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Running for Jim Profiles Famous Coach with ALS
A Classical Beauty Shot: 'Running for Jim' crew captures some of its stars limbering up in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. photo: Robin Hauser Reynolds
Last year, Holland Reynolds “hit the wall” yards from the end of a race. Dehydrated, hypothermic and on auto-pilot, the sixteen-year-old team captain of the running team at San Francisco University High School (UHS) collapsed two yards from the finish line but still crawled across it to secure a record-breaking win for UHS. Not finishing was not an option. Like all her teammates—and the scores of kids who had gone before her, she was "running for Jim Tracy," her coach, who just a few weeks before had revealed he had ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).
In fact, a media sensation was born. Within 24 hours, network television came calling, the story was splashed across the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle and the sports page of the New York Times, and the blogosphere exploded. The NikeHub video on YouTube had more than 250,000 hits. It became quickly clear that while Holland’s experience was incredibly compelling, the story-behind-the-story read like a Shakespearean tragedy.
“Like millions of others, I was captivated by Holland’s courage and determination to finish for her coach," said the Emmy Award-winner filmmaker David L. Brown. So much so, Brown was inspired to start producing and directing a documentary titled "Running for Jim," also produced and written by Robin H. Reynolds. "Jim’s own determination to fight ALS and continue coaching as long as possible. It was the combination of footage of Holland’s heroic crawl and George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America pitching Jim’s 'Special Needs Trust' that hooked me.”
"Running for Jim," which Brown and Reynolds hope to complete in the spring of 2012, follows both Tracy, as the most successful high school cross-country coach in California history, and in his battle against ALS, and the team that brought him to international attention.
Unorthodox, funny and irreverent, Tracy has been coaching cross-country at UHS since 1994. And his tough love, take-no-prisoners candor has served his teams well. In 17 years, they have claimed the state championship title eight times. While each win was sweet, none was nearly as dramatic as that of November 27, 2010, just weeks after Jim revealed his ALS diagnosis to his young runners.
ALS is a motor neuron disease effecting nerves controlling voluntary muscle movement. While effects vary, the outcome is always the same: a two to five year life expectancy after diagnosis. During those years, a victim will incrementally lose their motor function but cognitive abilities remain sharp—leaving the patient a full participant in the disease’s ghastly walk. ALS has no known cause and no known cure.
Jim Tracy, California’s most successful cross-country coach, with eight state championships. photo: Robin Hauser Reynolds
A champion runner, Tracy has devoted his adult life to the ever-challenging (and rarely-lucrative) world of high school coaching. He is without health insurance. Unmarried and living alone, he is occasionally without a permanent address. He has enthusiastically devoted his life to practicing, studying and teaching the art of running.
To be stricken by a disease that is quickly stealing from him his great love and his life’s work is unspeakably cruel. Jim’s response is to look forward—to ready his team for the November 26, 2011 State Championships and to fight this disease with every weapon in his arsenal. In his determined struggle, Jim personifies the very traits he has encouraged in his students for so many years: fortitude; dignity; and strength of character.
“I am always gratified when [students] say that being on my teams has been an asset to their accepting difficult tasks, always with the attitude that what must be done, will be done,“ Tracy reflects. Many of Jim’s protégés have gone on to excel in the Ivy League, Stanford and other top tier institutions. "Running for JIm" features several of these alumni citing their experience with Tracy as their most pivotal and impactful.
Although a private man, Jim is not resistant to telling his story on film. Of Holland’s fateful finish, he observes, “In the moment I recognized Holland’s dehydration problem, I was struck by how unfair it was that such a fine athlete should be in such distress. But as I shouted at her to try to go just a little farther, I realized that her team spirit and racer’s mind would never allow her to not achieve. Although tough to watch, it was a lesson in the character side of good cross-country running.”
Jim is incredibly articulate—about his coaching style, personal philosophy and his own race: to stay well enough, long enough. He is determined to give a clear and uncluttered rendering of this year—as both a coach and a man with a terminal illness.
“Jim has given us access to his training sessions, his doctor’s appointments, his physical therapy, his reunions with former students, his personal time," says "Running for Jim" Producer Robin H. Reynolds. "We are able to paint a complete picture by simply letting Jim tell his story. In Jim’s opinion, “The world is so full of noise and distractions, it is somewhat surprising when we can just cut through that stuff to clarify and educate.” Jim feels that “filmmakers must walk a fine line between overindulgence and accuracy—to tell a compelling story in an appreciable fashion.”
Great tracking shots have been mastered by the 'Running for Jim' crew, David Brown on camera one, and Barry Stone on camera two in Kezar Stadium, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. photo: Ana Grillo
“We have a built-in dramatic arc with Jim, Holland and the UHS team returning to defend their State championship title next fall,” says director Brown. “Jim may be in a wheelchair, but we're confident he'll be there coaching and inspiring his runners to reclaim that trophy. It will be exciting to document that entire cross-country season. The deep sadness Robin and I feel in the face of Jim’s relentless decline is mitigated by his spirit, determination and humor in waging his ‘personal best.’”
The filmmakers’ approach has been to integrate a thoughtful balance between Jim, his students past and present, his ALS treatments and his drive to victory at the 2011 Division Five State Championships. Cinema vérité footage, interviews with students, and roundtable discussions with Tracy and his alumni are interwoven with B-roll of training and meets, home movies and stills compiled from his 17 years of coaching more than 800 runners.
Putting together a team that was able to tell Jim’s story, technically and artistically, was paramount to Brown. “In order to properly shoot the running sequences, we sought out the most skilled sports videographers in California. Shooting two-camera coverage from a golf cart has given us our best, most exciting running footage to date. Next week, we’re looking forward to filming the documentary’s opening sequence with two extra long-lens cameras with focus pullers.”
Technical innovation has also enabled the filmmakers to capture new dimensions of Jim’s therapies and limitations, like using an underwater GoPro camera to film Jim during hydrotherapy. Particularly poignant is footage of Jim on the Alter G, a weightless treadmill originally developed for astronauts. At 50% reduction of gravity, Jim was able to stand up completely straight and take all strain off his back for the first time in over a year. Encouraged and uplifted by being able to move his legs in a relatively effortless slow jog, Jim exclaimed that it was “miraculous” and “a victory” for him and his therapist. The co-producers vividly recall the joy in Jim’s face after being able to work up a sweat again.
'Running for Jim' director David Brown with Steve Baigel on camera one. photo: Robin Hauser Reynolds
The filmmakers feel privileged to tell Tracy’s story, with hopes of conveying his life lessons of sacrifice and determination. “My greatest challenge,” says Jim, “has been trying to show how balance is reflected in both effort given and character required. I try to keep it simple, but it can be a complicated dance.” Jim has no illusions about his physical condition, but walks forward through that hardship and pain—as he has always encouraged his runners to do. “My condition is one of gradual deterioration. Each day makes the smallest effort a journey. These journeys, once so easy, are all part of a single day—and in that day we do what we can and hope for the best.”
In rare moments of quiet, Jim may plan for the next day’s training, read or even take in a movie. His favorite is "Shane," the classic 1953 western. “It is well photographed and embodies a story of joy, struggle and finally a moment of conflict that provides a gripping and inevitable resolution.” The parallel is not lost on him.
Posted on May 12, 2011 - 01:46 AM