“It was kind of like opening up a present and finding a lump of coal,” said Brian Kabourek, head cross country and assistant track coach to the Lincoln East Spartans. In the fall of 2015, Kabourek became head cross country coach, and in the same season, his wife, Andrea, died from breast cancer.
Fortunately, the athletes, coaches, and parents of the East cross country team leaned on each other during this emotional time.
“We’ve had a lot of emotion,” Kabourek said. “And when you have emotion, you can do two things: it can either tear you apart or bring you closer together. I think over the years, our teams just get closer...because they’re there to help each other out.”
Together, the athletes have grown up “a little faster than maybe they should have to,” according to Kabourek.
Nonetheless, they grew up as a tight-knit family.
At David City High School, Kabourek was “never the first one to get picked for teams,” but nonetheless, he participated in football, basketball, track, and baseball. Although David City did not have a cross country team, Kabourek occasionally practiced with the Aquinas runners.
Despite his 26 years of experience, Kabourek still feels pressure as a coach who was not a top-athlete in his youth.
“I think sometimes there’s this belief that to be a coach, you have to be a great high school athlete or a great college athlete, both of which I was not,” Kabourek said. “And I think sometimes people look at that and say, ‘Well, what do they know about coaching?’”
Currently, as head cross country coach at East, Kabourek encourages his athletes to “pursue excellence with honor,” a phrase listed at the top of the team’s weekly newsletter.
“We try to find the excellence within each of us and the team, and we want to do it in a humble way that honors the sport and themselves,” Kabourek said.
The Spartans’ competitive excellence is evident; from 2011 to 2016, the girls have won one cross country state championship and three state runner-up titles. On the track, Lincoln East has collected several individual all-glass gold medals, especially in recent years.
But the pursuit of honor is what stands out the most to Kabourek.
Kabourek recalled one particular cross country meet during which his team displayed the pursuit of excellence with honor.
A runner from another school was last on the course. When the weather worsened, the runner had yet to cross the finish line. Most of his teammates had gone home or taken cover.
But, the East runners stayed.
As the runner made his way down the final 100 meter stretch, Kabourek remembers his athletes leaving the team tent and lining up at the finish line.
“And so here’s a kid from another school, our kids don’t know him, but the girls and boys were there cheering him on to the finish,” Kabourek said.
Kabourek also recalls the response from the athlete’s mother.
My son runs for this other school, she said, But I will always be a fan of Lincoln East Cross Country.
“That meant a lot to me,” Kabourek said.
Although Kabourek strives to lead by example, he said that “the kids drive the program.” Consequently, as his athletes pursue excellence with honor, Kabourek stays cognizant of his level of involvement.
“The kids are the most important and most pivotal part of what we do,” Kabourek said. “It’s not me, it’s not any of the assistant coaches, it’s the kids...I just don’t want to get in their way sometimes.”
Ultimately--regardless of circumstance or emotion--Kabourek is grateful for his second family.
“Family is not always blood,” Kabourek said. “And through some of the things that I’ve had to deal with on a personal level, I can’t think of a greater group of individuals to fall back on, a more powerful group to fall back on for support than the athletes, the parents of Lincoln East cross country.”