The runners Susie Schneck Koehler competed against in high school were the least of her concerns.
What Schneck Koehler battled more than her opposition in long-distance races were her own demons – stress, lack of confidence and the fear of disappointing her father and her coaches.
While she was able to overcome her nerves, Schneck Koehler eventually walked away from running because of injuries, insecurities and an inability to overcome stress. She was a successful cross country and long-distance runner for Washington High School. In her freshman and sophomore seasons, she established herself as one of the best long-distance runners in the WPIAL and state. Illness got in the way before her junior year and the first Prexies’ freshman to qualify for the PIAA Championships in track and field, never rose to the success levels that she achieved in her first two years.
Make no mistake, she was a special distance runner for Wash High.
“The first time I went out for a run was the day before I started kindergarten and my dad (Tom) took me out to calm me down,” Schneck Koehler said. “I was a little ball of stress. I went onto Claire Drive and ran miles just so I could go to sleep.
“It expanded from there. But I will never forget that day, him just trying to get me to calm down. It didn’t work too well. I’ve always been a stress ball.”
Schneck Koehler was the WPIAL Class AA runner-up as a freshman. She ran representing Wash High but worked out with Canon-McMillan High School’s team. The Prexies did not have a cross country team that season.
She participated in all the Class AAA meets the Big Macs’ competed in throughout the season.
The runner-up in 1984 was her best cross country finish in the WPIAL. She did qualify for the PIAA Championships in her other three seasons as a member of Wash High’s cross country team.
In track, Schneck Koehler quickly stood out. She was the WPIAL champion in the 1,600-meter run as a freshman in 1984 and followed that in 1985 by winning the 3,200 run. She earned three other medals along the way.
“No one ever really thought of me as an athlete,” Schneck Koehler said. “I loved to ice skate and I liked the distance races.
“I played softball, but I wasn’t very good. I was the right fielder. I was a left-handed hitter. I could run the bases, if I got on. I was known as a good baserunner. That’s it.”
Schneck Koehler added that she, “fortunately,” was on the championship softball team every year. Interestingly, she played on the team with Teresa Booker, the current track coach at Wash High. Schneck Koehler has been a long-time assistant under Booker.
“Teresa still laughs about that,” Schneck Koehler said. “She would make all the plays at shortstop and I had one ball hit to me in three years.”
Her athletic career took a positive turn in ninth grade.
The season she spent working with Canon-McMillan’s cross country team helped her face top-level competition during the season. She credits then Big Macs’ Coach Chris Gump for helping to mentor and teach her.
“Chris was calm and patient with me,” Schneck Koehler said. “She allowed me to be with them every step of the way. My parents drove me to practice every day.
The first meet she competed in was Tri-State Coaches at Hartwood Acres. She placed third.
“I never saw that coming,” Schneck Koehler said. “No one saw it coming.”
What came next also was not fathomable.
Schneck Koehler was in the WPIAL Class AA championship at Hartwood Acres.
“I started out well,” she explained. “The nerves were there. I was in second place and I just quit the race. I felt sick and got sick. I turned around and walked back. It was pretty interesting. I’m going through cornfields and all of the sudden, I saw my dad standing there about 400 yards away.
“I turned back around and started sprinting. I passed 87 runners, not the 88th. I finished second.”
“Susie was high strung,” Gump said. “She put a lot of pressure on herself. She was really talented.
“She was a real hard worker, really competitive and full of determination. She wasn’t afraid of the workouts. She really loved the running. She was a joy to coach.
“I was always very proud of her. She was a self-starter. She did what she had to do, not just in practice but on her own time. Susie was not afraid of hard work.”
Schneck Koehler twice carried the Olympic Torch – once in 1984 during a practice run in Washington and again in 2002.
In addition to Gump, Schneck Koehler, credits her father, Tom Schneck; Thom Bell, who was her cross country coach at Wash High; her varsity track coach, Connie Trelka; and former Prexies’ track coach and friend, Penny Starkey, for guiding her and being positive role models.
“Susie was a hard-working athlete,” said Starkey, who asked Schneck Koehler to be part of the track staff. “She worked with me as a volunteer coach, then she was hired as a paid coach. She has done a great job with distance runners, having a lot of success.
“Susie is a great mentor for the kids at Wash High. She has a big place in my heart. She knows why.”
Trelka remembers Schneck as a gifted runner who battled stress and emotion throughout.
“Except for being a bit more emotional than most high school girls, Susie wasn’t hard to deal with,” Trelka said. “Susie was emotional. Her dad made her nervous.
“I coached so many gifted athletes at Wash High and Susie was certainly one of them. I was pleased to be able to coach girls that talented.
“Susie was the right type to be a distance runner, thin, had long muscles and she had good breath control,” Trelka said. “There are a lot of distance runners who don’t translate to other sports.
Schneck Koehler’s freshman experience at the PIAA Track & Field Championships wasn’t the best. She started her race but got sick and had to stop.
As a sophomore, Schneck Koehler returned to the state meet and placed 10th in the 3,200-run.
“I was able to hold it together that year,” she said. “It was always a challenge to deal with the stress.”
Prior to her junior year, a bout with mononucleosis sapped Schneck Koehler of her strength. She weighed just 80 pounds.
While she managed to qualify for the PIAA Championships in cross country, she never got back to the state meet in her final two track seasons at Wash High.
“It was a bad case of mono,” she explained. “I still had success in cross country and some regular-season track meets. But I never felt like I regained my strength.
“I think I pushed too hard too soon to get back and I never fully recovered.”
Said Trelka: “Susie was prone to being very ill because she was so thin. I agree with her that she never did get her strength back. The two-mile became almost too much for her. But she was a gifted runner who really and truly was like an antelope.”
These days, Schneck Koehler works for the City of Washington and serves as an assistant track coach at her alma mater.
She and her husband, Barry, reside in Washington. She has two sons, Kip Carpenter, and Brett Kinkade. Barry Koehler was part of two WPIAL championship rifle teams at Trinity High School in 1983 and 1984.
Schneck Koehler said she’s motivated to encourage young athletes to do things the right way and give themselves a chance to succeed. She also strives to keep them enjoying what they are doing and not dreading practice or competition.
“I had an opportunity to go to Wooster College and compete,” she explained. “I didn’t go. I felt I was too burned out. I regret that every day.
“As a coach, I want kids to like what they love to do, not come to hate what they really love. I go back to that year with Chris Gump. She was so encouraging. It was nice to be around. The other kids were so positive. My times at state with our other athletes at Wash High were fun. It was upbeat. That’s the atmosphere you want for kids.
“Sure, I wish my high school athletic career would have ended differently. I wish I would have been more successful. I try not to dwell on the past. I try to put a positive spin on it through coaching the athletes at Wash High and mentoring to help them not make the same mistakes I did. (I want them) to get through all the pressure and be successful.”