New Navy women's cross country coach Kim Lewnes is living her dream, but she has the unique challenge of following a Naval Academy legend.
Former head coach Karen Boyle, who retired in May, had been a trailblazer for the women's cross country program for more than three decades. From the time she arrived at the Naval Academy in 1986, she turned the program into one of the most respected in the sport, leading her teams to a 158-23 record and sent seven runners to the NCAA Division I Championship.
Now Boyle has retired, and the baton has been passed to Lewnes, who wants to maintain the same dominant consistency while adding her own wrinkles to the program.
"It's definitely something I've been reflecting on a lot," Lewnes said. "It's ... figuring out who I am and how I want to run a program without having this huge adjustment for the girls."
After serving as a volunteer assistant coach for two seasons, Lewnes is taking on her first-ever head coaching job. Her head has been filled with what direction she wants to take the team's philosophy, but she knows one of her goals is to work with her athletes to find the blend of the old and new to create a distinctive philosophy.
"Right now, I'm trying to get feedback from the current girls on the team," Lewnes said. "Our senior leadership is awesome ... so it's good to have them talk about the upcoming season, what our goals are and making sure we're all on the same page."
Following a head coach who guided a program for 32 years comes with a certain amount of pressure, and Lewnes knows it. There have only been four head coaches in Navy's history to lead the women's cross country program, and Boyle's tenure makes up a large chunk of that.
But Lewnes is also confident the familiarity she's built over the past two years and the support she's gotten from the administration will help ease the transition.
"I've gotten to know the girls really well," Lewnes said. "And one of the great things I'm starting to learn is how supportive this administration is and the track staff that I've gotten to know on a deeper level over the past two weeks. I think we have to opportunity to build on that legacy Coach Boyle has made on the program."
Lewnes believes her previous experience with the team will also go far in communicating with her athletes to establish a new direction for the team.
"I've been a familiar face to them," Lewnes said. "They'll have a constant continuity and it's very unique to have that. The transition will hopefully be pretty smooth for them."
As she is still in the beginning phases of her tenure, Lewnes admits she doesn't have all the answers. That's why maintaining an open line of communication with her athletes and coaches is so important to her.
"I think it's helpful," Lewnes said. "Having them know I believe in them and this is why I'm doing certain things. But it's also about getting feedback from them and being able to have those tough conversations. Feedback is never a bad thing, so whether it's coming from the athletes or your colleagues, I'm always open to hearing it."
It's also helpful that Lewnes inherits dominant athletes like seniors Claire Ostrowski and Grace West in her first year. West posted season-best times in the 3,000-meter and 5,000-meter during the Patriot League Indoor Championship, while Ostrowski posted a top performance in the 5,000-meter at the Larry Ellis Invitational during the outdoor season.
Lewnes is ecstatic to have them back. They will lead a senior class Lewnes will rely on in the coming season.
"We have a really talent group of seniors, not just with our top two with Grace and Claire," Lewnes said. "They're very tight-knit, so I'm looking forward to seeing how some of the blossom. I definitely need buy-in, and that comes from the top with the upperclassmen. I think the senior class is going to work really well together to get the team all on the same page and help me with that."
Lewnes knows there is still a lot to learn, but she is always reminding herself that this has been her dream for years. And getting a strong program is not a bad start to realizing that goal.
"I was really holding myself back from getting too excited when the conversation started, because it was almost too good to be true," Lewnes said. "This is a sport I've grown up doing since I was 4 years old. I live and breathe running. It's full of 'pinch myself' kind of moments."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Navy Athletics