Karl Thiessen was a two-time state cross country champion and claimed four track and field state titles while at Abingdon High School and is preparing for his sophomore season at the University of Tennessee.
During his rise to prominence as a distance runner, Thiessen has never forgotten some wise words uttered to him many times by Don Cumbow, his high school coach.
“The best piece of advice Coach Cumbow ever gave me and many athletes was to ‘Race the Race.’ Most people don’t understand this term Coach created, but I believe it means something different to everyone,” Thiessen said. “To me, the term meant to focus on the race at hand, not to focus on my last race or my next race, but to focus on whatever is on your plate at that moment. That applies to life, not just running, and that’s why I love that term. Coach truly taught me how to have fun with the sport, how to get back up after terrible races and how to be a champion.”
Cumbow produced many champions, several NCAA Division I competitors and put plenty of trophies in the case at Abingdon in a coaching career that spanned more than 40 years.
He died on July 1 at the age of 74, but his legacy will remain for all the athletes who ever turned a lap or logged a few kilometers while wearing the blue-and-white colors of Abingdon High School.
“Coach Cumbow was AHS cross country and track,” said Stephanie Warden Duncan, a former cross country standout for the Falcons. “When you think of AHS cross country and track that is the vision you see – Don Cumbow.”
Duncan helped Cumbow reach a crowning achievement in 1988 when the Falcons won the VHSL Group AA girls cross country title, edging Louisa by three points on a November afternoon in Charlottesville.
“The Abingdon High School girls won the state title because of team depth and team unity,” Cumbow told the Bristol Herald Courier following the meet. “The girl that finished seventh for us today, finished fourth for us in the region and the girl that finished seventh for us in the region finished fourth for us today and that’s the way it’s been all year. When someone wasn’t having a good day, someone else would pick up the slack.”
That depth and unity was evident once again in 1994 when Abingdon shared the VHSL Group AA state girls track and field championship with Harrisonburg.
Abingdon always had elite runners under Cumbow’s watch and his teams were among the best – including in an era where there were a bunch of quality programs in Southwest Virginia.
“Don was part of a group of coaches back in the day who were passionate about cross country, as well as track,” said former John Battle coach Randy Smith. “His teams were always well-coached and the kids at Abingdon were attracted to his sometimes blunt personality and his zeal for the sport. … All of us back in those golden years – late-1970s to mid-1980s – had to step up our game as coaches because the level of competition was so intense.
“With Ron Helmer at Virginia High, Buddy Brockman and Gene Walker at Marion, Becky Selfe at Patrick Henry, myself at John Battle and Don at Abingdon, we were running a level of cross country that produced regional and state champions as well as national qualifiers on a regular basis. It was truly amazing and Don was right in the thick of it. You also have to admire Don for his longevity and perseverance. Long after I had retired, along with many others, he was still out there plugging away. It was my understanding that he intended to coach this fall once again until his failing health intervened.”
Cumbow seemed to always know what to say after one of his runners had completed a grueling event. He was usually straight to the point.
“Coach Cumbow was always sarcastic and extremely witty,” said Griff Graves, who won Group AA boys cross country titles in 2005 and 2006 and later ran at Syracuse University. “He was always able to lighten the mood and help me put things into perspective. I really needed that at times.”
His old-school approach and enthusiasm for the sport never dwindled and Abingdon had at least one individual state qualifier in each of the 44 seasons he was at the helm.
“Coach Cumbow changed my life from the very moment he stepped into it in the summer of 2008,” said Tanner Cook, an accomplished runner at Abingdon and King University. “He never stopped caring about the kids. That’s hard to find nowadays in coaching, but they don’t make them like Coach Cumbow anymore.”
In a sport that requires dedication, nobody was more dedicated than Cumbow to his alma mater. He was a 1963 graduate of Abingdon.
“Coach Cumbow was a first-class individual that was willing to do anything to help our students, school and community,” said AHS principal B.J. Lasley. “He was dedicated to the sports he coached and set the standard of hard work and giving your best effort each day. … Coach Cumbow was very passionate about not only the sports he coached, but he was also very supportive of all sports at Abingdon High School. He always made it a point to attend a number of events throughout the year to support all athletes.”
Nothing made Don Cumbow prouder than seeing an athlete put in the work and then succeed.
“That grin,” Duncan said. “Coach Cumbow would always have this grin on his face that showed you he was proud.”
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