While Makena Morley was racing in San Diego against the nation’s fastest high school runners, on her way to achieving third place and further cementing her status as one of Montana’s all-time greats, Sue Loeffler was huddled in front of a computer screen, cheering on her pupil from their hometown of Bigfork.
Loeffler has seen just about every step of Morley’s illustrious career. From the beginning, when the longtime coach and teacher discovered Morley as a fifth grader with rare, unique talent to now, when Bigfork’s star distance runner is the state record holder in cross country with dozens of state medals and national accolades, Loeffler has been there.
“I can always hear her cheers,” Morley says.
The support extends beyond the track or cross country course. At least four days a week, Morley spends her lunch hour with Loeffler.
“We talk about everything,” Morley, a senior, says. “She’s like a second mom.”
Loeffler has been a constant presence and source of support for 40 years’ worth of students in Bigfork, ever since the Havre native first began teaching and coaching here in 1974. She even coached Morley’s father, Steve, a former standout track runner who still holds the school record in the 400-meter dash.
After anchoring the national championship short relay team at Flathead Valley Community College in the early 1970s, under iconic coach Neil Eliason, she followed in her mentor’s footsteps and became a coach. Moving to Bigfork 40 years ago at Eliason’s recommendation, she eventually took over the track and cross country programs and guided them to multiple state championships and individual athletes to remarkable success, the latest and best example being Morley.
“They’ve had some pretty good runners come out of Bigfork. There’s got to be a reason for it. I’m sure (Loeffler) being there makes a big difference,” said Paul Jorgensen, the longtime National Coaches Hall of Fame running coach at Flathead High School.
When the high school cross country program went away, she helped bring it back, and a year later, in 2001, the girls team won its first of three straight team championships.
She’s been an indelible part of Bigfork’s rich running tradition.
That’s what made this past year so hard. For the first time in four decades, Loeffler couldn’t always be there.
Last winter she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Over the following months, she underwent treatment and then surgery while battling the disease. She was overcome with weakness and sickness resulting from the treatments. It forced her to reduce her teaching schedule from seven periods a day. It also kept her from coaching.
But instead of giving it all up, she kept teaching and coaching.
“It saved me,” she says.
She still taught a couple classes per day. She kept coaching any way she could, sometimes writing workouts from home and delivering a sheet of paper to practice with the students. She did miss a few track meets, but the students, or her husband Wayne, would call her after every event involving a Bigfork athlete and told her the results.
“That was probably the hardest, not being able to do as much as I wanted to and not being able to be there,” she says.
“To watch her go through that was really hard. You really got to see what it took out of her,” Morley says. “You could tell she just wanted to be there for the students and she always showed up whenever she could. It actually really helped our track team. We ran for her.”
Last year Bigfork students voted Loeffler the coach of the year, and a few months later the Montana Coaches Association awarded her one of its rare honors, recognizing 40 years of service.
Instead of using that as an opportunity to bow out, she worked to regain her strength and stamina for another school year. This fall, she was back teaching six periods per day and coaching cross country full time with her assistant, Jessica Johnson.
Loeffler successfully recruited a full team of six girls for the first time in years, and they went on to bring home third place at the Class B state meet. She hugged Morley after she crossed the finish line and broke her own all-class record. It was a bittersweet moment for both. But while one career ends, another continues. Loeffler is already anxious for another spring track season.
“When something is such a big part of your life for so long, how do you give it up? I don’t know how you would,” she says. “I love it.”