Bernie Gardner is on the skis during a team warmup before a meet (Top Left), Bernie Gardner with his camera at the ready to document the teams’ races at a cross country meet (Top Right), Bernie Gardner, far left in the front row, poses with the athletes and coaches of the Section V title-winning Boys and Girls Track and Field teams in the spring of 2019 (Bottom). Photo Credit: Donna MacKenzie

Gardner’s Gold

18 Section V titles in Boys Cross Country Running

4 New York State titles in Boys Cross Country Running

8 Top Three Finishes at the NYS Championships in Boys Cross Country Running

18 Section V titles in Girls Cross Country Running

7 New York State titles in Girls Cross Country Running

12 Top Three Finishes at the NYS Championships in Girls Cross Country Running

30 Section V titles since his involvement in Boys Nordic Skiing, 11 since becoming head coach in 2007

10 New York State titles since his involvement in Boys Nordic Skiing, 3 since becoming head coach in 2007

33 Section V titles since his involvement in Girls Nordic Skiing, 11 since becoming head coach in 2007

9 New York State titles since his involvement in Girls Nordic Skiing, 3 since becoming head coach in 2007

9 Section V titles in Boys Track and Field

 

About five years ago to recruit new freshmen members for the Honeoye Falls-Lima track and field teams, some veteran team members put up posters around the high school. The posters stated “The Man, The Myth, The Legend” at the top. The words “Join Track” were at the bottom. In the middle was a photo of boys track coach Bernie Gardner.

The students were only half-kidding.

When your teams have racked up as many Section V Championships and New York State Public High School Athletic Association titles and your programs have produced as many individual sectional champions and state titlists (to say nothing of those who have shined on a national and even international stage) as Gardner’s has, legendary status is guaranteed. The success of the teams he has coached – Cross Country Running, Nordic Skiing and Boys Track and Field – has brought national recognition to HF-L. Even HF-L Superintendent Gene Mancuso has been heard to say that being around Gardner is like being around a rock star because so many people have heard of the success of his teams.

Yet, Gardner says he didn’t create the teams’ achievements. He credits the student athletes with the success of the programs whose reins will be turned over to other coaches this coming academic year (2021-2022) as he has retired from coaching after 39 years (112 consecutive seasons).

“The kids have been the ones who have worked hard,” said Gardner, who was known to open up the school’s weight room at 6 a.m. three days a week for athletes. “The kids who go into cross country running and Nordic skiing already have that small ember of wanting to see what they can do here. All I did is fan that ember and get it to burn a bit, then little by little the kids explored their limits.”

Interestingly, the 1974 HF-L graduate didn’t compete in cross country running or Nordic skiing until his junior year. Gardner played soccer, basketball and baseball from middle school until his junior year of high school. As a junior, he turned to cross country running. Friends from cross country running got him into Nordic skiing. It was a rough introduction.

“I had never skied before,” Gardner said. “I broke the skis within about 10 yards my first time on them.”

Gardner progressed quickly that first season, but dislocated a shoulder at the end of Nordic ski season. Because he could not throw a baseball, he turned to track that junior season. Gardner returned to baseball in his senior year. He did well enough in Nordic skiing his junior and senior years that he earned a ski scholarship from Western State College in Colorado, where he earned his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree. He competed at the 1979 NCAA Championship.

Western State was in the same conference as heavyweights University of Colorado, University of Wyoming, University of Utah, University of New Mexico and Montana State.

“It was the best conference in America because so many of the skiers were Norwegian,” he said. “It was a great experience because I was skiing against some of the best in the world.”

Teaching and coaching was his destiny and he credits the influence of Chuck Starwald, his physical education teacher at HF-L, Doug Powell, his cross country running coach, and Walt Dyer, his Nordic ski and baseball coach. He was a substitute teacher at HF-L for a couple of years, sandwiched around going back to Western State for his master’s degree. He was hired full-time as a teacher in 1985, retiring from teaching phys ed at the Middle School in 2018.

Gardner also credits one autumn spent working as an assistant coach with Jackie Randall-Ward (a retired physical education teacher at HF-L) with the Nazareth College women’s soccer team before he took over the cross country running program at HF-L where he was teaching physical education at the Middle School, saying he learned a ton from her. Gardner was like a sponge, also soaking up advice from books by coaching greats John Wooden, Dean Smith and Vince Lombardi. He said his being tapped by the U.S. Ski Team in 1998 to be the head coach for a group of skiers in Europe for Europa Cup Races and Swiss Nationals who were being groomed for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah was a great experience as the team spent three weeks in Germany, France and Switzerland. He said he learned so much from it that benefited him as a coach for the rest of his career.

One of those lessons he learned was how to make his athletes care about their success as much as he did while making sure the team came first.

“In the traditional ball sports, you might not get the ball passed to you or an official might make a bad call, but in cross country running, Nordic skiing and track, the athletes are in charge of their own destiny,” said Gardner, who was selected to the HF-L Alumni Hall of Fame in 1998 and to the Walk of Fame at Frontier Field about 10 years later. “How well you do correlates to how well the team does. When the kids look for the last ounce of energy in a race in cross country, Nordic and track, it becomes a mental war and if they know they’re also running for their teammates, they keep forging ahead.”

Gardner obviously perfected that balancing act of team success with individual athlete success.

He took over the boys and girls cross country running teams in the fall of 1985. His boys cross country running program produced 18 Section V titles, four state titles, eight top three finishes at state championships, one third place finish at the New York State Federation Meet and a third and a fourth place finish at the Nike New York Regionals while also boasting eight individual boys sectional champions (Scott McArt in 1995, Tony David in 1996, his nephew Robert Gardner in 2006, Alex Deir in 2007, 2008 and 2009, Cooper Roach in 2011 and Ryan Dailor in 2020), a two-time state champion in Deir (2007, 2009) and three Nike Nationals qualifiers (Deir in 2008 and 2009 and Steve Mangan in 2009, the first and only time so far in Section V history that teammates have made the Nike Nationals, and Roach in 2011) and one New York State Gatorade Cross Country Runner of the Year (Deir in 2009).

The HF-L girls cross country running teams under Gardner garnered 18 sectional titles, seven state titles (1998-2004), 12 top three finishes at states and third (1999), fifth (2001) and second (2002) finishes at the state Federation Meet while celebrating 10 individual sectional champions (Allison Snyder in 1997 and 1998, Amber Dodzweit in 1999, Lynn Kubeja in 2002 and 2003, Liz Deir, Alex’s older cousin, in 2004, 2005 and 2006 and Hannah Cole in 2011 and 2012), a two-time state champion in Liz Deir (2005 and 2006), a two-time qualifier to the Footlocker Nationals (Deir in 2005 and 2006) and a Nike Nationals qualifier (Amanda Moreland in 2009).

HF-L boys Nordic ski teams won 30 sectional titles and 10 state titles since his involvement with coaching the team (which started with his volunteering as an assistant in 1982) with 11 of those sectional titles and three of those state titles coming since he assumed the official head coach position in 2007 succeeding Dyer while the Lady Cougars won 33 sectional titles and nine state titles since his involvement with coaching the team with 11 of those sectional titles and three state titles coming since he assumed the official head coach position in 2007. Since 2007, he has coached 10 individual boys sectional champions, four individual boys state champions, eight individual girls sectional champions and four individual girls state champions. Since he began helping coach the Nordic ski teams, five athletes have finished in the top three at Junior Nationals with Steve Mangan winning the U16 National Championship in 2008, and 10 athletes have earned All-American honors at the Junior Olympics with five students earning that designation multiple times. He also helped coach two-time (1992 and 1994) Olympic biathlete Joan Smith, an HF-L grad. HF-L graduate Erin Graham competed in biathlon at the 2008 World Championships while McArt skied in the 1996 World Junior Championships and in the 2001 Pre-Olympics World Cup in preparation for the 2002 Winter Olympics. HF-L alum Hannah Cole qualified to ski in the World Cup races in 2020 but the night before the first race the onset of COVID-19 cancelled everything.
Gardner took over the HF-L Boys Track and Field team in the spring of 1985 and coached the team to nine sectional titles with numerous sectional event champions, two state champions (Tony David in the steeplechase in 1997 and Alex Deir in the steeplechase in 2009), one national champion (Deir in the steeplechase in 2009 and 2010) and one All-American (Deir). He has also been instrumental in the success of the girls track team which has won several Section V team titles and whose members have brought home numerous individual sectional event titles along with producing three state champions (Allison Snyder in 1998 and 1999 in the 800 meters, Dodzweit in 2000 in the steeplechase and Cole in 2013 in the steeplechase) and two All-Americans (Snyder and Cole).

“He was a one–of-a-kind coach back when I ran cross country for him in high school,” said Megan Mansfield, a 2000 HF-L graduate who coached the HF-L girls track team for the past several years until resigning from that position at the end of the 2021 season.

“I was always in awe of how he could motivate me to give my very best in every single practice and race. Cross Country, for me, was the most difficult sport I had ever taken part in. While I loved the challenge, I didn’t love the pain of running as hard as I could for 3.1 miles! Somehow though, he always encouraged all of us to find what our very best was. We learned just how capable we were of doing things that are hard and we learned that we could succeed. And Bernie did that for everyone – from the most naturally talented runner to the beginning runner. When I got hired at HF-L, I was excited at the opportunity to coach with him. Boy, that did not disappoint! Coaching with Bernie has truly been the most enjoyable and rewarding experience. He has been a mentor to me for 15 years, while also becoming a true friend. The thing that I admire most about Bernie is his passion for what he does, day in and day out. He is always at the top of his game – caught up on the latest and greatest training methods that nobody else knows about yet. He is the epitome of a lifelong learner, driven by the passion to be the best at all times. He doesn’t just expect it from his athletes – he expects it from himself, and he delivers. And one of the greatest things about Bernie is how much he loves to celebrate when all that hard work comes to fruition! When an athlete sets a new personal record, or wins a race for the first time, or just completes something they’ve never been able to accomplish before, you can bet that Bernie will be at the finish line going nuts!”

Although it is certainly not in the job description, Gardner served as his teams’ official photographer at meets, whether regular season, invitationals, sectionals or state meets. It was his way of showing the athletes that he cared and he would graciously share those photos with local media.

“Bernie is passionate about everything he does and the kids love him,” said Norm Schueckler, HF-L’s legendary boys and girls varsity swim coach who worked with Gardner for 30 years as colleagues teaching at the Middle School. Schueckler also coached the Middle School Track team. “He was as good as it gets. There is a great bond between the two of us because we were passionate about the sports we coached. We’d share a lot of stories. As the Middle School track coach, I would help with the varsity meets and Bernie and the varsity coaches would help with running the middle school meets. He always recognized that the Middle School team was a big cog in the wheel for the varsity program and he would make sure to let us know that he knew it and appreciated our efforts.”

A secret to his success was also knowing which athletes he could push and challenge and which ones he had to employ a softer touch with.
“One of the beauties of these sports is there is no bench,” said Gardner, who has been the Section V Nordic Ski Chairman since 2007 and will stay on in that role. “Everyone is trying to explore their limits and that means everybody’s effort is worthy, not just the winner’s. Everybody is a winner by finishing and getting the best out of himself or herself, whether they wind up first or 31st. If a kid had the goal of making the state meet, I would challenge them by saying ‘come on, you want to get to states’ but if a kid had more modest goals like just getting better placing or times each week, I would say ‘you’re on a good pace or see if you can beat that kid in front of you.’ I would tailor things to an athlete’s goals and their level of ability.”

Gardner also knew how to give inspiration to an up-and-coming Tony David when David was a sixth-grader on the Middle School Track team. He had a feeling David had great potential and when Gardner was presented with a chance to meet Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills, he grabbed it. He got Mills, a Native American of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe who won the gold medal in the 10,000 meter run at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in what is considered to be one of the greatest Olympic upsets because he was a virtual unknown going into the event, to personalize an autograph for David, who is a Native American of the Mohawk tribe, hoping that David would be inspired by a fellow Native American.

Although being a three-sport coach kept Gardner busy, he took notice of the success of other teams and coaches at HF-L, being one of the first to congratulate them and serving as a mentor giving advice if asked.

“I had Bernie as a teacher when I was a student at HF-L,” said HF-L boys varsity basketball coach Kevin Neenan, an HF-L grad. “He always had lots of energy and knew that I loved sports. When I first went to college, I thought about being a business major, but Bernie (along with Wally Dyer and Ralph Clapp) said to me if you love sports so much why don’t you go into teaching phys ed. My first year teaching, I was part time between the Manor School and Middle School. It was just a great experience being a colleague of his and learning the ropes from him. I have great respect for him. He is a good friend and mentor.”

While Gardner has enjoyed great friendships with opposing coaches such as Jim McMahon and John Roberts from HF-L’s Livingston County League days and Mike DeMay and Dave Hennessey since HF-L joined the Monroe County League, it is the connection with his student-athletes that he has cherished the most. That connection has seen a lot of celebration but has also been tinged with sadness, none greater than when Nordic Skier Peter Cannon, a senior, died in an automobile accident shortly after the team won the Section V title in February 2010 and just four days before the squad was to compete at the state championship that was to be held at Bristol Mountain.

Gardner initially questioned the wisdom of the team racing at the state meet, but it was the consensus of the kids that they wanted to ski in the state meet as a way of honoring Cannon. So while Gardner was dealing with his own grief over Peter’s death and helping the kids through their grief, he was also trying to get them ready for the state meet. The team wound up winning the state title but Gardner refuses to take credit for helping the squad through those darkest hours.

“The Nordic Ski community here in Rochester is like a big family,” said Gardner, whose brother Charlie and sister-in-law Jana (who retired as an assistant Nordic Ski coach at HF-L) often pitched in helping the skiers prepare for meets by waxing their skis. “Skiers, parents and coaches from other schools sent condolences and our own HF-L school community was hugely supportive of the kids, not just the parents of the skiers but the HF-L administrators, teachers and other staff members and kids who played other sports and kids who weren’t on sports teams.”
Many came to the state championships to cheer on the team. Many also then went to funeral services for Cannon the day after the team won the state title.

“The hardest thing I have ever done was give one of the eulogies for Peter,” Gardner said. “Even now, I tell skiers about Peter. I take them to Mendon Ponds Park where there is a bench dedicated to Peter’s memory with a quote on it. I tell the kids about Peter, his exuberance for life and his work ethic.”

Over his 39 years of coaching, Gardner has impacted probably thousands of lives. Many of his former student athletes have said that he has been a major influence on them.

“Mr. Gardner always expected the best from me and pushed me to test my potential and my limits,” said HF-L Class of 2021 valedictorian Ryan Dailor, who competed on all three teams coached by Gardner.

He has maintained connections with many of the HF-L alums who competed on one of his teams, long since after they graduated from HF-L and college. He has attended alums’ 40th birthday parties, weddings and rejoiced at the birth of their children. In some families, he has coached two generations of student athletes. Gardner has also seen some of those HF-L graduates go on to be coaches in their own right, including Nolan Hoh who will take over the reins of the cross country running teams this fall.

“As nice as the championships and trophies are, the greatest benefit I have gotten out of coaching is the relationships with outstanding people,” said Gardner, who has received numerous Section V Coach of the Year honors in boys and girls cross country, boys and girls Nordic skiing and boys track and many All-Greater Rochester Coach of the Year honors in those sports. He was also named Northeast Girls Coach of the Year in 2002 and 2005 and one of four National Finalists for National Coach of the Year by the National High School Athletic Coaches Association. “I see my greatest achievement as giving the little guy a chance. In our society, the kids who play traditional sports with a ball are given so much respect and attention. I took the kids who could not play football but could run or ski and helped them do well so they could feel good about themselves. I wanted to get the kids in those sports the respect that they deserve as much as the athletes in traditional sports.”

©2021 Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel

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