Guy Thibodeau sat in his office at Juneau-Douglas High School on Monday surrounded by memories of the past.
Pictures and memorabilia from his three Juneau-Douglas state team cross-country titles and countless regional championships are scattered in a way only possible after 35 years of coaching. When Thibodeau announced at the beginning of the school year that 2010 would be his last season as coach of the Crimson Bears, he knew he’d be able to look back with pride on his career and the mark he made as a student, coach and teacher at his hometown school. But it wasn’t the championships or personal records that drove him so much as it was the kids he had the pleasure of coaching.
“Seeing the success of a lot of the athletes we’ve had who have gone on to become really good, contributing members of their communities — that’s happening with our kids all over the place,” Thibodeau said. “They’re still involved with running and do a lot in their communities. So it’s nice to keep up to see what other athletes are doing.”
Thibodeau was given an award by the team during his last season. On the award was a message he said epitomized the very mindset he’d hoped to instill in the hundreds, even thousands, of athletes whose paths have crossed his own.
“They made a little award for me in cross-country last year, but I hadn’t read it in a while. My daughter, who was home visiting for a couple of days, was reading it last night and said, “This is really nice what they wrote,’” Thibodeau said.
His eyes wandered around the room, as if searching for the words through memories hanging on the wall or laying in boxes around the room.
“‘He inspired us to love running and taught us to love each other,’” he said, repeating the words his student-athletes wrote to him. “That they care for each other, are genuinely concerned and are in it for everybody — they try to do their best for the team in that respect.
“Part of being a selfless person is putting out your best effort, and the growth kids have from that is the point I’ve always tried to get across.”
The 60-year-old Thibodeau has seen his share of kids come and go, but he hopes the lessons he taught will always stick with them.
“You just wonder how you can still be so lucky to get new kids in, but it’s nice to have such great parents who keep working with these kids and bringing them along,” he said. “Still, you wonder who’s going to take their places, then all these other folks keep coming along. When they’re freshmen you feel like they’re going to be there a long time, then they’re gone pretty soon thereafter. But it’s always great to see the turnover.”
Thibodeau said his love for running came at the expense of another sport when he was young, fortunately for those who have been privileged enough to have learned under his tutelage.
“I got pulled into running as a training device for basketball. A lot of us grew up in Juneau as a basketball player, so everybody ran cross-country in those days as training, and the best of us continued on with it,” he said. “I found out I was a much better runner than I was a basketball player.”
After graduating JDHS in 1969, Thibodeau left the state to compete at the collegiate level in both skiing and running. He spent a year at Seattle Community College before moving on to Western State, where he was a part of a highly-successful ski team that featured a number of Olympic athletes, he said. Thibodeau then returned to Juneau to start a career that has now come to an end 35 years later.
Thibodeau got his start at JDHS as the team’s head track coach, but before too long knew he wanted to expand his horizons. His path took him to UAF as an assistant ski coach in the late 1970s and then to the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he earned his master’s degree and coached the ski team as an assistant coach with the Buffaloes. From there he became the head ski coach at Northern Michigan University in 1980 and found quite a bit of success in the process.
“Before coming back to Juneau, my focus was pursuing college coaching and where that would take me. That was an interesting and rewarding experience to be in the recruiting part of it and work with kids that are getting closer to the national team, some Olympic athletes and a lot of foreign athletes who come over here and teach these kids a lot of things,” Thibodeau said. “I had great experiences with that so I hadn’t thought about coming back to Juneau, especially when I went to Northern Michigan. That was a head coaching job in a different part of the country.
“But it was different kind of place. I was coaching a ski team with no mountains around,” he continued. “It’s a different animal there in the Midwest, especially where skiing is concerned.”
But after one year in Michigan he said he felt it was time to get back to Alaska. Thibodeau spent a year outside of coaching during his return to Juneau in 1980, but that didn’t last long. In 1981, he decided to get back into doing what he loved and became the cross-country running and skiing coach at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where he stayed the next nine years. Still, Thibodeau said he wanted to be back in Juneau, this time as a teacher as well. So he and his wife of 28 years, Linda, made their way back home for good.
“My wife and I are both from Juneau, and we thought if we were getting into the school system we’d like to be here in Juneau,” he said. “I came back as an elementary school P.E. teacher and spent about 10 years doing that.”
Thibodeau began his teaching career at Gastineau Elementary School and spent some time at Captial Elementary as well before moving to Auke Bay Elementary during the latter half of the 1990s. Before returning to Juneau-Douglas in the 2000, Thibodeau had gained experience as a coach and teacher several different levels.
“It was nice to have the position open up and I was able to come in. After teaching for a few years at a certain level it’s nice to have a change of scenery to work with a different group,” he said. “Working with elementary kids was so great because they were so excited, then the high school kids, you have to work with them in a different way. So it was nice to have that change and that different challenge.”
That challenge was met, and then some. Not only has he been a successful educator, but his track record as a coach speaks for itself. By his count, the Crimson Bears haven’t lost the regional cross-country meet in about two decades, but he still remembers the last time they did.
“My first year coaching we had our boys’ team down in Wrangell and they beat us for the Southeast title in 1975. That’s the only time that I’ve coached we didn’t win the conference,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate enough — we won one year by one point. We barely held off Ketchikan who had a really good squad. We just happened to get them here, but that was a close finish.
“I think it would have been nice to have them win one year because when you haven’t won it means so much more to you (to win),” he said, smiling. “But we’re definitely not giving it to them.”
Thibodeau has spent much of his life in Juneau, and he has seen the progress Juneau’s running community has made since he started the Taku Striders running club in the 1970s. He said while that group lacked organization and continuity — it ceased to exist after he left the state — seeing groups like the Southeast Road Runners is rewarding. Recently, the club and president, as well as former student under Thibodeau, Tristan Knutson-Lombardo, presented him the Guy Thibodeau Contributions to Running Award for all he’s done for the sport in the community. But the now former Bears coach continued to focus on the impact clubs like SERR have made on the youth of the city.
“When I was a kid we had only one race in town, and that was the Douglas two-mile. You’d go out and run that on the Fourth of July, but now it’s more of a participation thing,” he said. “That growth has been pretty exponential. The focus is good that it’s recreational, gives kids experience and exposes them to running and keeps them thinking about doing that for a lifetime.
“Kids that want to excel can go as far as they want.”
Thibodeau said he also plans on retiring from teaching within the next year, and as for his plans for the future, he said he’s still trying to figure out what he’ll do with the free time. He will participate in the Sparkling Hill Masters World Cup at Sovereign Lake in British Columbia. But he said that’s only one thing on the list. He also said it’s a time where he can take advantage of time with his wife and his kids, Axel Thibodeau, 26, and Greta Thibodeau, 25. Axel is currently earning his master’s degree in mechanical engineering, while Greta has earned her nursing certificate and has about a year and half left in school.
“My wife would like me to figure out what else I’m going to do as far as working and activities. You want to have some kind of plan as far as what’s next, but for myself, I like fixing things up, house projects and remodels — that kind of thing,” he said. “I know I’ll be involved with some of that, whether it’s my kids’ houses or fixing something up and making that a project.”
And as he thought about the future of Juneau-Douglas cross-country and track, he said coaches Mary Ellefson, Janette Gagnon and Knutson-Lombardo have been and will continue to be great for the school. And as if he were talking to the future Crimson Bears runners, he assured them this program will not skip a beat.
“They’re in good hands with these coaches,” he said.