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World-class coaching

Olympic couple inspires runners at Phillips Exeter

EXETER, N.H. -- This past summer Phillips Exeter Academy cross-country runner Laura Tabor ventured into a running store in Newburyport, and on the wall there was a poster of a female US Olympic distance runner. Tabor studied the poster and saw a familiar face, her new coach, Gwyn Coogan, who competed in the 10,000 meters at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

''That was pretty cool," recalled Tabor, a sophomore, of seeing her new coach get the Michael Jordan treatment. ''I mean it is definitely cool to know you are working with someone that has been to the Olympics and has that experience to give you."

Coogan, who took the reins of the very successful Phillips Exeter program from long-time coach Rick Parris this fall, is half of an Olympic couple that coaches at Exeter. Her husband, Mark, who ran the marathon at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, was an assistant coach on the boys' cross-country squad under head coach Dave Weber this season and will take over as head coach next season.

In the Coogans' first season of coaching, the Phillips Exeter boys and girls cross-country teams went a combined 17-1 and last Saturday both capped their campaigns by winning the New England Preparatory School Track Association Cross-Country Championship meet, the first time in school history that both teams had won the title in the same season.

The Coogans, who met while running for a post-collegiate club called Nike Boston, moved to Exeter, N.H., about a year ago, when Gwyn, who holds a doctorate in mathematics, took a job as a teacher at the prep school.

It also helped that the Coogans were familiar with the New England area. Gwyn is an alumna of Phillips Exeter (Class of 1983) and Mark, a two-time Globe All-Scholastic during his high school days at Bishop Feehan, hails from Attleboro. Although they had limited coaching experience -- Gwyn, 38, had never coached, and Mark, 37, had a brief stint as an assistant at Brown University -- both found the opportunity to coach cross-country appealing. Combined, the couple has competed in 11 World Cross Country Championships.

But in spite of their world-class credentials, both admit they were nervous about being part of such successful programs. The girls ''had won their division championship the last three years prior to this season," said Gwyn.

Mark, who was the first Massachusetts runner to break the four-minute barrier in the mile, experienced similar trepidation about his assistant's role. '' The boys' team is always very good. I was like, 'Wow, I'm just going to mess these kids up.' But then I would say, 'I'm an Olympian. I'm not going to mess them up. I'm going to help them.' "

For the most part the Coogans try to downplay their Olympic backgrounds; Gwyn said she rarely discusses it with her team. ''She never talks to us about it really," said Tabor, who finished fourth overall at New England, one place behind the team's top runner, Lauren Brady. ''She hasn't shared any stories or anything like that, but she can get you psyched up for a race because she knows what it feels like."

''I don't think we think of them as Olympians," said junior Matthew Smallcomb of West Newbury. ''They are just Gwyn and Mark."

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