Janelle Kraus is just one of many great runners to train under the tutelage of Shelter Island’s Cliff Clark.
Long considered one of Long Island’s finest coaches, Clark, who qualified for the 1972 Olympic Trials in two events, was also a fine athlete himself. On Wednesday we selected him at No. 15 on our list of the 20 Greatest Athletes in area history, one spot behind his former student Kraus.
Remarkably, Clark has gone on to see five of the athletes he coached during his career also reach the Olympic Trial level.
It all started for Clark after his coach at Harding University passed away during his junior year. The school’s dean of students took over coaching the running teams and he tapped Clark to help him as a volunteer student coach during his senior year.
Clark has served as a coach for the 45 years since, often working as a volunteer assistant for elite teams and individuals seeking his help.
His most recent project resulted in a national record for the 4×800 relay team from Charlotte High School of Punta Gorda, Fla. at the New Balance High School National Scholastic Track & Field Championships in Greensboro, NC in June. The team ran to a U.S. Scholastic Record with a 7:30.31 time, but finished second behind a team from California who also set the record.
Running the fastest leg of that race was a summer resident of Shelter Island, Tyler Cardillo, whom Clark has taken under his wing in recent years. Cardillo won the Florida State championship in the 1600 meters in 4:11.1 this year.
Clark called the accomplishments of Cardillo and his teammates two of the five best memories of his coaching career.
The oldest of those memories came while he served as a volunteer assistant with the Merced High School track team in Merced, Calif. in 1972. That was the year the Merced cross country team broke the U.S. high school three-mile team record.
During Clark’s nearly five years in Merced, where he was stationed with the Air Force, the Merced cross country program, considered among the finest in the country, had some of its golden years. The team went undefeated for two of those years, rattling off 176 straight wins.
“They were amazing,” Clark recalled. “To be at practice with these talented kids every day was just incredible.”
But Clark would also coach some amazing talent after moving back home to Shelter Island.
He said his two other most favorite coaching memories come from his time working with Kraus, specifically when she won the 1995 New York State Class C title, and Alexis Hamblet. Clark selected Hamblet winning silver medals in the 800 and 1,500 meter state championships to round out his list of greatest memories.
Clark retired from coaching at Shelter Island in 1998 after 18 years with the school.
So what does Clark mean to those he has coached?
““He’s just an all around amazing mentor for me,” Kraus said. “He helped me with my running, but also my college choices, and afterward he helped me with moving and keeping running into the equation.”
In a letter Cardillo recently sent to Clark he called him “more than a coach.”
“You’re like another father to me,” he wrote.
Clark said one of his finest joys now is seeing some of the runners he coached who never reached an elite status continue to enjoy the sport.
“Sometimes I’ll come across someone I coached running all these years later,” Clark said. “That’s great to see they still love the sport.”