His 'Personal Best' Has Nothing to Do With a Race Time

Priest Profile

“Good morning, Father!” the kinder-gartners at St. Anthony's summer school in Washington, D.C., chant in unison as 39-year-old Father Gregory Coan strolls into their classroom.

For the next 20 minutes, the newly ordained priest commands the kids’ attention, calling each child by name as he pops questions on the life of Christ, the Mass and the rosary. After the visit, he bounds up three flights of stairs to the parish memorial hall, where two of the 15 first-and second-graders raise their heads from a crossword puzzle to greet him. “This,” Father Coan says, “is a much harder crowd.”

Father Coan is no stranger to crowds that aren't easily impressed. His father is a doctor, his mother a nurse. And his paternal grandfather was a world-class runner. In 1929, Carl Coan came within two seconds of matching the then-world record for the indoor mile, 4:12.

That was a family legacy young Gregory wanted to build on. Father Coan recalls going on jogs with his dad by early grade school and, by his first year of high school, setting a goal for himself: beat his grandpa's near-record run.

In his senior year at Gonzaga High School in Washington, D.C., young Coan ran the region's fastest mile, 4:13. This led to his being recruited to run for the nationally ranked University of Virginia. It was there, in his sophomore year, that he realized his longtime athletic goal: He beat his grandfather's time by four seconds.

After graduating, he took a job as head coach of track and crosscountry at Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y. All the while, he was shaving seconds off his 5,000-meter and indoor-mile time.

“Running had become my No. 1 priority,” Father Coan recalls. “In college and afterward, I kind of drifted away from going to Mass and receiving the sacraments regularly. But I did keep praying the Our Father every night.”

Then, on Dec. 13, 1993, his comfortable routine — along with his string of personal-best run times, which were adding up to a serious shot at the 1996 U.S. Olympic Team — was shattered.

While playing a game of pickup basketball, he came down hard after jumping high for a rebound. “As soon as I landed,” he says, “I knew I had broken my foot.”

“I was so mad,” Father Coan continues. “I kept pounding the floor. People thought it was because of pain, but it was more out of anger at my own stupidity.” Weeks of rest and rehab followed.

The Sunday after the cast came off, he decided to test his progress by hobbling a mile and a half to Mass at the nearest church, Our Lady of Good Counsel. “I had become a Christmas-and-Easter Catholic,” he says. “But, as soon as I walked in, something — I don't know what — said, ‘You're home.’”

As his foot healed that spring of ‘94, a new door to professional advancement opened when he was named head coach of the crosscountry team at George Washington University. Glad to be back in his hometown, Coan led his team over familiar paths. He also returned to the confessional for the first time in 12 years and began going to daily Mass.

“It was that year, while praying the rosary one night, that I felt the call to the priesthood,” Father Coan remembers. “I thought just being back in Church was causing that, and that it would go away, and I was hoping it would go away.”

“I loved coaching,” he adds, “and I thought God had given me a good life. Now he was taking it away? I thought, ‘Lord, why are you doing this?’ But after a while, when the call wouldn't go away, I thought, ‘How could I not follow him?’”

The rest is history in the making — for the Coan family and for the Catholic Church in America. Father Coan was ordained in May 2003 as one of the Washington Archdiocese's nine graduating priests — up from just one in 1999 and part of a class of approximately 500 nationwide.

The Long Run

In October, with several months as a full-time parish priest under his belt and a few new strands of gray amid his black hair, Father Coan returned to the North American College in Rome for a final year of graduate studies. He hopes that, someday, he might return to a college campus, perhaps as a campus minister.

“He loves parish work and is very much a people person,” says Msgr. Richard Burton, pastor of St. Anthony's in Washington, where Father Coan spent his summer assignment. “He was in the front seat all summer.”

Reflecting on his first few months in the priesthood, Father Coan turns to the language of running: “With running, every day you have to get up and run, cold or rain. You've got to be in season all year round. Now my holy hour is just something I do. I know I have to be there, even if I don't necessarily feel like anything's going on. God is training me, filling me with his strength.”

“He's a prayer warrior,” says his friend and fellow student in Rome, Father Phillip Kaim. “The center of his day is oriented around the Eucharist.”

Father Coan's last Mass at St. Anthony's was the 11:30 Mass on the last Sunday of September. The church was packed.

Near the end of his departing homily, Father Coan looked up from his text to the people he had come to know. “All of our vocations are chosen for us by God, which he calls us to, and which it is up to us to answer,” Father Coan said. “We are all called to do great things in the name of Christ.”

Just before Father Coan gave the blessing at the close of the Mass, first a few parishioners, and then the entire church, rose to their feet. Father Coan knew it was not the ovation of the finish line but the encouragement at the starting blocks.

Soren Johnson writes from Washington, D.C.