Oct. 10, 2013
This story was first published in the September 2013 issue of Ski-U-Mah Magazine.
MINNEAPOLIS – Sarah Hopkins has to occasionally remind herself to "look back down the mountain" to remember how she got where she is today – leading the Minnesota women’s cross country team in her first season as head coach.
"Because they’re so goal-oriented, I tell my student-athletes all the time that they need to look back down the mountain to see how far they’ve come," Hopkins said. "I have to remind myself of that every now and again, too."
The 2013-14 season marks Hopkins’ first year at the helm of the Gopher women's cross country program, but she is far from entering unfamiliar territory. Hopkins, then Sarah Hesser, ran for former Minnesota head coach Gary Wilson as a student-athlete and served as a volunteer assistant for the past eight seasons. When Wilson retired last spring, he passed the reins to Hopkins.
"There are so many things I want to accomplish that are so exciting, but it’s important to look back every now and again," Hopkins said. "When I walked in the door in 2001 as a walk-on – a walk-on who probably belonged at a Division III school in terms of the time I had run – it’s crazy."
After a college career during which Hopkins captained both the cross country and track squads, the Minneapolis native had a planned fifth year of school to finish her honors thesis in child psychology. Wilson invited her to remain with the program as a volunteer assistant student-coach for the 2005-06 season, and she eagerly accepted – unaware she was beginning a coaching journey that would evolve into her dream job less than a decade later.
"I still have a poster of my senior year team in my office," Hopkins said. "I feel like that year was sort of a turning point for our program. We had a bunch of freshmen and sophomores that we really gung-ho, and the attitude and atmosphere were great. I could just tell that something cool was going to happen, and I didn’t want to leave at that point. I stayed for that first year not really knowing where it was going, but I loved it. Really, until then, I hadn’t thought about coaching as a career."
Hopkins remained at the U to complete her master’s degree in sport management and kinesiology and stuck with the program as Wilson’s assistant. Despite opportunities to build her career elsewhere, Hopkins always knew there was no other place for her. She and Wilson worked out a six-year plan for her to succeed him as head coach once he retired.
"Wilson was great about handing off more and more responsibilities to me as my career went on," Hopkins said. "The best thing is that I think it’s been a great transition for the girls. I tell them all the time, I came here partially because of Coach Wilson myself. Knowing that I’ve been here for their whole careers has really made it easier."
Hopkins could not say enough positive things about Wilson as a mentor, coach, friend and person.
"Wilson is one of those coaches that everyone has a huge amount of respect for," Hopkins said. "He does things the right way. He looks at coaching from a personal level, not just the wins and losses, x’s and o’s. He’s kind of a warm fuzzy guy.
"Letting me do more and more over the past eight years was a natural thing for him. He is the epitome of a mentor, always willing to bend over backwards to help someone succeed."
Last fall, as Hopkins navigated her final season as an assistant coach, another element was added to what would undoubtedly be a whirlwind year.
"I got engaged the week before the Griak last year," Hopkins said. "September was kind of a fun month with a lot of good, positive things happening. The pieces were falling into place."
Hopkins’ self-described type-A personality helped her successfully plan her wedding during the coaching transition. The former Sarah Hesser married Chris Hopkins, a former men’s basketball coach at Hamline University, in downtown Saint Paul, on August 2, 2013.
"There are a lot of little details that go into wedding planning, but having the job that I have, it was sort-of just another thing," Hopkins said. "I spend my life planning events and travel. It wasn’t as stressful as I thought it would be."
Hopkins' coaching duties and wedding planning collided this summer when Matt Bingle, Minnesota's director of women’s cross country and track and field, sent Hopkins to North Carolina to watch the USATF National Junior Olympic Track & Field Championships.
"The meet was literally the week before the wedding," Hopkins said. "I ran into a friend of mine who coaches at Oregon, and he said, 'aren’t you supposed to be reading wedding magazines or something?!' Everyone gave me a little grief for being on double-duty. The worlds collided at that point."
Naturally, the couple shared their wedding day with members of the Gopher cross country and track and field teams. About 25 student-athletes attended the Hopkins’ wedding ceremony.
Hopkins is happy and grateful to have Chris by her side as she embarks on her new role as head coach. Chris will undoubtedly be an asset to the program as Hopkins knows she will lean on him for support and bounce ideas off him.
"Not a lot of people really have an intimate knowledge of the daily operations of college athletics," Hopkins said. "It's really nice to have Chris around. It’s obviously not all about running because he comes from a different sport angle, but it’s nice to know he has an understanding of what’s going on because he’s been there."
Ultimately, Hopkins is certain she is exactly where she belongs. Next time she reminds herself to look back down the mountain, she’ll see even more great memories and proud moments. However, the view ahead and up the mountain is even more exciting.
"This has always been my dream job," Hopkins said. "I'm very excited to continue what Coach Wilson has built."
Mandy Hansen is an assistant athletic communications director at the University of Minnesota. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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