O’Neil treasures relationships and championships

By Steve Williams

The total number of athletes who have been members of the teams Sean O’Neil has coached over the past 16 years at Knoxville Catholic High School is not readily known.

But you can be sure each one has been important to Coach O’Neil, whether they were a champion or not. In the long run, relationships have meant as much as championships, if not more, to O’Neil, the Fighting Irish’s successful cross country and track coach.

“The thing I have enjoyed most about coaching at Catholic is the relationships,” said O’Neil in an online interview. “I run into former runners and their parents all the time, and they all share fond memories and tell me how much their time running at Catholic meant to them. Being able to share those experiences that create lasting memories is really special.”

O’Neil has developed some of the nation’s top athletes by cultivating and nurturing the skills, abilities and overall performance of his runners, noted Pam Rhoads, Catholic’s Director of Marketing and Communications.

Sean has coached hundreds of others who have worked just as hard but didn’t make it to the top of the awards’ podium. But O’Neil knows they will be awarded in other ways.

“Winning is a lot of fun and it never gets old, but it’s definitely not everything,” said O’Neil. “I’ve been fortunate to coach some incredibly talented kids who have won a lot of big races, and I like to remind them that there are a lot of other runners out there who could train just like they do but would never be able to race like they do. A lot of the kids I coach will never run competitively after high school.

“The sport must provide something of value outside of winning or a lot of people are out there just wasting their time,” pointed out the Catholic coach. “Lessons like the value of hard work, persistence in the face of adversity, and the discipline to work towards lofty goals are just a few of the life skills that can be learned through sports, and those will be much more valuable to these athletes when they are adults than the medals they won.”


Each season begins with building trust

“If I want kids to listen to me, they need to trust me, and building trust takes time,” said Coach O’Neil. “So, we start small and get to know one another in our first few weeks of practice.

“We spend a lot of time teaching the runners all the supplemental routines that we do. We’re basically laying the foundation that we will build the rest of the season on. Every season is a long journey.”

Is cross country an individual sport?

“I guess I would say that ideally cross country is a group of individuals working collectively towards a common goal, so it’s a little of both,” answered O’Neil. “I think individuals are more likely to have amazing performances when they are running for something bigger than themselves.

“It can be lonely when you are isolated from your teammates during a race, but when you remember that they are out there suffering with you; it can give you the strength to do things that you didn’t think were possible. Those magical moments rarely happen without buying into the team concept.”


O’Neil admits he’s not a jack of all trades.

“I specialize in the distance events,” said the Catholic head coach. “I’ve had great runners in distances from 800 to 5K. We’ve got an amazing group of coaches who cover the other events, so I just try to stay out of their way.”

O’Neil loves what he does and says he has no plans to do anything different. “The challenge of trying to design just the right workout to get our athletes ready for a big race or figuring out what makes someone tick so I can help them unlock their potential never gets old. As long as that feels fresh and exciting, I’ll keep doing it.”

Sean said he wouldn’t consider an offer to coach on the college level. “Definitely not. I put a lot of time and effort into coaching, but I can still set boundaries and have time to spend with my family and be really involved in my kids’ lives. I don’t think I could do that as a college coach, and that’s something I’m not willing to give up.”

O’Neil currently teaches Environmental Science and Oceanography at Catholic. He has a BS in biology from UT-Chattanooga and a MS in Environmental Science from Antioch New England.

He grew up swimming, playing soccer, running cross country and track, and rowing. He was a lightweight rower in college and then spent years competing in triathlons and marathons.