Passing the baton: the athletes

? Veteran track and field coach Rex Wilson coached countless athletes during his tenure at Marion

Rex Wilson received a lifetime achievement award at the 2015 Kansas Track and Field Championships in recognition of 55 years of coaching. Wilson, who has announced his retirement, spent 51 of those years at Marion, where he has coached track in various capacities since 1964. Free Press File Photo

While coaching techniques of track and field was Rex Wilson?s job, mentoring athletes was his goal.

Over a career spanning five and a half decades, Wilson accumulated many stories?of successes, failures and life lessons.

?It seems like I?ve coached a million athletes,? he said. ?Every one of them was a story.?

One successful athlete Wilson coached early on was five-time state champion Gary Melcher.

?He turned out to be one of the three or four best athletes I ever coached,? Wilson said. ?I got to start with him as a freshman (and coach him) all four years.?

In 1968, Melcher won state in both the discus and the shot put with distances of 161 feet, 6 inches and 54-111?4, respectively. In the javelin, Melcher said his first throw landed out of bounds?there was a crosswind?and he failed to make the finals. Wilson helped him regain composure.

?He didn?t get mad at me,? Melcher said. ?He knew I was upset because I didn?t perform very well and said the things that helped me refocus for my other two events.?

Melcher?s performance his junior year provided motivation for his senior campaign. In 1969, Melcher swept the throws with three first place medals at state, winning the discus (161), the javelin (214-2) and the shot put (55-113?4) and distinguishing himself as one of only three athletes in the history of Kansas track and field to do so.Gary Melcher, pictured here as a high school senior in 1969, was a five-time state champion coached by Rex Wilson at Marion. During his senior campaign, Melcher won gold medals at state in the discus, javelin and shot put, becoming one of just three athletes in the state of Kansas to accomplish the feat. 1969 MHS yearbook, Marion City Museum

As a team, Marion was just one point away from winning the state title that year.

Melcher described Wilson as someone who had a calming presence.

?I really don?t remember him ever getting upset,? Melcher said. ?He always seemed like he had a game plan for everything and was going to follow it. His feathers never would get ruffled.?

Melcher said Wilson was a motivator and encouraged athletic excellence, but at the same time put things in perspective and invested in his athletes? lives.

?He cared about you,? he said. ?He was more concerned with you as a person than only a track and field athlete.?

A track coach himself, Melcher is entering his 43rd year of coaching at El Dorado High School. He still holds the Marion school record in the shot put (58-63?4), which he set at the league meet in 1969.

?I have the utmost respect for (Wilson),? Melcher said. ?Just like I (am) thankful that I grew up in Marion, I?m thankful that I had the opportunity to compete for him and be trained by him. It?s an honor.?

While Wilson has coached many athletes, he said a few in addition to Melcher stick out in his mind.

Those include throwers Don Bredemeier and Bill Griffith; sprinter Leann Snelling; state champion discus thrower Cindy Friesen; sprinter Jack Loomis, who anchored the school record and state champion 4×400 relay and won the 100, 200 and 400 races at state in the early 1970s and holds the school record in the 100 (10.8); and Kristy Herbel, who holds the school record in the discus (142-10).

Transition time

When Wilson first started coaching, Marion had a dirt track, which was later changed to rock.

Wilson and his family spent hours on evenings and weekends maintaining it, and as time went on, burnout began to take hold.

The work and time commitment had become too much, prompting Wilson to step down as head coach. Still, he volunteered his time working with athletes at the track.

In the mid- to late 1980s, Wilson was hired back on to coach throwers, first under Jerry Smith and then under current head coach Grant Thierolf.

Thierolf described Wilson?s coaching style this way:

?Most people would say it?s pretty laid back, but there is an intensity there that?s underneath all of those layers,? he said. ?It?s about doing it right, it?s about competing hard, and it?s about competing fairly. If you do all those things, then he?s going to be happy with whatever the outcome is.?

2015 season

Wilson closed his coaching career by sending three of his throwers to the Kansas Track and Field Championships in Wichita.

At state, senior Kyle Palic finished fifth in the discus (149-5) and 12th in the shot put (45-9).

Junior Kristen Herzet placed fifth in the discus (119-3), while freshman Tyler Palic finished 10th in the discus (135-11). Both Herzet and Tyler Palic turned in personal-best performances.

?It was great to have two of them get on the award stand and have a young kid have a personal best,? Wilson said. ?About as good as you can get.?

Wilson, who received a lifetime achievement award during the meet, said with a laugh that his ?inability to sprint around? was another reason it was time to retire. Herzet, he said, was the primary one to loan him a shoulder.

?All season, I was his crutch,? Herzet said. ?He put his hand on my shoulder and we walked everywhere. We packed lunches for him, and we sat and we ate together. He was like my grandpa.?

Kristen Herzet launches the discus at the 2015 Kansas Track and Field Championships. Herzet threw a personal-best 119 feet, 3 inches to place fifth overall.  Free Press File PhotoHerzet spoke of Wilson?s calm demeanor.

?Overall, he?s pretty laid back,? she said. ?He doesn?t get upset, hardly ever. The only thing he gets upset about is laziness.?

She, too, talked about Wilson?s genuine care for his athletes.

?Obviously, he loves the sport, but he loves the kids,? she said.

When asked what he will do with his time now that he has retired, Wilson said he will continue to attend Marion sporting events. But he admitted, come spring, it will be different.

?I was just thinking about it, after Grant and I had our little visit about me stepping down, that 60 of the last 61 years, I?ve spent the spring at the track?a good amount of time every day,? he said, adding that the one year he missed was during his fifth year of college as a result of switching majors from physical education to math.

?That will be different.?

Wilson said the success that he found and the dedication of his athletes kept him going throughout his storied career, as well as the support of his wife, Margaret. The couple will celebrate 55 years of marriage this summer.

?I just kept having athletes coming that were willing to work hard enough to be good,? he said. ?That?s what it takes.

?I?ve had hundreds and hundreds of parents that have been tremendously supportive and helpful and good friends, and the same way with students. It?s just been worth all of it.?

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