Pioneer Spotlight: Tom Antczak

Tom Antczak

Tom Antczak is in his 29th year as head coach of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville women’s and men’s cross-country programs, making him the longest tenured coach in the athletic department. In the past 20 years, Antczak has seen the men’s program have great success, qualifying for the NCAA III national meet eight times, having three individual champions and a program best fourth-place team finish in 2010.  The three men’s individual titles are the most individual titles for any Division III program in the nation the past 17 years. 

Along with the national success, the Pioneers have enjoyed regional and conference success as well.  The Pioneers have the most individual regional champions and individual Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC) champions in the past 17 years.  The Pioneers actually have more WIAC individual titles than the next three schools combined.  The women’s program has produced five All-Americans, a WIAC and regional individual champion as well.

For all the success on the race track, the Pioneers have excelled in the classroom as well.  The women’s program has been honored by the United States Track and Field and Cross-Country Coaches Association as an All-Academic Team 23 times and the men 14 times.

Antczak was the 1978 NAIA national marathon champion setting the national meet record, had top 12 finishes in the New York and Boston marathons and qualified for three Olympic Marathon trials.

Antczak retired from teaching at UW-Platteville on Jan. 10, 2018 where he taught in the Health and Human Performance department, but still continues as the head coach.

What drew you to and kept you in running and health and human performance?

A number of factors influenced my participation and dedication to running as a sport and health and human performance as a career choice. I realized at a pretty early age, probably around 9 or 10, that I could run longer and further than most of my friends.  When we were playing tag or other running games if I could keep ahead of and avoid getting caught by the bigger, older, faster guys for 30-40 seconds, I could usually run them into exhaustion.  I was a pretty small kid growing up; I entered high school being all of 4-feet 10-inches tall and weighing 85 pounds.  Obviously, I wasn’t going to make the basketball or football teams in high school, so I went out for the cross country team, not really knowing what it was, as was probably the case with most freshmen cross country runners at that time.  While I was the best runner on my high school team by my senior year, I wasn’t really that good, never having even qualified for a state meet.  Although I had really grown to like distance running and had started to realize the longer the race, the better for me. 

Then in 1972, three factors came together to give distance running a serious push into the forefront of American culture. Frank Shorter become the first American in over 60 years to win the Olympic gold medal in the marathon at the Munich Olympics and that race received major TV coverage. Secondly, Nike shoe brand started to make an appearance on elite distance runners’ feet in the USA, and thirdly Dr. Ken Cooper published the book “Aerobics” which sold millions of copies and helped to kick start the first jogging boom in the United States. I had run my first marathon that spring at Boston, which was the largest road race in the world at a little over a thousand runners, and the most competitive road race in the world. While my performance was far from noteworthy (2:57:51), I had been bitten by the marathon bug. I ran Boston each of the next three years, training harder and for a longer period of time each successive year, culminating in a 2:19:32 performance at the 1975 Boston, which also qualified me for the 1976 Olympic Trials in the marathon. In the ensuing nine years, while I did finish my undergraduate degree in Physical Education and my MS in Human Performance from UW-La Crosse, my time and energy were very much dedicated to running marathons.  I subsequently qualified for both the 1980 and 1984 USA Olympic Trials in the marathon, won the 1978 NAIA national collegiate title in record time, placed fifth at the 1978 New York City Marathon, 12th at the 1982 Boston Marathon, won the 1979 USATF national marathon championships at the Houston Marathon, and placed in the top ten or won numerous other national class marathons and road races. 

At about the time I qualified for the 1976 Olympic marathon trials at the 1975 Boston Marathon I had a couple of friends who were finishing their medical degrees to become doctors. I had started out on my own educational path in college as an engineering major but after dropping out of college my second year and becoming dedicated to running, I had read a number of exercise physiology and exercise science books and had become very aware of the importance of regular exercise in helping to avoid or correct many of the lifestyle disease that afflict most Americans including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and many forms of cancer, just to name a few.  Watching what my friends were doing as doctors seemed backwards to me relative to treating and trying to cure lifestyle diseases rather than working to prevent them from ever developing through a healthy diet and regular exercise.  That is when I pretty much decided I wanted to pursue my graduate studies in the exercise sciences and in particular in Health and Human Performance.  I worked in the hospital wellness/health promotion field for about eight years before deciding to pursue my real passion as a distance coach. The rest is history, as they say.                

You are the longest tenured coach at UW-Platteville, and one of the longest tenured employees. There has been a lot of change to campus over that time, which one has benefited the student-athletes in the cross-country program the most?

I would say that the biggest changes benefiting the cross-country student-athletes over my coaching tenure would be the outdoor track.  Its general location, the quality of the surface and proximity to the indoor track and fieldhouse make it a very unique and beneficial combination for our track and field athletes, including our distance runners.  The other big pluses are the three expansions of our Pioneer Activity Center over the last 25 years, which has greatly enhanced our athletes’ ability to maintain a strength and conditioning program on a yearlong basis. And maintaining a properly designed strength program has become recognized over the past 10-12 years as an important training component even for our distance runners. The most recent new addition which has been a big plus to the Platteville distance running community, including our cross-country student-athletes, is the Platteville to Belmont bicycling trail. This paved, eight-mile path offers a very safe and great training alternative to the city and county streets and roads for all Platteville distance runners, including our student-athletes, who are certainly some of the most frequent and avid users of this trail. We regularly schedule workouts on this trail during both the cross country and track seasons.   

You were a highly successful marathon runner qualifying for the Olympic qualifiers three times, and the prestigious New York and Boston Marathons. How have you taking your experience and success and turned it into a successful coaching career?

The number one thing I think my own competitive career has given me that I can share with my athletes is the ability to approach races in the right mental state and believe they will be successful, depending on how they care to define that success. Remember I was not a very accomplished high school runner never qualifying for a state track or cross country meet and having run only 10:21 for 2 miles and 4:45 for the mile, but I went on to achieve a fair amount of success both in my collegiate career and post collegiately.  Mainly because I believed I could and I didn’t have a lot of detractors to tell me otherwise. 

I also think I have a pretty good understanding of all the subtitles and nuances of competitive running, especially at the “bigger” more important competitions.  In addition, after running competitively for over 50 years, I think I have a pretty good handle on helpful tips and hints when it comes to minor blips and injuries that almost all athletes will encounter during their careers.  But I think the biggest advantage I have is being an example of someone who “over achieved” based off of my high school accomplishments.   

Finally, through my formal education and the certifications I have attained, I think I have a very good understanding of the training principles and techniques that are most beneficial to any distance runner. I wish I had had a coach with this knowledge and background during my career. I can only imagine what more I might have accomplished.  

What do you want student-athletes to take with them after their 4-5 years in the cross-country program?

I hope the biggest thing my student-athletes take away from their 4-5 years of collegiate distance running is a stronger belief in themselves and their abilities to achieve high goals. I have always felt that my number one job as a coach and as an instructor is to help my athlete see beyond their current horizon, that is to say, to help them see themselves as being capable of more than they may have thought possible when they first came to me. And not just as an athlete, but as a student, as an employee, as a parent, as just about any and every aspect of being a human being. Most people hope to get good or wish they could achieve high goals, but I don’t think they really see themselves as being capable of achieving that success in their mind’s eye. One of our team’s favorite quotes, “the will to win means nothing without the will to prepare” is also very pertinent in that success seems to come easily to some people but most of us don’t see the hours of hard work that go into achieving that success. I think there are often two prevailing thought patterns when we start thinking about high levels of success. One is that it takes great genetics and I don’t have that so why should I try.  The second is to think that it can’t be that hard because look what so-and-so accomplished and they’re not that much different or better than me, but not seeing or acknowledging all the hard work those individuals put into achieving their success. I often ask my athletes “Are only geniuses getting straight A’s in their classes?” The answer is of course not. In fact, some true geniuses aren’t even getting B’s in some classes because they don’t put in the effort.  And most of the students who are getting nearly straight A’s have a fair level of intelligence, they are certainly not stupid, but they also work very hard at it.  That is why they are able to achieve high goals, either in the classroom or out on the cross-country course or track   Many of my best athletes have had a fair level of ability but they achieved a high-level success more so due to working pretty darn hard at it. On the other hand, I have had athletes with an above average level of natural ability, but they never achieve much success simply due to lack of effort and the lack of confidence to see where hard work might take them.  I always remind my athletes that hard work won’t guarantee success, even for pretty talented athletes. But lack of effort will pretty much guarantee failure, even for talented people.    

I feel this way because as I stated earlier, I was not a very accomplished athletes as a high schooler.  But through a lot of hard work, dedication, desire, self-confidence, and a bit of ignorance, I was able to achieve a fair amount of success as a distance runner.  What I mean by “a bit of ignorance” is that when I started out on my “career” as a distance runner I really didn’t know what I was doing.  I was pretty much self-coached almost my entire career and as a result I had no one to tell me I couldn’t achieve what I set out to achieve.  The internet didn’t exist, nor did all of the other social media platforms that can be both enlightening and also very humiliating and discouraging if you allow them to be.  And unfortunately, in my estimation, way too many people allow them to be the second type of influence in their lives, especially when it comes to achieving big goals.

So, I feel it is my job and my assistant coaches’ job to help my athletes believe in themselves and see beyond their current horizon. We also put a big emphasis on the little things that can end up making a big difference. Things like proper nutrition, getting enough quality sleep and recovery after hard workouts and races, drugs and alcohol use and abuse, mental health, self-confidence, self–esteem, controlling stress from all the source outside athletics, ie school, job, parents, other relationships, right now COVID 19, etc.      

Outside of athletics and running, what are hobbies you enjoy?

I enjoy being outdoors in most seasons/weather, bicycling, canoeing, hiking, whatever. Gardening has also become more of a pastime in the summer months. This summer I purchased a pair of snow-shoes so I am excited to give those a try this winter. I like cross country skiing but our winters have been pretty low on snow for cross-country skiing as of recent and I have been told snow-shoeing is a great alternative. We’ll see.