Angela Reckart has known she wanted to be a coach since she was a junior in college.
It was then that she went on a mission trip with Athletes in Action, which “opened [her] eyes” to the platform that coaches have.
“Obviously, we all want to run fast and we all want to do well. But the bottom line is, are you impacting people’s lives? I think if you keep your eyes focused on that, first and foremost, everything else is gonna follow,” said Reckart, who ran cross country and track for The College of New Jersey. “So that's kind of the heartbeat of why I coach.”
Now, 13 years after graduating with a degree in exercise science, Reckart is taking over her first program as the new head coach of Duke men’s and women’s cross country. The process of which, however, started at the school eight miles down the road.
Despite hailing from New Jersey, Reckart grew up a North Carolina fan. Later, after serving as a graduate assistant and volunteer coach with North Florida, Reckart joined the Tar Heel staff as an assistant coach in 2012. During her three years there, she got to know Shawn Wilbourn, then an assistant at Duke.
Reckart says the two kept in touch even when she took an associate head coaching job at Penn State, and when Wilbourn took over as Duke’s new director of cross country/track and field this past spring, she got the call.
“I think he knows my personality and the type of personality that I have that I think can work with both men and women. And I mean, it was a really simple process from there,” Reckart said in an interview with The Chronicle. “It was just kind of talking and hearing his vision for the program and his expectations for the cross [country] program, and they were kind of aligning to be honest. You know, we want to be good…. I believed in what he was building here, so definitely wanted to be a part of it.”
While the beginning of a new era can be exciting, the program has also undergone hectic turnover over the last few years. First, longtime men’s cross country head coach and director of track and field Norm Ogilvie retired in the summer of 2020, after which then-women’s cross country head coach Rhonda Riley took over and coached both the men’s and women’s teams last season. Then, after Wilbourn was finally announced as the Blue Devils’ new director of track and field/cross country, he hired Reckart to replace Riley.
All of that shakeup can certainly pose a challenge for the team’s older runners, but it seems like the current group is taking it in stride.
“That was definitely unexpected,” graduate student Josh Romine said of the constant coaching changes. “We came into Duke my freshman year thinking we're gonna have Norm our whole careers. So when a new coach comes on, it's always gonna bring uncertainty. But I think the most important thing is buying into their program, buying into their training and that trust.”
The women’s team hasn’t had to undergo two coaching changes in two consecutive years like their male counterparts. But they had also been running for Riley their entire careers, making the switch difficult in another way.
“Right when the coaching change happened, we all texted each other and we're like, ‘Okay, we know it's a huge change…. We love Coach Riley and we’re sad to see her go. But that said, we need to focus on each other and really be there for each other throughout this change,’” graduate student Michaela Reinhart said.
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Once the team was able to meet Reckart for the first time over the summer via Zoom, though, they immediately bought in.
“It was a real quick introduction, but right away you could tell she was in it to win it,” Reinhart said. “She's all about it, very business-like. We could tell that she wanted to get after it and believed in us from the start. But she's also a lot of fun. I don't mean to make it sound like she’s all business, all the time.”
Reckart isn’t the only new coach entering the program.
Joining her in Durham is assistant coach Adam Cooke, who has a fascinating story of his own. Per a Q&A with GoDuke in July, Cooke majored in computer science at Georgia Tech, during which he worked part-time as a software engineer while also serving as a volunteer assistant coach for the Yellow Jackets’ cross country/track and field programs. He “wanted to be Steve Jobs” growing up, but after graduating in 2015 he realized coaching was what he was meant to do. He then spent six years as an assistant at North Florida and California Baptist before Reckart brought him on board here at Duke.
“I've known Coach Cooke now for a handful of years. Just in our friendship over the years—in this sport you always keep in touch with people and get to learn their skill sets,” Reckart said. “I kind of always in the back of my mind said if I ever had an opportunity to hire an assistant, I would choose Coach Cooke. And lo and behold, here we have it.”
Together, Reckart and Cooke will look to build off a strong 2020 season in which both the men’s and women’s teams posted their best finishes in the ACC Championships since 2012 while also earning NCAA Championship berths for the first time since that same year. With many of the team’s top runners back from last season in addition to some key newcomers, the Blue Devils should make noise at the conference and national level again this year.
However, building a program is also a process. For now, Reckart’s focus is continuing to keep everyone bought in, while also learning what it’s like to finally be a head coach.
“There’s always something to do,” Reckart said with a laugh. “I've enjoyed it. I think it's been a fun challenge. Definitely a lot of new challenges that I'm embracing along the way. But the team’s been great. And I think more than anything, I'm excited to implement a vision that I have, and the way that I want to do it and having Coach Cooke do it by my side. It's fun being able to put your fingerprint on something.”