New coach uses experience to teach

by Ryan Schuster

As Steve Plasencia crossed the finish line at the U.S. men’s Olympic Track and Field Trials in the 5,000-meters last June, it marked an important transition in his life.
Plasencia didn’t win the race. In fact, he came in fifth, narrowly missing his third Olympics by only two places, and effectively ending his running career.
“(Missing the Olympics) is a real disappointment,” Plasencia said. “But I feel like I’ve accomplished nearly everything I can in running. Making two Olympic teams will never be taken away from me.”
Even though Plasencia, 39, didn’t make the 1996 Olympics in the 5,000 or the marathon, he will continue to be involved in running.
Plasencia, a former All-American in cross country and track and field at Minnesota, was named the Gophers’ head men’s cross country coach and assistant track coach in April.
“I’m excited to work with these young guys that we’ve got here, and to help them better their performances,” Plasencia said. “I’d like to help (them) to realize what their potential is.”
Plasencia first realized his own potential in running at age 16. Hard work and dedication earned him a scholarship in cross country and track and field at Minnesota.
“Steve was very hardworking and very motivated in college,” said Roy Griak, who coached Plasencia in the late 1970s during Griak’s 33 seasons at the helm before he stepped down after last season. “He saw a lot of success because of his fantastic work ethic.”
Plasencia was named All-American three times in cross country and twice in track and field at Minnesota.
The graduate of Cooper High School still holds the Gophers outdoor record in the 5,000 with a blazing time of 13 minutes, 49 seconds.
After college, Plasencia kept on running. He even struck up a skill for coaching as well.
He coached 1984 U.S. Olympic runner Don Clary, and Mike Bilyeu, who made it to the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials.
He also managed to make the U.S. Olympic Track and Field team twice. Plasencia ran the 10,000 meters in the 1988 Games in Seoul, Korea, and the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Spain.
Although it looks like he will continue to run for a while, Plasencia appears ready to turn in his running shoes after 23 years for a whistle and a clipboard.
“I’m going to run competitively for this year, but it’s secondary to my coaching,” Plasencia said.
So far, Plasencia appears to have made a successful transition from runner to coach in his first season at Minnesota.
“(Plasencia is) a no-nonsense person,” Griak said. “I think that he’s the kind of coach the kids can relate to. He goes out and runs with the team, and tries not to beat them.”
Plasencia said being a coach of running is a difficult task because there is limited control.
“When you are running yourself, you can directly influence what’s happening,” Plasencia said. “You can influence your athletes until they make that first step. Then they’re on their own.”
Plasencia was working as a director of respiratory medicine for a company in Eugene, Ore., when he heard of the coaching vacancy at Minnesota.
His new position has given him an opportunity to return to his family and his alma mater.
“It is a thrill to return home to Minnesota,” Plasencia said. “When I heard that this particular position was going to be available, I didn’t hesitate. I felt pretty fortunate to get the job.”