Ann Arbor — Don Sleeman is still going strong in his 50th year of coaching cross country and track at Ann Arbor Pioneer, working hard to help young men reach their goals.
Sleeman, who will turn 80 this fall, guided Pioneer’s boys team to the Division 1 state cross country championship in 2017 at Michigan International Speedway.
Sleeman retired long ago as a teacher at Pioneer and has said the last decade that he was ready to step down from coaching, only to return again and again.
Sleeman was in the Air Force from 1956-60 and spent a couple of years in the Peace Corps (1965-66) before starting his teaching and coaching career.
“People have long been asking me, ‘How long are you staying?’ I go, ‘Every year is my last year,’ but I’ve been saying that the last 10 years,” Sleeman said. “I just like working with the kids. I’ve got kids who are phenomenal. My cross country teams academically are one of the best teams in the state every year. They are really smart kids, just involved in a lot of things.”
Sleeman was asked how kids have changed in the decades he has been coaching.
“I don’t think it’s the kids who have changed, it’s the stuff around them that has changed,” Sleeman said. “We have more technology and there’s more distractions, and with all the negative things that can happen to a kid there’s that greater sense of we’ve got to protect them. But at the same time what happens is they become more dependent on adults, more dependent on their parents.
“One of the things I try to do is make everybody understand that once you get older, especially by the time you’re a senior, you need to start making some of your own decisions, start thinking about how you’re going to do things and why you’re going to do things and that’s been a bit of a change. But the kids themselves have pretty much been the same as they’ve always been.”
Sleeman has built a family-type atmosphere in his programs and that’s why he’s proud of how the kids bond together, not break away in classes or by age group.
“I have kids that from freshmen to seniors, they’re all buddies with one another and all get along because we don’t have any of these attitudes where they get separated by class,” Sleeman said. “They all just hang together and (junior) Nick (Foster) is one of the greatest guys for that, just gets along with everybody. He helps out the special-needs kids, interacts with the ninth and 10th graders. He’s just a super kid.”
Foster won the individual title with a time of 15 minutes, 16.1 seconds in the Division 1 state meet last fall to help Pioneer earn the team title. He had an incredible improvement from the previous year when he ran the course in 16 minutes.
“The biggest thing that I’ve seen with Coach is how he tries to get guys on board with him and trust in his training and the whole process,” Foster said of Sleeman. “He does a good job of getting us to understand you have to work every day, run every day to reach your goals. I started running every day, ran a lot more miles last summer every day and progressively got better and learned more about racing and everything came together for me.”
Sleeman enjoys seeing his runners’ reactions once they get a personal best time or do their part to help the team come out on top.
“We had a great fall and the guys were working hard,” Sleeman said. “They did everything right, but I’ve been there when you do everything right and still don’t win. We knew we could win, but we weren’t cocky or anything like that.
“The thing that made us such a great team last fall was not that I had five guys that on every occasion those five guys were so dominant that they beat everybody. We had seven, maybe eight guys who were running really well together and strong together, and the top five kept changing.”
Pioneer defeated Plymouth by a 107-110 margin to assure Sleeman at least one state title in each of the last four decades, including the school’s first cross country state championship since 2008. Sleeman also guided Pioneer to cross country state championships in 1987, 1990, 1993 and 1994, and a track title in 2007.
“My seventh man all year long, (senior) Phil (Valtadoros) ended up being my fifth man at state and he passed a ton of people and it was his single best race he’s ever had,” Sleeman said. “John Florence, he got a slow start and he was buried, could hardly find him. But somewhere around the two-mile mark he was passing people, and he passed people right down to the end. If he hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have won.”
Florence, a junior, was Pioneer’s third man in the state, placing 25th overall with a time of 16:11. Foster was state champ with senior Aldo Pando-Girard finishing 20th at 15:59.1.
Senior Jack Wallace placed 26th (16:12) after having trouble breaking 18 minutes at the start of the season.
Sleeman talked with pride on the improvement of Wallace, saying: “Jack stunk at the beginning of the season and he knows it. He didn’t run all summer, but once we got to the state meet he ran the most solid race he’s ever run in his life.”
Said Wallace: “I’ve learned to think about things in long-term ways. It’s easy to think I have the potential and I can run fast right now, but it’s really about the long term and how much work you put in consistently.”
No doubt, Sleeman loves running, just ask his former assistant coach Chris Westfall, who has been the head football coach at Ypsilanti Lincoln the last decade.
“I coached the throwers for him for a year or two and then the sprinters back in the early 2000s,” said Westfall, a 1993 graduate of Pioneer. “His love for track and running is unbelievable and he’ll talk your ear off about it since that’s his life.”
Sleeman will never forget the role James Wade played in Pioneer’s 2007 track championship.
Wade was a member of Pioneer’s winning 800, 1,600 and 3,200 relay teams, and he also placed second in the 400.
“He ran that all in one day, just an amazing performance,” Sleeman said. “How many kids can run an 800, come back to a 200, then a 400 and then another 400?”
Sleeman is just as proud talking about the improvements some runners make at Pioneer.
“Don McLaughlin came here as a freshman and could hardly walk, let alone run, an asthmatic,” Sleeman said. “As a freshman I got him to the point where he could run some miles. After a whole year of training he ran about a 5:20 mile and I have eighth graders who can do that. As a sophomore, he just kept running, never stopped running, and he got on the varsity in cross country and he was 184th in the state. He got down to 4:40 in the mile that sophomore year in track.
“Don improved so much his junior year in cross country that he placed 10th at state, then qualified for state finals in the mile in track with a 4:24. His senior year, he got fourth in the state in cross country when we won it in 1993. He ran a 9:20 in the two mile and got third at state later that spring, just an incredible improvement.”