Interview with Coach Sara Slattery – Grand Canyon University

Sara (Gorton) Slattery is one of all the time running greats to come out of the University of Colorado, a 10-time All-American and a two-time NCAA champion.  She is the last American woman to have won the BolderBoulder, back in 2006 and was elected to the CU Hall of Fame in 2016.

In 2015, Grand Canyon University hired Sara as the head coach of the men's and women's cross country program as they made the jump to Division 1. She's married to Steve Slattery, a former All-American at the University of Colorado.

I like to start with the hard-hitting questions first. I’m a huge basketball fan and loved Dan Majerle growing up. When Grand Canyon University (GCU) signed Thunder Dan as their head basketball coach and moved to Division 1, it was a big get. Just curious if you have gotten the chance to meet Dan?

Ha! I was a huge fan of the Phoenix Suns in the 90’s with Thunder Dan. He is a huge name in Phoenix and was a huge hire for GCU and he has really brought a lot to the basketball program as well as attention to the University. I have gotten to know Dan. He is a really great guy and our offices used to be right next to each other. He would always find time to say hello to my kids and shoot around with my son Stevie. Interesting fact about Dan is that he has a 4:30 Mile PR from college. Which is very impressive for a 6’6” 230lb guy.

Grand Canyon University is a for-profit Christian university and the only for-profit institution at the Division 1 level, does that create any hurdles when recruiting athletes to GCU? Is the religious aspect of the school a factor for kids who ultimately decide to run for GCU?

 It definitely makes our school unique in how our school is run. But it is just for tax purposes but if you are on campus you wouldn’t’ see any differences in how we are run compared to a nonprofit university. Being for profit has not been a hurdle for recruiting. About half the recruits know we are for profit and the ones that do know it doesn’t seem to matter in their decision making.  Our biggest hurdle is that we are a new University and not a lot of people know who we are and what we are trying to do.

We have several athletes initially interested in the religious aspects of the school and it is a big selling point in coming to GCU.

With the school being located in Phoenix, how do you manage running in the heat, are all the practices early in the morning and do you have to move workouts indoors when it gets really hot?

 Heat is a factor in Phoenix but really only for about a month at the beginning of the school year (August/September) and the last month of the year (May). From October to April, I’ll argue we have the best running weather in the country. Not many places in the US can you run in t-shirt and short in January. In the first month of school we will practice early in the morning and as it gets cooler we will push practice back. We never move practice indoors. In the mornings the temperature will be 30degrees cooler. We train in the morning in the fall and the afternoons in the spring. Training in the heat makes you tougher.

Having run and worked with Coach Wetmore, what did you take away from him in terms of coaching style and what do you do differently?

 I was very lucky to work with such an amazing college coach and I truly believe a lot of my success in college came from his coaching and guidance. In terms of coaching style, Coach Wetmore is always calm. I don’t remember ever hearing him raise his voice or get flustered or stressed in any situation.  No matter if you are at the Olympic Trials or a rust buster on our home track he would have a plan, and made you feel confident and calm about the plan. He was also very truthful. He didn’t sugar coat things.

I try to also be calm with my athletes. However, unlike Wetmore who in races usually finds a distant corner on the track or race course to watch his athlete’s race and tell them cues, I tend to be a little more vocal and get a bit more excited and like to yell for them.

Let’s talk parenting, you and Steve have two young children, it’s probably a safe assumption that they have the genetics to be great runners. Have you guys thought about how you’ll approach running with your children and has Steve already built a steeple water jump in the backyard?

Ha! That’s funny. No, we haven’t built a steeple in our backyard yet. Yes, our kids have genes of two high level running parents. However, we don’t really want to push running on our kids. We want Stevie and Cali to try a lot of different activities and find what they enjoy doing. We don’t want them to specialize in anything until they are in high school. They both have a lot of energy so I am guessing it will be some sort high energy activity or sport (at least I hope so they aren’t bouncing off the walls at home). I don’t care if they are a soccer player or in the orchestra I just want them to find something they enjoy doing and to work hard to get better.

Sticking with youth development, you and Steve were elite runners going back to your high school days. Knowing what you know now, what things would you have done differently and/or what advice would you give to young kids who have elite talent at an early age?

I would say make it fun. Surround yourself with teammates and coaches that support you, push you but make your running enjoyable. If you enjoy what you are doing the hard work and many miles you put in won’t be work, you will look forward to it.

What type of strength work and injury prevention work is being done at GCU? How often are runners hitting the weights and can you tell us what type of lifting they do?

 We do quite a bit of injury prevention and strength work. We do prehab glute activation and dynamic flexibility exercises before every run. 4 Days a week we do general strength and core exercises after runs and twice a week we are in the weight room lifting. Our lifting is not complicated. We do some Olympic lifts as well as general exercises. Everything is working on getting our athletes stronger to handle the demands of distance running, work on posture and creat power.  

You are one of the few female head coaches at the Division 1 level. How do we encourage more women to get into coaching and why do you think so few women are willing to make that jump?

The last few years there has been a big change in sports. I think the tides are changing and there are quite a few more women in coaching. In the past, it was a predominately male field. I spoke on the Women in coaching panel at our USTFCCA Coaches Convention this year. At the NCAA’s in cross country, it set a record for the largest number programs with women’s coaches. More and more programs are hiring women. I think women are hesitant to make the jump into coaching because of the time and travel requirements and family obligations. Coaches are on the road almost every other weekend from September to June. Women are more often in charge of taking care of the family and they aren’t sure if they want to be away from their family that often.   I am very lucky because I have a very supportive Head Coach, Tom Flood, and Administration. Outside of practice, I work in the office two days a week and I work from home the other days. I spend most nights working till 11 pm so I can spend the days with my kids.

Looking at last season’s schedule, GCU had raced in Flagstaff, Tucson, Louisville, Mesa, Santa Clara, Las Cruces and Seattle. Tell us about traveling and which meets are you flying to, are you taking the entire team and how do the runners balance the travel with missing class time?

We fly to most races out of state. The only meet we didn’t during XC season was Las Cruces because it was only a 5-hour bus ride. The in-state meets(NAU, UofA, and Mesa) we are able to take the full team to. For the out of state meets we typically take 7-9 Men and 7-9 Women. We travel athletes based on how they are performing and try to take the best 7-9 individuals to those races and prepare them for our championship races (Conference, Regionals, and Nationals). We are typically gone for two days and our athletes are very good at balancing their race travel with school work. Our academic team alerts professors when we are traveling. If an athlete misses a test we can proctor the tests or they can reschedule it before or after they return from our trip. As a student-athlete, you learn quickly how to manage your time well and plan ahead.

Where are you at personally with your own running? Are you still training at a high level and do you have any personal running goals for the future?

 The first year I started coaching I trained for the Olympic Trials Marathon and ran the A standard (32:13) in the 10K on the track. The next fall I attempted my first marathon at CIM (I got strep throat and wasn’t able to finish the marathon). Since December 2016 I haven’t been training for a race. I still ran most days but wanted to take a break and put more time into my coaching. With the New Year, I really craved having a running goal again but wanted to have a goal I could balance with Coaching. My goal is to break 4:50 in the mile and be able to help pace my girls in workouts and races.

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