Penn track and field coach Steve Dolan finds himself in a unique position.
While most sports only compete during one season, Dolan oversees four different teams during all three competitive seasons as the leader of men's and women’s cross country in the fall, and men's and women’s outdoor and indoor track in the winter and spring, respectively.
This year, the outdoor season was cut short and the indoor season was entirely canceled. The fall season becomes the most recent in a long line of season cancellations. However, Dolan is rolling well with the punches.
“We’re undefeated on the season right now,” Dolan said.
Dolan’s tenure as the Director of Track and Field and Cross Country at Penn has been transformational. In his nine years with the team, Dolan has been a five-time unanimous Ivy League Coach of the Year, leading the Quakers to a total of five Ivy League team championships and 52 program records broken under his supervision.
This year marks Dolan’s 29th year of college coaching, though coaching was never his initial plan. Dolan was a business major as an undergraduate at the University of St. Thomas and wanted to get into the business side of sports, whether collegiate or professional. It wasn’t until he was in graduate school that he realized he wanted to become a coach.
“I was working on getting my masters in athletic administration, and I got a graduate assistant position that helped me fund my master's degree,” Dolan said. “I actually fell in love with coaching as a graduate assistant.”
Dolan was a multisport athlete in high school and college. Growing up, he participated in virtually every sport — football, basketball, baseball, and track and field — and in college, he found success in the decathlon, a combination of ten different track and field events.
“It was a really great stepping stone to coaching, because [trying] most of the events in track and field and [competing] in them gave me an appreciation and understanding of all the different events, and got me very enthusiastic about the sport at large,” Dolan said. “So I’ve always felt my interest in all different parts of the sport has been very helpful for me.”
Success has followed Dolan everywhere he’s gone. He was first the Director of Men's and Women's Track and Cross Country at the Division III College of New Jersey for 11 years, where he coached five NCAA champions, before coaching at Princeton. While at Princeton, he coached Donn Cabral to both the NCAA title in the steeplechase and an eighth place finish at the Olympics.
Cabral will likely not stand alone as one of Dolan’s athletes who would compete at the Olympics. From Penn alone, many athletes have already made marks or times which would earn them a place at the Olympic trials, including Penn alumna Nia Akins, who currently holds the second-fastest 800-meter time in all of NCAA history.
Donahue believes that there are several athletes on his team who will have a good shot at the Olympics, as well as a few more who have already graduated and are still training.
“The pinnacle of our sport is the Olympic Games. The whole world aspires to compete at that level. I’ve had the unique opportunity to coach athletes who’ve made the Olympic trials and Olympics,” Dolan said. “[Coaching at the 2012 Olympic Games] was a really fun, cool ride and experience as a coach.”
However, coaching a team like Penn’s is not a one-person job. Dolan is sure to emphasize the roles that other coaches play in the success of the team. Dolan primarily coaches the middle-distance and distance runners, along with assistant coach Matt Gosselin. Assistant coach Joe Klim coaches the pole vault, high jump, and multi-event athletes, while Jeff Pflaumbaum works with all the throwers. Two former assistant coaches at Penn — Porscha Dobson and J.J. Hunter — have gone on to receive head coaching jobs elsewhere.
“I’m not responsible for this. I might be the director of track, but I have a great staff of coaches who work with me. This couldn’t happen without each of them taking leadership and doing a great job,” Dolan said. “We try to get the very best technical coaches and high-character coaches and let them coach.”
With the sheer scope of the team, both participating and coaching track and field is different from many other sports. Across all four teams, Dolan oversees around 115 athletes, which is celebrated under the umbrella of the Penn track and field family, rather than viewed as an additional difficulty.
Track and field is also, for many of the athletes and coaches, a year-round activity, from cross-country, to outdoor, to indoor, and to summer recruiting.
“We’ve accepted that this is a lifestyle. It’s more than just a season. If you’re going to be the best track and field athlete you can be...it’s a year-round pursuit,” Dolan said. “It’s a lot, but it’s also something we enjoy. We have this slogan on our team: have fun chasing your potential.”
As for the recent success of the team, Dolan has another slogan: success breeds success.
“As the team accomplished more, they kept believing more in themselves and set their goals higher. As we did better, more high-achieving student-athletes wanted to join the team,” Dolan said. “It’s been every year, just a little more, a little more, in terms of people to make the NCAAs, for people to compete at the USA championships level, people to win an Ivy League title.”
Throughout his nearly three decades as a head coach, Dolan has seen success at three different institutions, including coaching an athlete in the Olympics. Still, he has remained consistent with his coaching vision and philosophy.
“Hopefully I’ve gotten better as I’ve gotten older, but I think the core value of how I’ve coached is the same now as it was 28 to 29 years ago, in terms of hard work, high character, [and] encouraging every athlete to chase their potential across all event groups,” Dolan said. “The core things I’ve believed in a long time ago are still what I try to do.”
He shares his success with other coaches, as well as the athletes themselves. In the midst of the pandemic, Dolan says that he owes a lot to the resilience and commitment of the athletes. With Penn’s rich track and field history and legacy of academic success, Dolan views the athletes as uniquely driven.
“My job’s not that hard,” Dolan said. “I’m just helping people do what they already want to do anyways.”
During last year’s indoor season, school records were falling every single meet. Penn track and field is chock-full of Olympic hopefuls across all different events who are looking to compete this coming winter and spring.
Despite a pandemic and season cancellations, a golden era of Penn track and field is still upon us.
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