Tom Heinonen may not tell you himself, but around 30 years ago, he was the leading force behind one of the most successful women’s cross country programs in the NCAA.
He not only led the Oregon women’s cross country team to qualifying for the NCAA championships meet 24 times, but they won the team title twice. His team also won the NCAA track and field championships in 1985 and Heinonen was named NCAA Coach of the Year on two separate occasions. His athletes made 17 Olympic appearances and set three American records.
Heinonen served as the head coach for the Oregon women’s track and field and cross country programs for 27 years, and is now going on his 14th year as head coach of the University of Oregon Running Club.
“I think some of the older ones, and some of them that are more involved with running know what I did in my other life,” Heinonen said. “But most of them have no idea. Once in a while I say ‘oh, I coached over on the other side of the fence for 28 years,’ but most of them — they’re 18-years-old, they’re freshmen. They don’t know anything about U of O history, let alone women’s track history.”
It’s not often that a club coach is also a former NCAA Coach of the Year, but Heinonen is not one to boast.
“That’s the thing about Tom; he doesn’t tell you that,” sophomore running club athlete Kylen Fleishman said. “He’s humble to the point of being anonymous about it. I didn’t really know anything about him until one of my friends mentioned that he had coached [two] women’s teams to a national titles, which is kind of insane when you really think about it.”
While some running club athletes are surprised to hear about Heinonen’s illustrious coaching career, other are completely aware.
“I definitely knew,” said sophomore Tia Hatton. “I personally was going to go run at different division I schools — that was one of my main goals in choosing a school. But basically having Tom as a coach and having the running club available really cinched the deal for me to come to U of O and not be running on a division I team.”
Since transitioning from being a high-octane division one coach, Heinonen has settled into a more relaxed environment.
“With the running club, it’s entirely different,” Heinonen said. “I don’t feel any pressure of expectation and really, I’ve made it that way. I’ve just said ‘I’m not being paid, I’m doing this because it’s fun.’ If it’s not fun, I won’t do it. If it’s not fun for them, I won’t do it. So the goal, really, has just been to make it joyful for everybody and it’s ended up being pretty rewarding.”
Heinonen takes pride in making sure that the running club is a welcoming community for any and all athletes to join. He takes it upon himself to remember names and get to know all of his runners. He doesn’t care if someone is an elite runner, he just cares that they’re enjoying themselves in the process.
“I don’t know anyone who’s felt uncomfortable after their first day of running club,” Fleishman said. “There’s some people apprehensive before they get there. They’re like ‘oh, do I have to compete, or is the coach going to not let me run if I’m not fast enough?’ And then they meet Tom and they’re instantly acclimated to the club persona.”
This year will mark Heinonen’s 41st season of coaching responsibilities on the University of Oregon campus. The only difference between this year and Heinonen’s first: He’s now doing it purely out of habit, and for the joy of giving back to the running community.
“I’m lucky enough to spend my post-career career doing the parts of the sport that are just fun for me,” Heinonen said. “Meeting college kids every single day with no pressure and just the joy of being around them.”
Follow Kylee O’Connor on Twitter @kyleethemightee