let unexpected circumstances slow him down. After a devastating motorcycle accident last March claimed his right leg, the coach and Army veteran returned to coaching a mere two weeks later. “I felt that I had made a promise to the team,” he explains, “a promise that I would do anything and everything to help make them better; better rowers, and better people. I couldn’t allow the accident and my injuries to become more important than the team.” In the aftermath of the accident, Simons has displayed remarkable strength and positivity—two qualities he undoubtedly learned during his time as a U.S. Army Ranger in Iran and Afghanistan. “In the Army, no matter what, the mission had to be accomplished,” Simons says. Simons’ military-tough resolve is a constant inspiration for the members of his rowing team, who recently made T-Shirts with the phrase “Get A Straw” printed on the back—a reference to the time Simons jokingly said “get a straw and suck it up!” in response to a rower’s complaints about a scraped toe.

Motivational quote: “Suck it up.”

Jessica Shawley, P.E. teacher, Moscow Middle School, Moscow, Idaho.

Jessica Shawley (left) with fellow coaches

Jessica Shawley, P.E. teacher, Moscow Middle School, Moscow, Idaho

Across the country, physical education programs are shrinking due to budget cuts, but Jessica Shawley was determined to not let this happen. In the face of dwindling school funds, Shawley secured over $20,000 in grants to enhance her school’s physical education program. “I refuse to sit back and wait for money to come my way,” she says. “I want to provide an extraordinary P.E. program for my students because I believe they deserve it.” With the money, Shawley has purchased heart rate monitors, pedometers and a variety of recreational equipment for horseshoeing, Bocce ball, hackey sack and other yard games. In addition to improving her school’s fitness curriculum, Shawley has started a school-wide campaign to support better nutrition among students. With her help, Moscow Middle School was chosen to participate in the Fuel Up to Play 60, a grant program founded by the National Dairy Council and NFL that empowers students to make better nutrition choices through such initiatives as replacing soda machines with smoothie machines and revamping cafeteria menus to emphasize healthier options. In March, Shawley’s outstanding teaching performance was recognized by NASPE, who selected her as the 2012 National Middle School Physical Education Teacher.

Motivational quote: “No written word, no spoken plea can teach our youth what they should be. Nor all the books on all the shelves, it’s what the teachers are themselves.” (Anonymous)

Angie McKinnell, volleyball coach, Eastside Catholic High School, Sammamish, Wash.

Angie McKinnel (right) with friend Randi

Angie McKinnell, volleyball coach, Eastside Catholic High School, Sammamish, Wash.

Three years ago, four-time cancer survivor Angie McKinnell, 32, was diagnosed with stage-4 bronchial carcinoid cancer, a rare and malignant form of lung cancer. Angie was not expected to live more than a few months, but she was determined not to give up the fight. “I want to prove to people that cancer doesn’t always win,” she says. “I feel like at this point I am here for a reason and need to keep fighting.” Undoubtedly, Angie is tough—and every day she inspires her team members to follow her lead. Even while receiving chemotherapy, Angie refuses to miss a practice, bringing her characteristic no-nonsense attitude to the volleyball court. “I keep pushing. My girls work hard for me in return,” she says. A few years ago, Angie had the motto “Marine Tough” tattooed on her wrist as a tribute to her grandfather, a former Marine who died of cancer. Before competing in tournaments, Angie’s players often scrawl “Marine Tough” on their wrists in honor of their tough, gritty coach. According to Angie, it is coaching moments like these that keep her going. “As much as I bring to the team as a coach, these girls bring so much more to me,” she says.

Motivational quote: “Tough times don’t last; tough people do.”

Susan Flowers, P.E. teacher, Irving and Emerson Elementary Schools, Joplin, Mo.

Susan Flowers, P.E. teacher, Irving and Emerson Elementary Schools, Joplin, Mo.

Susan Flowers, 42, is working hard to bring a little joy back to Joplin. After devastating tornadoes rolled through the city in May 2011, area schools were completely destroyed—including all of Flowers’ gym equipment. In the aftermath of the storm, Flowers is helping restore the physical education programs at Irving and Emerson schools, both of which were forced to relocate to temporary locations until the new schools can be rebuilt. With a grant from Peaceful Playgrounds, Flowers and a team of volunteers designed and painted playgrounds at each of the temporary locations. According to Flowers, it is important to give the children an opportunity to play and have fun: “Through play, our students are recovering from something extremely traumatizing. They are learning, growing and healing through play,” she says. Thanks to the generosity of many organizations, including Jump Rope for Heart, Flowers has been able to replenish most of her gym equipment and has recently started tennis and jump rope clubs at both schools.

Motivational quote: “With the new day comes new strength and new thoughts.” (Eleanor Roosevelt)

Julie Haneke Velasco (far right) with friends and fellow cancer survivors Sheila Matthews, LaTasha Givens and Teresa Estorga

Julie Haneke Velasco, assistant girls softball coach, Manor High School, Manor, Tx.

When her oncologist called during softball practice one afternoon and informed Julie Velasco that he wanted to see her the next day, her immediate response was, “I can’t—I have a game tomorrow.” Indeed, Julie has refused to leave the field, despite her diagnosis of breast cancer in March 2012 at the age of 38. Also a math teacher in Manor High’s special education department, Julie dreamed of coaching and teaching since she was a little girl, and doesn’t want anything—including chemotherapy and constant doctor appointments—to get in her way. “I’ve often told my athletes that I’m living the dream. My girls mean a lot to me,” Julie says, adding that the Mustang community has been a crucial support system during these difficult times. In April, the student body staged a “Pink Out” event in Julie’s honor, in which spectators donned pink T-shirts to football and volleyball games in order to raise money for Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Also a source of strength is her husband, Johnny, who Julie married in July. On their wedding night, Julie had to be rushed to the hospital to received a spinal tap, only to discover that the cancer had spread to her brain. “I told my Johnny that he could walk out now and I would understand,” she says. “He replied, ‘Don’t ever say that again. I will stand by you.’”

Motivational quote: “Good things happen when you move your feet.”