Virtual run-a-thon will honor late RHS assistant track coach Bill Owens

A virtual run-a-thon this Saturday will honor the memory of Bill Owens, a longtime assistant coach for the Ridgefield High girls cross country and track teams. Funds raised from the event will go to healthcare workers at local hospitals.

A virtual run-a-thon this Saturday will honor the memory of Bill Owens, a longtime assistant coach for the Ridgefield High girls cross country and track teams. Funds raised from the event will go to healthcare workers at local hospitals.

Contributed photo / John Goetz

Generous, humorous, approachable, supportive — ask people who knew Bill Owens to describe him and those are some of the first responses you’ll hear.

A longtime Ridgefield resident and assistant coach for the Ridgefield High girls cross country, indoor track and outdoor track teams, the 75-year-old Owens died on March 2 after a battle with brain cancer.

To honor their late assistant coach, Ridgefield High senior sisters Emma and Katie Langis have organized the Coach Owens Virtual Run-A-Thon, which takes place this Saturday, May 2. As of Wednesday morning, 52 current and former members of the RHS boys and girls track teams have signed up to participate.

Emma and Katie also have created a GoFundMe page for the event, with money raised going to healthcare workers at Danbury and Norwalk hospitals, where Owens received treatment. By Wednesday morning $2,330 had been raised, topping the goal of $2,000.

“Initially, my sister and I thought we could honor him with a 5K in his name,” Emma said. “With the [coronavirus] pandemic, we realized we could take this opportunity to spread the kindness of Coach Owens by raising funds for healthcare professionals, albeit virtually.”

“Friends of ours in Wellesley, Massachusetts, had organized a virtual run-a-thon,” Katie added. “After hearing about their run, Emma and I thought that would be a great idea in the current climate.”

“It was relatively easy to organize,” Emma said. “We reached out to current athletes through our team group chats, and then we formed a Facebook group for this virtual run. Many of us have been training on our own despite the loss of the season, so I think it is exciting for many of us to run for a purpose this Saturday.”

Owens, a chemical engineer, came to Ridgefield via a job transfer with Texaco. He and his wife raised three children here — including former cross country and track standout Candy Owens — and Bill coached the RHS boys cross country team for one season, in 2000. The Tigers won the Class L state title that fall and finished second at the FCIAC and State Open meets.

Owens returned to coaching two years later, serving as an assistant for the RHS girls cross country team. He continued as an assistant coach for girls cross country and indoor and outdoor track through the 2019 outdoor season.

Much of that time was spent alongside John Goetz, the head coach of the girls cross country and track teams.

“I met Bill when I was an assistant boys cross country coach in 2006,” Goetz said. “From the fall of 2011 onward, when I became head coach, I spent more time with Bill than anyone other than my wife and daughter. Six days a week for three hours, virtually every week of the year, including summers.

“He had a way, through his sense of humor, of having things be serious but light and not over bearing,” Goetz added. “He was also very analytical. He had a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and had a very quantitative mind when it came to breaking down events, relay hand-offs, drills, injury prevention, mobility, etc.”

“He was the most approachable coach for nervous freshmen,” Emma Langis said. “As underclassmen, Katie and I really sought his advice and ability to comfort us before our nerve-wracking meets. He even showed up to cheer the track athletes on at my soccer games and Katie’s field hockey games.”

A standout hurdler and runner who will compete at Harvard University, Emma Langis credits Owens for providing a big boost to her career.

“Probably the most memorable moment was my freshman indoor [track] season when one of the members of the 4x400-meter [relay] team fell ill. Coach Owens was the one who suggested I be put in the relay at the last minute,” she said. “This was really the turning point in my track career, and I believe I owe the start of my success and love for track to Coach Owens.”

“No matter the race or the athlete, Coach Owens was there with his quick wit, a funny story of his running days, or a reminder to tie your shoes,” Katie Langis said. “He made every athlete feel important and confident. If you set a personal-best he was the first to tell you where you stand in comparison to your last race or last season.

“At the end of our meets, we’d be collecting our things and packing up for the bus,” Katie Langis added. “Coach Owens was always in the stands crunching the numbers, analyzing the results on his clipboard, giving us a big smile and congratulating us on our effort.”

Although Owens was physically unable to serve as an assistant coach during the 2019 fall cross country season and the 2019-20 winter indoor track season, he remained involved.

“He loved the track practices and meets. When he was no longer unable to attend the meets in person, he asked for updates and results from Coach Goetz and Coach [Norah] McGrath,” Katie Langis said. “Our team knew he was rooting for us and that inspired us to give our best efforts.”

Goetz recalled a moment that summarized Owens’ ubiquitous sense of humor.

“I remember a meet when we started doing everything by computer and Bill was running the computer,” Goetz said. “About two-thirds of the way through the meet he walks up to me just after I started a race, hands in his back pocket and shaking his head.

“I asked him what was up. He shook his head and said ‘I lost all of the results.’ I was a bit shocked and asked him how that happened. He said ‘don’t worry. I ended up finding them. I just wanted to make sure your stress level is as high as mine.’ ”