Hard work, persistence and dedication are the exact components that allowed Gary Gardner to coach for team U.S.A. in the 2012 London Olympic Games.
An alumnus of Keene State College, Gardner is a former track and field athlete and cross country runner for the Owls. He was a five-time All-New England standout during his time here.
Now entering his tenth year at the helm of UMass-Lowell’s Men’s Cross Country and Track and Field programs, Gardner recently earned a trip to the London Olympics as a coach to help guide former UMass-Lowell runner Ruben Sanca, 25, in the 5,000 meter run.
Gardner said he has been with Sanca since he recruited him out of O’Bryant High School in Boston, Mass. his senior year.
Once Sanca made the qualifying standard for the Olympics, he was chosen to run the 5,000 meter and with Sanca being chosen to represent the U.S.A. in the London Games, he was able to choose Gardner to be his personal coach. Gardner described the experience 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean as something that exceeded his every expectation.
“The experience was pretty incredible,” Gardner said. “Just walking around the village and the U.S. Olympic basketball dream team is walking around, Usain Bolt’s walking around and we got to meet Prince William and Prince Harry and Kate when they were in the village one day.”
Gardner said he even ate lunch everyday next to U.S. Olympic hero Michael Phelps.
“We had some company when some friends of ours from the States came over,” Gardner added. “Literally Michael Phelps came in and sat behind us which he did every single day. They’re like, ‘Oh my god, that’s Michael Phelps.’ I told them that it just became a normal thing. Looking back on it, it was a pretty incredible experience.”
Keene State College’s tenured men’s track and field and cross country coach Peter Thomas coached Gardner during his college career at KSC. Thomas was very influential to Gardner’s career both competitively as an athlete and in starting his successful career as a coach.
“I was a pretty mediocre high school runner,” Gardner said. “I wasn’t a good runner for the college level but coming to Keene State, Coach Thomas really took the time to work with me.”
Thomas said his relationship with Gardner was great and remains great as he described the UMass-Lowell coach as a highly motivated and focused runner.
“I had a great relationship with him. I love him,” Thomas said. He added, “But he was an athlete who became real good through work ethic. He looks for kids who are similar, who are tough minded and are willing to train hard.”
Thomas’s training techniques as a coach seemed to have rubbed off enough onto Gardner. For other coaches who have been around as long as Thomas, who’s been coaching at KSC since 1979, they started to believe the two were related.
Thomas added, “He is relentless in his pursuit of getting kids quite intense. You know, he reminds me of myself. Coaches who have been around long enough say, ‘Hey, how is your son doing?’”
The story of Gardner getting to the London Games had an underlying factor to it that most people never knew. According to Gardner’s wife, Caitlin Gardner, Gary Gardner’s relationship with his athlete, Ruben Sanca, is much more personal. Sanca came to UMass-Lowell the year the Gardner’s first son was born and Mrs. Gardner saw it as a special bond.
“The bond that Ruben also has with our family, it’s really beyond a player-coach,” Caitlin Gardner said. “He’s really like our third son.”
Gardner said that his relationship with his Olympic athlete was really something special.
“A lot of the Olympic coaches don’t have long standing relationships with their athletes,” Gardner said.
Gardner added, “Ruben and I have been working together for seven years. We took him from a good high school runner to an Olympic athlete. At the time that’s probably the most rewarding part.”
Thomas said that experience was great for everyone, not just Gardner and Sanca, “I was very proud of him. It’s very good for Keene State.”
Caitlin Gardner said her husband does not only mean a lot to the UMass-Lowell track and field program, but also to their family.
“He’s just so dedicated, he’s hard-working but beyond that he’s just a really caring and compassionate person,” she said. Caitlin Gardner added, “He’s a wonderful father, he’s a wonderful husband and he’s a truly amazing coach.”
Gardner said he wouldn’t rule out coming back to KSC for a future coaching career but complimented Thomas’s great work here at the school for so many years.
“We’ll see. Maybe when he retires. Maybe I’ll be ready for my second career and come back to Keene State,” Gardner said. He added, “I still have a lot of love for the area and a lot of love for the school. Hopefully when he retires I’m the first person they call so I can give a shot in consideration.”
Unfortunately, Ruben Sanca didn’t qualify for the 5,000 meter final during their time over in the London Games. But the player-coach duo haven’t ruled out attempting to get their place back to the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.
Dalton Charest can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org