State College

State College assistant coach making ‘awesome’ impact by providing lessons on and off the track

How a coach who can’t walk trains State High track and field athletes

Tom Kleban became paralyzed from the chest down after a swimming accident injured his spinal column between the C4 and C5 vertebrae. Now he trains State High athletes on the track and field team.
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Tom Kleban became paralyzed from the chest down after a swimming accident injured his spinal column between the C4 and C5 vertebrae. Now he trains State High athletes on the track and field team.

On a sweltering summer evening, Stanley Hamilton ran through one drill after another on the State College Area High School track, bolting out of the starting blocks or gliding over a series of hurdles.

A little earlier, Rachel Wylie bounced on one leg between hurdles after clearing each one, then later galloped along side the hurdles and clearing each with one leg.

Both athletes — Hamilton is a junior at State College and Wylie is a sophomore at Franklin and Marshall College — were under the watchful eye of Tom Kleban, who talked each student through the drills, gave feedback after each attempt and doled out plenty of praise and encouragement with a healthy, happy smile.

Hamilton, Wylie and numerous other Little Lion athletes have gotten expert advice from Kleban over the years, not at all concerned that their teacher is in a wheelchair and has not sprinted down a track or sailed over a hurdle in almost three decades.

“He does an awesome job of motivating,” State College boys’ track and field coach Steve Shisler said. “I’m always amazed at, even though he’s not able to demonstrate a lot of the things that hurdlers need to do, he has been able to communicate that through words. It’s a tribute to his ability to get into their heads to get it right.”

Long before these athletes were even born, Kleban — “Tek” as he’s better known — was one of them, a successful and gifted athlete. Even if those skills are no longer evident physically, members of the State College teams, directly and indirectly, have become better from what he has to give.

For both teacher and students, there are no limitations.

“Once I get through the gates, most of the time I forget that I’m in a wheelchair,” Tek said. “The kids make me feel just like one of them and that helps me forget about everything.”

Once I get through the gates, most of the time I forget that I’m in a wheelchair. The kids make me feel just like one of them and that helps me forget about everything.

Tom Kleban, State College track and field assistant coach

The highs and lows

In what has to feel like a previous lifetime, Tek was a decathlete — the most daunting of track’s competitions. With 10 events over two days to test sprinting, distance running, throwing, jumping and pole-vaulting, the physical and mental demands are enormous. Tek could handle it.

The 1985 State College graduate went on to be a decathlete at Penn State. He followed his brother to the campus — Rick was an All-American and still holds the school record in the decathlon for total points in a meet. Tek seemed on his way to chase his brother’s marks, and he still holds the program record for the decathlon 1,500-meter run.

However, during the summer of 1989, between his junior and senior years, Tek’s life changed with a plunge into a swimming pool off a diving board, hitting the pool floor. The injury to his spinal column came between his C4 and C5 vertebrae and paralyzed him from the chest down. He has a little mobility in his arms, with the use of his biceps and deltoids (shoulders) but not in his triceps.

He took a year off, then slowly got back to work at Penn State, a class or two at a time. He earned bachelor’s degrees in both speech communications and marketing, then added a master’s in business administration. He is now an investment research analyst, and has been with Vantage Investment Advisors since 2004.

His story got national attention 20 years ago when he was interviewed for a segment of the CBS program “60 Minutes II,” but Tek prefers not to dwell on the accident, or be an outspoken advocate for pool safety.

“I let people make their own judgments,” he said. “Just make them aware.”

Before the start of each track season, the State College coaches do give a summary of Tek’s story, mostly so the young athletes know the qualifications of the person giving them advice.

“It helps for them to realize he was a phenomenal athlete,” Shisler said.

It makes a big difference for Hamilton, whose own decathlon dreams are starting to germinate.

“Any question I have in any of the 10 events, he’s willing to give whatever pointers he can, show me any guidance he can,” Hamilton said. “He’s really been great to have him as a coach, and someone who has done the decathlon in order to coach me.”

Family request

Tek started passing along his knowledge as a volunteer coach at Penn State for his former head coach, Harry Groves. About seven years ago, his niece, Megan Fry, requested some advice in the hurdles during her freshman year at State College. He had already provided a few pointers for her and her older sister, Paige, in the past, but now he was coming to practices for Megan. Soon, however, Megan switched from hurdles to pole-vaulting — she is now pole-vaulting for Penn State — but by then many more Little Lions were listening.

His words of wisdom combine what he knew as an athlete, what he learned from Groves and the many others who taught him along the way, as well as keeping up with current teaching and trends. He challenges the teenagers and expects a lot, but they listen.

“The workouts I give them, they’re rough at times and they seem to handle it really well,” Tek said. “That kind of makes the whole thing easy and fun at the same time.”

The best part, he says, is when they get to the big meets and see the rewards for the hard work. They see fractions of seconds fall away from their times with each meet, and some even turn his words into medals at state championships and college opportunities.

Wylie finished seventh in the 100-meter hurdles last year at the PIAA meet, graduating with the school record. She followed a summer workout program diligently with Tek to knock even more time off her marks before returning to Franklin and Marshall.

“Doing workouts over breaks with him,” she said, “doing workouts over the summer and him pushing me so much and telling me to believe in myself, just giving me all the tools that I needed, I think really helped. I don’t think I actually could have done it without him.”

Tek also likes the challenge of figuring ways to teach something even if he can’t give a demonstration. He breaks things down piece by piece, then the pieces are reassembled on the track.

“I usually say it, we try it, we modify it, and then they’re able to pick it up,” Tek said. “The kids are absolutely resilient with being able to do it. The older kids show the younger kids. It’s a match made in heaven. ... Without these kids I wouldn’t be able to do it.”

Even without a visual show, the team members make it work.

“He’s a great explainer,” Hamilton said. “I’ve never had a problem with him not explaining something to a point where I can’t get it. He focuses in on the little things at a time, and so it makes it easier for me to picture in my mind, ‘OK, I have to do this, this, this and this.’”

The smile makes a difference

In addition to the technical work, Tek brings something intangible — his enthusiastic personality.

“It’s total positive,” Shisler said. “Somebody could have the worst race of their life and he could find something good about it.”

He also is incredibly dedicated to his team, no matter the circumstances.

Wylie remembers one scheduled summer practice set for Penn State’s track — except Tek thought it was at the high school. Undaunted, he drove his motorized wheelchair all the way across town.

“That shows his dedication to us as a coach,” Wylie said. “He’s always making jokes like, ‘Oh, it’s nothing.’ ”

For teens who do not have the perspective of years of experience, who naturally go through major swings of emotion and can get caught up in the moment, Tek provides another valuable resource.

“I love how when he comes (to practice) he comes with a smile — always,” Hamilton said. “I’m big on optimism, so it’s really good to have someone there who can connect with me like that. He’s not afraid to crack a couple jokes and make practice light sometimes.”

I love how when he comes (to practice) he comes with a smile — always.

Stan Hamilton, State College Area High School junior

Liana Craig is now a senior at State College and has been working with Tek since she was a freshman. She hopes to follow in the footsteps of Wylie and Jordi Rohrbach, who recently graduated and now runs at Penn State, as a District 6 champion and another Tek success story.

“He pushes us, but at the same time he’s constantly supporting us,” Craig said. “It’s a balance. He’s always trying to get your best race out of you or your best workout out of you, and he’s always making sure you’re feeling OK and you know what you’re doing, that you feel comfortable with you’re doing, but he also helps you look back at the season and says, ‘Hey, look at the progress you made.’ ”

Then there are the unintentional lessons, ones that do not necessarily need to be spoken to sink in when teenage life can be intruding.

“When you hear kids complaining about having a tough day,” Shisler said, “it’s, ‘Really? You’re going to complain having to run an extra 100 (meters) or a couple more repeats when Tek has ... had decades of challenges in his life?”

Setting bigger goals

Tek was working with Hamilton a few days after the athlete — a PIAA qualifier in the triple jump in May — competed in the decathlon at the USA Track and Field Region 2 Junior Olympic Championships in Brockport, N.Y. Hamilton won the 15-16 year-old division.

Hamilton had not seen Tek for a month, since the state championship meet, but told the coach he was going to be competing at the USATF event. There was much to pass along, but Tek’s main advice was in Hamilton’s weakest event — pole vault: “Whatever you do, just make sure to get that left leg up.”

Hamilton listened.

“With that little thought implanted in my mind, I was able to clear a (personal record) and get up at heights (near) 10 feet,” said Hamilton, who cleared 9-foot-8 in that regional meet. He went on to post 5,223 points and an eighth-place finish, out of 17 competitors in the 15-16 year-old division, at the national championship meet in Kansas in late July.

Whether it’s big goals like the USATF or state championships, or smaller events like a simple dual meet, Tek is giving the Little Lions the tools they need and the confidence to use them. For someone who’s turning 50 later this month, still having an impact on teens is a pretty nice reward.

“It gives me a great feeling to give back a little bit and work with the kids,” he said. “I get more out of it than I give to them. It’s one of those things it makes me feel good every day to step through the gates of practice and just be a part of it.”

Tek gets great professional satisfaction in seeing one of his protégés continually slicing fractions off his or her times or adding distance to jumps. And when Wylie got a medal draped around her neck at the PIAA championships last year, it was almost like he was on the podium with her.

In track and field, there are victories big and small, tangible and invisible.

The Little Lions have gained a great deal from their coach since he started helping them. What is unclear is whether they have gained more from Tek on the track — or off it.

“It’s the positivity that he brings that really is an awesome thing for high school kids to be able to see,” Shisler said. “The adversity that he obviously came across in his life. He never looked back.”

Gordon Brunskill: 814-231-4608, @GordonCDT

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