Salem Hills High School cross country coach Jennifer Hughes was awarded the Brooks Running Inspiring Coaches grand prize for 2023, and her athletes are saying that the award is well deserved.
For the past 14 years, Hughes, who is also a teacher in the special education program at Salem Hills, has been coaching the cross country and track teams. She said that when she was notified of the award, she wasn’t sure what to think about it at first.
“I got an email from the Brooks Running Company back in June, and I ignored it because it just said, ‘You’re a winner! Congratulations, you won!’ I thought it was a fake email so I didn’t respond,” Hughes recalled. “Then I got another email saying, ‘Hey, we tried reaching out to you to make sure you got this.’ So then I read it over, and it looked legit.”
Sure enough, it was a legit email, and Hughes had not only been nominated for the award, but had won the grand prize of $10,000 to spend on the team as well as an additional $2,000 to put back into the cross country program.
A video published on the Brooks Running website told a story of not only a dedicated coach, but of an individual who was dedicated to serving within her community. Athletes spoke about weekly service projects that they do as a team and of feeling like Hughes genuinely cared about their lives and not just about how they performed.
Two athletes spoke to Serve Daily, reaffirming the great coach and person Hughes is.
“I love that Jen actually cares about everybody!” Sam Levie, who is a junior this year, said. “Even outside of running, she’s interested in my life and well-being. It’s nice to have a coach who you know cares about you on a deeper level than your 5K time. When I say it’s nice to have a coach like Jen, I mean it’s really crazy awesome.”
Lexi Christiansen, who is a former athlete of Hughes’, spoke about the dedication that she witnessed firsthand by her former coach.
“Jen is an incredible coach who dedicated many hours both on and off the track to help her athletes succeed,” Christiansen said. “She is one of the most hardworking, selfless, and kind people that I have ever met. She puts in the effort to get to know all of her athletes and has created an environment and a team where everyone feels welcome and loved. She motivates and encourages her athletes to become their best through her example and running/coaching experience. She is incredibly intuitive and helps all her athletes feel seen whether they have a good or bad race or practice. Jen has had such a positive impact in my life and the lives of everyone she interacts with whether it be through her coaching, teaching or community.”
Christiansen mentioned a key ingredient in Hughes’ coaching, which is that she very much practices what she preaches.
Hughes is an elite athlete herself who has run in the elite sector at the Boston Marathon, and who has qualified to run at the Olympic trials. Her road has not been easy, and part of her story includes being involved in a car accident that threatened her ability to walk, let alone walk.
“I was coming down the canyon when I hit some black ice, and my car skidded out. I hit a guardrail and the guardrail went through the passenger door and through the drivers’ side door. My legs were caught between the clutch and the break, and when I went to the hospital, the doctor said, ‘I don’t know if you’ll be able to do the same things that you used to do. That shook everything within me. I made a change right then and there that I didn’t want my accident to stop my life.”
Hughes expressed her gratitude to her athletes and the other coaches, saying that there are so many deserving coaches out there.
There are so many deserving coaches,” she said. “Coaching is a passion project, and if I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t do it. I love being able to work with these amazing kids and athletes. It really is such an honor to be able to do what I do.”
To see the Brooks Running video highlighting Hughes, go to brooksrunning.com/en_us/programs/inspiring-coaches or scan the QR Code above. Her segment starts at 4:27 mark to the end.