Back in his days at Western State, Kelly Christensen stakes out a lead at the Rocky Mountain Shootout. Contributed photos.
In case you missed it, one of the big pieces of coaching news in the state this summer is that Kelly Christensen will be taking over head coach duties for Palmer Ridge High School cross country and boys track and field. And Palmer Ridge didn't waste much time making either decision.
It wasn't that long ago that Christensen was mowing people down as a DII cross country runner and steeplechaser at Western State. After a top high school finish of fourth in the state cross country meet in 1999, Christensen went on in college to finish third in DII nationals cross country in 2004, second in 2005, and first in the DII steeplechase in 2004. But, he was ready to be done with running--or so he thought--when he left the Gunnison campus, degree in hand.
Christensen stepped directly into the world of high pressure and extended work weeks in construction management.
"After college I ended up working in construction management and didn't run a single step for nearly four years. At the time, I was only interested in making money."
But the lifestyle caught up with Christensen, "I quickly became burnt out of working 60-80 hours a week while having to work alongside people with different personality types than my own. At the young age of 25, the stress I was experiencing triggered a shingles breakout. Looking back, that stress may have been self-induced; either way, I knew some sort of life change was needed...."
If, like me, you've known Christensen only after the change, it's difficult to imagine him as a man preoccupied with making money. Christensen stepped into the coaching ranks and immediately became widely known as one of the most affable personalities in the business, as a person whose rewards came from working with the kids and not from self-aggrandizement. In Christensen's case, it was easy to recognize the real thing.
Finding his way into the coaching, however, took a little ingenuity and perseverance; his college education hadn't done anything to prepare him to join the ranks of coaching.
"I turned to a few of the most influential people in my life, my brothers. Two of them teach and coach, they suggested looking into a career in education or doing some coaching. At the time, I was living in Greeley and worked with a gentleman who had a son running at University High School. I reached out to head coach Sharon Eberhard to see if I could do some running with their team and volunteer as a coach. Coach Eberhard, along with the other coaches and administration team at University High School, were very generous and allowed me to get involved. That experience confirmed that I would be much happier working with youth. With several financial obligations and a lengthy graduate school application process, it took nearly another four years to transition careers out of construction and into education and coaching."
Whether the rewards found Christensen or Christensen found the rewards is hard to say, but he quickly found himself at home in coaching, "After being away from running for over four years, I was reconnected with 1000-meter repeats in the hot sun. I would be lying if I wasn't slightly entertained by watching how much suffering--or drama--was being endured." Christensen's season with University would conclude with sharing in a state runner-up finish.
"For me, the 180-degree life change all began at University High School. That will be a special experience for me because that is when my transition into education and coaching started."
Next spring, Christensen found his services in high demand a few miles to the west at Thompson Valley High School. That meant an opportunity to learn at the feet of Matt Norton, a man Christensen describes as "one of the very best coaches anywhere." It also meant getting his first taste of a state championship as a coach.
After three seasons of helping with the coaching duties at Thompson Valley, however, it was time again to move on, "The same day I received news that I passed my final state counseling certification test, I began searching several school district websites to see who was taking applications... I heard back from Palmer Ridge High School within 48 hours after submitting my application. We scheduled an interview and I was offered the position less than a week later."
Not surprisingly, Christensen wasted no time immersing himself in coaching duties at Palmer Ridge. Christensen worked the 2013-14 school year as an assistant to Larry Rudnicki in cross country and as an assistant to Joshua Trahan in track and field. Rudnicki only ever intended to be head coach on an interim basis, and when it came time to name the permanent head coach, it surprised nobody in the Colorado Springs area to learn that Christensen was deemed the man for the job. Head coaching duties snowballed a little when Trahan left to take the AD position at Alamosa High School. Again, to the surprise of almost nobody, Christensen was deemed the man for the head boys position.
Christensen has drawn heavily from his experiences under Eberhard, Norton, Rudnicki, and Trahan. Christensen can recite a long list of things he's learned at the feet of these notables, "Develop a thick skin, try not to take it personally, and don't get your feelings hurt..., Believe in people, take risks, make mistakes, and learn..., Failure will happen, don't be afraid of it..., All coaches have been given an opportunity to help dreams come true." And the list goes on.
He also inherits a cross country team this fall for which the sky is the limit. Christensen is already well acquainted with the pressures that go with the territory, and is ready to shoulder the burden of expectations, "I'm a very competitive person... regardless of what level the team is at, I'm going to put the same level of pressure on myself." If you're reading the tea leaves correctly, you already know to expect big things from Palmer Ridge cross country this fall. That's not necessarily good short-term news for the rest of us in 4A, but we'll all ultimately be the better for it.
So, it's not so much the pressure that gets to Christensen, it's in what he's enduring the pressure for. Some people find their reward in their paycheck; others find it in the value of what they do.
Kelly Christensen's athlete profile page (as much as we've been able to piece together)