Right about the time Oregon track fans were hitting the panic button this summer following the departure of two popular assistant coaches and a handful of all-Americans for opportunities elsewhere, Helen Lehman-Winters was sitting in her Casanova Center office, in awe of her new work environment.
“I’d just go in and kind of laugh,” she said.
Opportunity, it seems, is all in the eye of the beholder, and Lehman-Winters is ready to make the most of hers.
After 15 years as the successful head coach of a distance-only program at the University of San Francisco, Lehman-Winters has relocated to Eugene to join Robert Johnson’s Oregon staff as associate head coach in charge of the women’s cross country and distance teams.
“I’m here and it’s incredible,” she said. “I’m really excited to start this chapter.”
The fourth-ranked Ducks will make their debut under Lehman-Winters at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Oregon XC Preview meet on Pre’s Trail in Alton Baker Park.
They’ll do so with a couple of powerhouse additions to the roster, as Oregon announced on Tuesday San Francisco transfers Weronika Pyzik and Isabelle Brauer have joined the team.
Pyzik, a senior from Bilgoraj, Poland, and Brauer, a junior from Stockholm, Sweden, were fifth and 15th, respectively, at the NCAA championship meet in 2017, helping the Dons finish second as a team.
Those two won't compete Thursday, but the Ducks will eventually lean on both to offset the loss of Katie Rainsberger and Lilli Burdon, Oregon’s top two runners from a season ago who followed former coach Maurica Powell to Washington. Rainsberger was fourth at the NCAA meet in 2016 when the Ducks won the national title. She was 14th and Burdon 21st at the championship meet last season.
Pyzik and Brauer join a team that already includes NCAA 1,500-meter champion Jessica Hull and 2017 all-American Carmela Cardama Baez, who was 34th at the NCAA meet.
Earlier this summer Oregon added fifth-year senior Phillippa Bowden from Bracknell, Great Britain, who has a 10,000 personal best of 32:33.10.
“I’m excited about the roster,” Lehman-Winters said. “It’s always unfortunate to lose athletes that you know would’ve been here, but I want people who are 100 percent all in, and if I have a group that is 100 percent all in, I know that we can be successful.”
Lehman-Winters was a winning coach on a limited budget and with a small staff at San Francisco, but still claimed six West Coast Conference women’s cross country titles. Along with last season’s runner-up finish at the NCAA meet, the Dons were sixth in 2016.
It was that success that intrigued Johnson as he set out on his coaching search.
“I want to be as respectful as possible, but it’s not a traditional distance or track place,” Johnson said. “So for her to accomplish what she accomplished there, it makes you take a step back and wonder what could she do at a place like Oregon?”
Lehman-Winters wondered the same thing, and so far, she likes what she’s seeing.
“The resources and the support … every day has been unbelievable,” she said. “It’s like a well-oiled machine. Everything is efficient, everything works smoothly. I think about how hard I had to work on so many things that really become obstacles to being good, those are removed.”
Many challenges remain, Lehman-Winters added, and plenty of work. Expectations — both from those inside and outside the program — are different at Oregon, as is the history of track and field in the community.
Lehman-Winters pointed out that former Oregon coach Tom Heinonen lives just around the corner from her house, and 1972 Olympian and 1973 Boston Marathon winner Jon Anderson lives just down the street.
While out on a run in the neighborhood with her daughter recently, Lehman-Winters struck up a conversation with a friendly stranger who was able to give her a quick history lesson on Oregon track and field.
The stranger? Nanci McChesney-Henry, widow of Oregon 5,000-meter record-holder Bill McChesney Jr.
“You realize how engrossed and intertwined the community is with the sport and the university,” Lehman-Winters said. “That’s pretty special.”
When Johnson hired Lehman-Winters, as well as new men’s associate head coach Ben Thomas, who is the men’s cross country and distance coach, he said both were told to not be afraid to “Come in and think big, dream big, dream outside of the box. And when you come up with these dreams, let’s sit down and talk about them and see if I can come up with a way to make those dreams a reality.”
He also said Lehman-Winters should remember where she came from, and remember what got her to Oregon.
No problems there, she said.
“Distance running is not easy,” Lehman-Winters said. “You have to be willing to struggle and be uncomfortable. You have to be hungry. I am really thankful for this opportunity, and I will make sure my athletes know I am thankful, and they should be too.”