When Andrew Wheating arrived at his first high school practice at Portland Madison last fall, it didn't sink in that he was a coach until teenagers starting asking him rapid fire questions.
Can I do this after practice?
How many miles am I doing?
Hey coach, why does this hurt?
"It was really weird to tell you the truth," said Wheating, 30, an Olympian and former University of Oregon great who retired in January after seven years as a professional runner with the Oregon Track Club Elite. "The first couple of days of practice, while the head coach addressed the team, we would then split off and do our thing. And kids would start asking me questions. I would nod my head. Who me? Oh yeah, I'm a coach. I totally forgot.
"The athlete to coach transition," he added. "It took me a little while."
But there's a sense that Wheating, an assistant with the Senators, is already making a difference. Just weeks into the spring season, on April 4, the Madison boys won the DMR at the Portland Interscholastic League Relays in 11:27.61.
While it didn't set any national records, the performance was an indication of the team's growth after finishing last at the PIL Class 6A-1 District Cross Country Championships in October.
And it was one more example why Wheating's work with the program -- he works in tandem with head coach Ryan Keene, a former collegiate steeplechaser -- isn't going unnoticed, either.
Every day, Wheating says, he hears from high school athletes on how their passions are evolving.
"Sometimes we mention runners [like Matt Centrowitz] at practice," Wheating said. "And these kids go home and look them up. That's heartwarming because they're learning that coming out here isn't just about running. They're starting to enjoy it. They want to know about the sport and they're starting to love what they're doing. It tells me these kids want to get better."
Who wouldn't want an Olympian coaching them, too?
Wheating's personal history is well-known inside the insular community of track and field. A virtual unknown from the New Hampshire prep school Kimball Union Academy before he enrolled at Oregon, Wheating made the Beijing Olympics in 2008 for Team USA team just three years after seriously investing into the sport at 800 meters.
He eventually raced at the 2011 World Championships, competed against the world's best athletes over the ensuing years, and lowered his personal bests in the 800m down to 1:44.56 and 3:30.90 in the 1500m. Injuries sidelined him at points in his career before he decided to hang up the spikes, but his career will go down as one of the most memorable within Team USA.
Coaching wasn't a foreign concept to him. The Vermont native had been thinking about it for some time and believes there's a future in this for him, whether it's at the high school, college or individual level.
He says he values all the insight he's gained over the years from some of the most respected minds in running -- Jeff Johnson, Vin Lananna, and Mark Rowland -- and wants to find a place to instill all that knowledge.
Coaching in high school was a good start.
"I felt it was right to give back," he said. "I wanted to help (Madison) become something, so I started working with that mentality. But then it shifted quick to, 'I'm working with kids and my goal is just to help them appreciate the sport a little more."
Upon his first introduction to Madison, most of the team knew of Wheating, who stands at 6-foot-5, and what kind of runner he was, but most were shy to approach him until a few days later.
"That wore off pretty quickly and everyone started treating me as a coach," he said.
What was harder figuring out was the dynamics of high school coaching. Wheating realized early what he needed to do to make an impact with the program.
"You have to start with phase one and teach them how to walk," he said. "You can't throw a form and hurdle drill at a kid right off the bat, because a lot of these kids don't understand what that means. You kind of have to tell them how to enjoy the sport and insist that running in circles can be entertaining and fun."
Wheating isn't the only Olympian coaching high school sports, either.
His entrance follows that of another well-known distance runner and Olympic marathoner, Ryan Hall, who joined University Prep in California this past fall.
Elite level athletes coaching in the high school ranks are scattered across the country. Former Cameroonian sprinter Claude Toukene is in Virginia, two-time Olympian from Canada, Nate Brannen, is in Ohio and Trinidad & Tobago Olympic great Ato Boldon is coaching a few elite athletes in Florida. Those are just to name a few.
Wheating says he isn't sure how long he'll coach in high school, but that he's interested in continuing within the industry at some level.
He's currently working on various projects in Portland and says "at some point, I may have a job where I have to make that priority one and that might take away from coaching a team like this, but until that happens, I'm happy with where I'm at."
For the time being, he's still learning his place within the program and still learning how to be a coach.
He says he feels inspired watching young athletes turn running into a full-fledged passion.
"I have just as much fun going to practice as these kids do," Wheating said. "I'm a 15-year-old at heart."
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Contact MileSplit National Producer Cory Mull by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @bycorymull