It was, he’ll tell you, something of a crazy decision to come to Eastern Mennonite University. Jason Lewkowicz and his family were settled and happy in Hannibal, Missouri, where he’d spent three years building the first track and field program at Hannibal-LaGrange University.
The year before he came, those programs at EMU were hanging on by a thread. The men’s cross country team had just three members – not even enough to score as a team at a meet. The women’s roster was just two names long. Track and field wasn’t in much better shape, with less than 10 athletes on the men’s and women’s teams combined.
Through the coaching grapevine, though, Lewkowicz’s phone number had ended up in the hands of EMU athletics director Dave King. Soon, Lewkowicz was flying out to visit. Geography was on EMU’s side – Lewkowicz’s wife, Wendy, is from Roanoke, Virginia, just a two-hour drive away. In the summer of 2011, he reported for duty as the new head cross country and track coach.
His Lord leads, Lewkowicz follows
“None of the places we’ve lived are places I would have chosen to live,” says Lewkowicz, who talks freely and often about his Christian faith. “We’ve been led from place to place.”
The first season, he told his athletes that they would be laying the foundations for new and improved track and cross country programs. It was a fundamental task that very few would likely appreciate once the whole house had been built. The cross country teams didn’t do well at the conference meet, but they actually had enough runners to score as a team – itself a step in the right direction. The track team finished last at the conference meets, both for the indoor and outdoor seasons. “Humbling” is the word Lewkowicz uses to describe that first year. Success, though, isn’t something he measures only by points and scores.
“We want God to be glorified in everything that we do,” he says. “That can be done in victory or defeat all the same.”
Pursuing excellence, glorifying God
Lewkowicz’s coaching philosophy involves a general pursuit of excellence everywhere, be it in an early-morning biology class, in cross country practice later that afternoon, and on the race course on Saturday.
“In life, there are only really two things you can control: your effort and your attitude,” he says. “Whatever moment you’re in, be present in that moment that God’s called you to be in.”
Some moments, like perhaps that biology class, can significantly shape life and career in years to come. Be excellent. Others, like an early season track meet, particularly if you’re a middle-of-the-pack NCAA Division III runner, aren’t probably going to carry quite the same significance. Still be excellent.
Deep roster now
The numbers alone show that Lewkowicz’s athletes are responding to his approach and his enthusiasm. This fall, the cross country roster runs close to 40 deep, and about 30 runners travel to meets. Ohio and Pennsylvania have been great recruiting grounds for distance runners. Lewkowicz has had his best luck here in Virginia for other track athletes.
“He has brought a vision for what the program can become, the knowledge of how to get there, and the energy and work ethic to do it,” says King, who recruited him to EMU.
Lewkowicz’s athletes also value the individual attention and support they receive, even for interests that can conflict with sports.
Not just one’s athletic ability
“[EMU] made me feel like a person rather than an athlete,” says Richard Robinson, a junior who runs hurdles for Lewkowicz. “I chose to come here because of that.”
A star in high school, Robinson was humbled by a last-place finish in his first collegiate race. Lewkowicz told him he’d just collected some “humble swag.” Everybody needs some, the coach said.
“He just feels great to be around,” adds Robinson.
Jolee Paden, a junior on the cross country and track teams, first met Lewkowicz at a running camp while she was in high school. The two kept in touch, and when Lewkowicz came to EMU for the job, Paden found herself considering a school she’d never heard of before. The school’s cross-cultural programs sealed the deal for her. Study abroad is so ingrained at EMU that athletes are supported by their coaches even when they’ll miss an entire season of competition, as Paden did when she went to the Middle East during the spring of her sophomore year.
Student inspired to write book
While on the trip, Paden was inspired to complete a writing project that had been several years in the making: a collection of devotionals for runners (Spiritual Runner: A Runner After God’s Own Heart). The Lewkowicz-inspired philosophy of the cross country and track teams is scattered throughout the book, in sections like the one encouraging runners to step onto the course acting like it’s the most important thing in the world, but knowing that it’s not.
“That is something he says that has really stuck with me over the years,” she says.
Lewkowicz ran track and cross country in his hometown of Shelby, North Carolina, before walking onto the track team at Appalachian State University as a high jumper. He finished a history degree, then stayed for a master’s in higher education administration. Within a few years, he’d become the director of residence life at the University of Virginia at Wise; to get himself out of the office, he started coaching the cross country team. Somewhere along the way, he “got the coaching bug” and, before long, was looking around for full-time positions.
Then came the move to Hannibal, and then, when things fell into place at EMU, the Lewkowiczes made yet another long-distance move. Jason and his wife, Wendy, had two sons when they moved to Missouri. They had three when they moved to Virginia, and now, they have four between the ages of 1 and 10.
French-Jewish Holocaust heritage
Lewkowicz’s father was born in France to Jewish Holocaust survivors who later emigrated to America. His Cherokee biological mother left when he was 5, and Lewkowicz was later adopted by his father’s subsequent wife, whom he considers his mom. (His paternal grandparents eventually returned to France, and Lewkowicz spent many summers at their home on the Mediterranean coast.)
The family wasn’t religious. Lewkowicz discovered Christianity through an older sister and her husband. Before he was old enough to drive himself to church, he often spent Saturday nights at their place so he could accompany them to church the next morning. Eventually, he says with evident joy, his parents became believers. Now in Harrisonburg, he and his family have joined Aletheia Church, where Lewkowicz is involved in music on Sundays.
“I see this as a ministry,” he says, of his coaching. “My job is to show the love of God to my athletes.”
Wrestling with questions
The Mennonite approach to Christianity was new to him. He has discovered pluses (singing, peacebuilding, working with the marginalized), yet he voices a desire “to feel certain that Christ is always at the center of the university’s mission.” He and his runners wrestle with these sorts of things sometimes on runs.
“I don’t expect perfection,” he adds, referring to the EMU community. “I’m not perfect.” Overall, he feels the three years and counting that he’s been at EMU have been rewarding.
“He’s very interested in engaging in dialogue,” says King. “I really appreciate that about him.”
Back to the whole excellence thing. In 2013, the women’s cross country team finished second in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference championship meet. The men were fourth.
Things are looking a little more excellent in the performance department. Sights are set on conference titles. And on the third Saturday in September, at the Shenandoah Valley Invitational, the women’s cross country team achieved the ultimate in cross country excellence: a sweep of first through fifth places, earning a rare and perfect score of 15.
Editor’s note: Originally posted 10/03/14, this article was slightly revised on 10/07/14, with the concurrence of Jason Lewkowicz.