The end bell for eighth period rings. Cross country and track coach Mark Mendes is on the third floor, stopwatch in hand, waiting for any runners with the last two periods free. Track practice later ends at a quarter to six, and Mendes is still there, dedicated to helping every runner on the team to excel no matter how long it might take.
One might suspect that a coach who puts so much of his time, dedication and effort into running was a track aficionado from an extremely early age. However, Mendes had a quite irregular introduction to track. “This may be almost embarrassing. I was the manager of Midwood High School’s team because my best friend was the star, and I stayed with it from there,” Mendes said. “I was not that athletic.”
Mendes started his coaching career in the 1970s at Thomas Jefferson High School, successfully coaching the team to numerous City Championships. He even coached a future Olympian there, Derrick Peynando. Certainly, part of his success at Jefferson can be attributed to good funding. “We had unlimited money. I was the program chairman, and we sold soft pretzels out of my office, and we made a fortune. We had the pretzel concession locked up, we had M&M’s and Snickers, we had it all,” Mendes said. The funding allowed the team to travel almost every day to practice, from the school in Brooklyn to the armory in Harlem, giving them a sizable advantage in competitions.
Mendes’s time at Jefferson High School came to an abrupt end when a school shooting in 1991, which resulted in the death of a 16-year-old student, caused him to rethink the type of school atmosphere he wanted to work in. After a quick stint at Prospect Heights as program chairman, Mendes went to Hunter High School, where he coached for 10 years. After remaining undefeated against Stuyvesant in those 10 years, he inherited the tough coaching position at Hunter’s rival high school, Stuyvesant, where he has remained ever since.
Coaching at Hunter was easier for Mendes and his team because of the school’s close proximity to the practice location. “Hunter was right by Central Park, while [Stuy] kids have to travel all three seasons,” Mendes said. Despite having to travel to Central Park, the Armory on 168th street, and Broadway, Mendes and the Stuyvesant cross country and track teams have overcome many obstacles during his coaching tenure. In addition to coaching several individual champions, Mendes coached the team to three PSAL Cross Country City Championships in the span of just four years.
The team’s success can partially be attributed to Mendes’s inspirational coaching style. “He really enjoys helping young runners become better, and he knows a lot from coaching for so long and he has a lot to share with us,” junior Billy Barnes said. “Truthfully, I probably wouldn’t be running if he wasn’t the coach.”
“He doesn’t take no as an answer,” sophomore Konrad Surkont said. “Motivation-wise, it’s great. It pushes you. That’s why there’s constant improvement and success. He puts in the work himself as the coach, and then pushes you to do the work.”
“He’s very well-versed in the technical side of the sport, he knows what he’s talking about,” senior and captain Daniel Hyman-Cohen said. In fact, after taking little interest in the sport at a young age, running now plays a large role in Mendes’s life. He is USATF (USA Track and Field) certified, and attends at least two of their events, usually a distance seminar, every year. Furthermore, he subscribes to many technical journals, and has traveled to watch the past four World Championships, including the latest one in Berlin over the summer. All his track experience allows him to create effective workouts for the team, and his knowledge of the sport enables him to manage his runners. “Talent, if it’s not taken care of properly and enhanced, it’s not going to lead to results,” Surkont said.
Mendes’s former runners also had many words of praise. Serge Morrell (’06), who won the Heisman Award—which is presented by the PSAL to the most outstanding senior student athlete in each high school sport—under Mendes, is still inspired by his former coach. Morrell still has a picture of his city championship team hanging in his college dorm in the University of Pennsylvania. “Coach [Mendes] is one of the most incredible people I’ve known,” Morell said in an e-mail interview. Morrell also commended Mendes for the impact he has had on his life to this day. “The team really changed my life and coach did too, [he] taught me everything from perseverance to time management,” Morell said.
The Mendes era of coaching at Stuyvesant doesn’t seem to be concluding any time soon. “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in,” Mendes said, quoting The Godfather: Part III. “When a Daniel graduates, a Konrad comes along. It’s very tough to find a place to pull the plug. They’ll have to pull the plug on me before I go.”