Yet when the opportunity to head the mens and womens cross-country and track programs at Northwest University presented itself last June, Mandi accepted the challenge.
And hes glad he did.
Sometimes, gosh, I think, They pay me to do this? said the affable and youthful-looking 26-year-old as he sat in his office on the campus of the small eastside NAIA school last month.
A humble and unassuming man, Mandi perhaps didnt realize it, but he was perfectly suited to instruct young people on how to become better runners and better people.
And if youngsters were looking for inspiration, all they had to do was familiarize themselves with the running career of their new coach.
If they were latecomers to the sport or if they had no scholarship offers from big-time colleges coming out of high school, they could look at their coach and realize that hard work and determination can carry a person far beyond his wildest dreams.
For a guy who didnt take up competitive running until his junior year at Mariner High School and then walked onto the cross-country team at the University of Washington, Mandi made himself into one of those feel-good stories that often happen in sports. He went on to have a brilliant career at the UW, twice earning All-Pacific-10 Conference cross-country honors and carving his name on the schools all-time top-10 list in three different events in track and field.
And on a snowy day last March, he won his second consecutive St. Patricks Day Dash in Seattle, leading 15,000 runners across the finish line.
On Dec. 12, hell run for Club Northwest in the USATF National Club Cross Country Championships in Lexington, Ky., trying to improve on his 41st place finish of a year ago and help his team win the title (Club Northwest was sixth a year ago). And perhaps hell give a young Northwest U. runner the motivation to try to replicate the success story of his coach.
One of the runners on his mens cross-country team, senior Tyler Hart, from Bothell, can speak to the kind of coach hes gotten to know this fall.
Hes awesome, Hart said. In college, he put in the work to accomplish things that didnt seem possible. Here, were having people improve just because Mark believes in them. He sees himself in a lot of our shoes because he was a back-of-the-pack runner at one time.
As a former teammate at the UW, Mike Sayenko knows Mandi as an athlete and a friend. Currently a professional runner, who last month finished 14th in the New York City Marathon, Sayenko points out one very important attribute that Mandi possesses to be a successful coach. He loves to help people, whether its in track or in school, he said. He has a good heart, great character in general in that he wants to help people improve.
In training for the NYC Marathon, Sayenko had some prime workouts on the track with Mandi. I wouldnt have been able to run those workouts as fast without him pushing me, Sayenko said.
To which Mandi rejoined: I got my butt handed to me a lot.
Mandi knows what it takes to improve, recognizes the intangibles that can make a difference in performance, and can say to his young athletes: Ive been there. I know what youre going through. And, as one of the top runners in the Northwest and a guy with his sights on qualifying for the U.S. Olympic trials in 2012, he sets an example with his work ethic, putting in 70 miles a week.
A longtime central figure in the St. Patricks Day Dash gives a glimpse of the good heart that Sayenko referred to. Al Bonney, a former womens cross-country coach at the UW, was riding in the back of a pickup truck near the end of last years race, with Mandi about 30 yards behind.
Bonney started to jump out, misjudged the height of the truck, and ended up flat on his back. Mandi, with a sizable lead, stopped to make sure Bonney was OK. Im fine, he said, now get out of here.
Reflecting on that moment, Bonney said, That speaks volumes about the kid. Hes just an amazing kid.
Which is what his teammates and coaches found out when he walked on at the UW in 2001. He always did what the coaches said and more, Sayenko said. He was the number-one runner on our (cross-country) team his sophomore, junior and senior years. He beat a lot of guys that got scholarships, guys that were really good in high school.
In high school, Mandi didnt place at state in either cross country or track. He figured his running career was over after his last prep track meet. Then Husky cross-country coach Greg Metcalf called and invited him to walk on.
When I got to the U, I didnt know who any of the guys were, Mandi said. Then Andy Fader came up and welcomed me. I thought, This guy knows who I am? He was on scholarship and one of the top runners in the state in high school.
Fader, who went to Cascade High, might have recognized Mandi from a different locale than a track or cross-country venue. Mandi worked at a McDonalds during high school and used to hand Fader his food at the drive-through window.
He was my idol, Mandi said.
Mandi was so modest when he got to the UW that he was hesitant about approaching a young lady who had caught his eye. Alison Tubbs was not only attractive, she was the fourth-ranked two-miler in the nation and had been heavily recruited by major programs.
I saw this really cute girl on her recruiting trip and I thought shes probably not going to talk to the slowest guy on the team, he said. I thought maybe if I made the traveling squad, shed recognize me.
She not only recognized him. She married him.
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