Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 26
Wednesday, July 4, 2007
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DREAM TRIP: Princeton University women's track assistant coach Thomas Harrington takes a break on his climb up a portion of the Great Wall of China. Harrington, the former head coach of the Stuart Country Day track and cross country teams, was in China as part of the Princeton's recent 13-day journey to China which included stops in Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai. The motto for the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, "One World, One Dream" are set forth on a sign behind Harrington.

Former Stuart Track Coach Harrington Broadens Horizons on PU China Trip

Bill Alden

As Thomas Harrington trudged up a steep section of the Great Wall of China last month, it dawned on him how far he has come in his coaching career.

"I'm just a little country boy from outside Apex, North Carolina," said Harrington with a chuckle. "I've gone from Stuart Country Day to China."

Harrington, who just completed his second year as an assistant coach with the Princeton University women's track team, was in China as the program went on a historic 13-day tour of the country.

Deciding to go to China in the year before it hosts the 2008 Summer Games, the school sent 51 athletes who had earned their spot by scoring points in the Ivy League Heptagonal meet. The Tigers had meets in Beijing and Shanghai against Chinese college athletes.

For Harrington, the trip turned out to be the experience of a lifetime. "It was great," said Harrington, who was the head track and cross country coach at Stuart from the mid-1990s through the spring of 2005 and led the Tartans to four Prep B titles in track and five Prep B crowns in cross country.

"We are allowed to go on an international trip every four years and we are going to try to go to the host city for the Olympics one year prior to the games. It was motivation for our athletes this year and it's a great recruiting tool."

The long flight involved did give Harrington some pause. "I hate flying," said Harrington. "The longest flight I had been on was 3 hours and this was 13 hours. If there was a bridge to China, I would have driven it. I had to not think about it. I tried to sleep as long as I could but I have trouble sleeping more than six hours."

Upon exiting the plane, Harrington was met with a chilling scene. "You realized you were in a communist country right away," recalled Harrington, noting that Princeton's journey made it the first U.S. college or university team to ever compete against a Chinese college on Chinese soil.

"There were police all over the place when we got off the plane. There were police everywhere in the country but no guns. We only saw guns when a bank truck was making a pickup at our hotel. You got used to them, they blended into the country."

The police presence was minor irritation as the team received a warm welcome in each of their three stops, Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai.

"There were "Welcome Princeton Track" signs in each of the three cities we visited," said Harrington. "The meets were fantastic. There was a real camaraderie. Our athletes exchanged their Princeton China tour T-shirts with the Chinese athletes after each race."

With a busy touring schedule, the Princeton coaches had their athletes do most of their training early in the day. "We got our workouts out of the way in the morning," said Harrington. "We went to the track or the parks."

In the park workouts, the Princeton athletes supplemented their training by interaction with some more experienced athletes. "In China there is a mandatory retirement age, 55 for the women and 60 for the men," said Harrington.

"The country has set up a tremendous exercise program for them. They were doing tai chi, dancing, and singing. Some of the times we would join with their dances."

Harrington said the traveling party did get the chance to see different slices of Chinese life. "We saw the upscale China and we saw the Communist country," said Harrington, who noted that some of his favorite stops on the trip included the Great Wall, the Terra Cotta warriors site in Xian, and the visit to the Jinmao Tower in Shanghai, the tallest building in China. "We saw some places that were really run down, like some places looked after Katrina."

The trip helped the athletes reach a better understanding of each other. "It was a great bonding experience," said Harrington. "It was the longest that the men's and women's teams have ever been together. It was great hanging out like that."

The move up to Princeton has been great for Harrington professionally. "The biggest challenge was learning the college scene," said Harrington, noting that track preseason starts in late September with most of the athletes competing in both the indoor and outdoor seasons.

"An athlete is an athlete, I can coach anyone. Some are motivated, some need to be cattle-prodded. I had to set up a program for a whole year; I had to be more organized. I coach from the end of the season backward, focusing on how to get my athletes to get where they should be at the end. I just needed to stretch it out."

For Harrington, one of the most rewarding parts of coaching in college has been the relationships he has developed with his athletes. "The kids are away from home and they need an adult figure in their life," said Harrington.

"They know I'm a father-figure and a mentor. It goes beyond track; they know they can contact me anytime to talk about anything. A robot can put together a training schedule but the athletes need to feel that you are concerned. They give you two hours a day, five days a week. They are more likely to suffer for you when they feel your concern."

Harrington, for his part, is ready to keep giving to the Princeton program for awhile. "I wanted to see a bigger world and I'm excited to be part of it," asserted Harrington. "I love recruiting and selling this place. I want to stay here as long as they will have me."

And it is clear that the trip to China is just one way in which Harrington has broadened his horizons.

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