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Giving Back on the Track

UB coach Vicki Mitchell balances a drive to win with a desire to do good

Vicki Mitchell 

By David J. Hill

“We’re trying to teach girls to be independent, strong women.”
Vicki Mitchell

It’s been 15 years since Vicki Mitchell ran her last competitive race. And yet, the yearning to lace up her track shoes and run against the best athletes in the world persists. “I thought for sure that feeling would go away after a couple years, but it eats away,” says Mitchell, a seven-time NCAA champion at Cortland and five-time USA national team member who just began her 18th year as a coach at UB.

So Mitchell channels her competitive nature into her role as director of the Bulls cross country and track and field programs, a position she was promoted to in 2013—a year before being inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame—after serving 14 years as coach of the cross country and track teams.

Her contagious competitiveness is getting results. Two of UB’s most successful athletes in recent years—shot put national champion Jonathan Jones (BA ’15) and decathlete Mike Morgan, who finished fifth at the 2015 USA Track and Field Championships—are products of Mitchell’s program. And nearly every school record has been broken since 2010.

But there’s another side to Mitchell, a yin to her yang. The dynamic UB coach balances out the “win now” pressure of running a Division I program by assisting with two decidedly noncompetitive organizations: Girls on the Run, a national program for girls ages 8 to 13, and Checkers Athletic Club, the largest running club in Buffalo.

Mitchell began coaching with Checkers in 2009, developing weekly track workouts to help participants achieve their personal goals, whether they are occasional joggers looking to complete their first 5K or marathoners striving to improve their time.

But Girls on the Run is the program that holds a special place in Mitchell’s heart. She joined the organization six years ago when Meghan Cavanaugh, Vicki Mitchell a former student of hers at Holy Angels Academy, the all-girls school in Buffalo where Mitchell taught and coached from 1993 to 1998, asked if she’d be interested in assisting with a Buffalo chapter Cavanaugh was starting.

“I’d never heard of the program before,” says Mitchell, “and all I needed to know was young girls ... running ... developing life skills—OK, I’m in.” Mitchell served a five-year term on the group’s board of directors, and has served as the race director since 2010, coordinating the spring and fall 5K races. The spring race this year had more than 2,700 participants.

“The interesting thing about Girls on the Run is it’s a noncompetitive program, which is the opposite mindset of everything I’ve ever done, because I’m a very competitive person,” says Mitchell, who earned a living as a professional track athlete after college. “We’re trying to teach girls to be independent, strong women.”

Mitchell’s desire to give back springs from many sources, but an email she received in 2001, the year she struggled with her decision to stop running competitively and focus on coaching, had particular impact. The message, from Bridget Niland (JD ’98, EdM ’98, BA ’95), one of Mitchell’s former UB athletes who’s now the athletic director at Daemen College in Amherst, N.Y., read, “Vick, you’re going to have more of an impact as a coach than you ever could as an athlete.”

“And now I get it,” says Mitchell. “I still have a printout of that email in my desk at home.”

Maria Beiter-Tucker

As a UB alum,I am very pleased to see this feature on my friend Vicki. She is a great friend and coach. UB is lucky to have her!