32 years later, Amy Deem still holds high competition standards

Miami track and field coach Amy Deem celebrates with former six-time All-American Michelle Atherley at the ACC Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Cobb Stadium.
Miami track and field coach Amy Deem celebrates with former six-time All-American Michelle Atherley at the 2019 ACC Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Cobb Stadium. Photo credit: Miami Athletics

As a child, Amy Deem relished the West Virginia countryside, roaming its mountainous terrain with six of her closest friends – four dogs and two horses.

Now, Deem is in her 32nd season as head coach of the University of Miami’s track and field team. Along the way, she’s racked up a list of accomplishments large enough to top West Virginia’s highest peak, which includes producing countless All-Americans, winning eight ACC Championships and coaching Team U.S.A. to 14 medals at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

Deem single-handedly shifted Miami’s program from poor to elite. Before she was hired in 1990, no Hurricane had ever qualified for the NCAA Championships. To date, UM has 17 National Champions.

But with all her success, Deem is still that girl from Parkersburg, West Virginia, except now, she explores the calm streets of Coconut Grove with a new best friend – Kahlua, her labradoodle.

“He keeps me grounded, so he’s a good little partner,” she said.

A typical weekend in the Grove just entails “hanging out,” whether that be with friends, Kahlua, or nature.

Though relaxed and subdued on the outside, Deem’s ambition runs deep.

“She’s very passionate about what she does, very passionate about the university,” UM women’s tennis coach, and longtime friend, Paige Yaroshuk-Tews said. “She has a burning drive in her.”

Thus, when Deem was in middle school, the event her track coach envisioned her doing came as no surprise.

“I’m very competitive and not really scared of a whole lot, so he decided to make me a hurdler,” Deem said.

Fearlessly, she competed in the 300m hurdles all throughout high school before continuing her athletic journey at Ohio University, where her competitive career was cut short after suffering a knee injury.

Through this, and all her struggles, Deem keeps one thing in mind: “You can control your attitude and you can control your effort,” something she also constantly preaches to her athletes.

The knee injury, though a low point at the time, led Deem to form a strong relationship with her athletic trainer, who went on to take a job at the University of Miami. Visiting her during spring break one year, Deem secured an internship in UM’s Compliance Department to help her complete a sports administration degree at Ohio.

While interning for Miami, she served as an assistant track coach, getting her big break in 1990, when the head coaching job for the women’s track and field team opened up. Eighteen years later, in 2008, she was appointed director of track and field and cross country at UM, becoming just the sixth woman to oversee both the men’s and women’s teams at a Division I school.

It all worked out.

“I never anticipated being here 6 weeks would turn into 30 years,” Deem said.

As someone who always believed in herself, the transition from athlete to coach was at times difficult.

“When you’re an athlete, you can control your own mindset,” said Deem. “I think the hardest thing for me about being a coach is seeing the abilities, potential … and they don’t see it in themselves.”

The news of Katie Meyer, a Stanford soccer player who committed suicide in early March, bringing student athletes’ mental health into the spotlight once again, hit Deem hard. Stories like that are why she is active on social media, where she frequently posts inspirational quotes to build people up and motivate them. It’s also why she became a coach.

“I got into coaching to make a difference … I always wanted to be a teacher since I was a little girl, so for me it was about making a difference with young people,” Deem said. “It’s about [their] overall development, not that one championship or Olympic games. I’m fortunate; I loved being in the village when I coached the Olympic team. It was so cool, but I think those types of things don’t keep your career.”

Coach Cory Young, the longest tenured assistant coach on the team, thinks that’s what makes her so unique:

“As a coach and a person, she is always looking out for the best in you, whether you’re one of her assistants or you’re one of her athletes … [She’s] the first one to ask how my kids are doing, how my wife is doing.”

Coaching both the men’s and women’s teams, which consist of 56 total athletes this season, isn’t easy. So, when meet day comes, Deem gets more of a workout than anyone, rushing from event to event. Even with her hustle, she can’t see them all but is the first one to ask how it went.

“If you give her attitude and effort, then she’s going to be happy,” Coach Young said. “Sometimes if one of my athletes, or another athlete has a bad day, she may be the first one over to come give them a hug.”

In 2013, Deem had one of her toughest years. Riding a high after the 2012 Olympic Games, she wasn’t finding nearly as much success with the Hurricanes. On top of that, her mother passed the year before. With multiple offers awaiting, she contemplated leaving coaching and the university.

For once, Deem needed to remember the words she told countless others: “attitude and effort.” After much soul-searching, she was re-motivated and has won four ACC Championships since.

“I’m glad I didn’t make a career change,” she said.

But while all the accolades and achievements she’s piled up these past three decades are certainly great, especially for someone as competitive as Deem, 2013 taught her it isn’t everything.

As Deem sits in her office, reminiscing about track and field alumni, a light bulb goes off, causing her to perk up. Only a few weeks ago, a former Miami distance runner – who Deem, as a hurdler, didn’t even deal with directly — called to tell her she had just secured her first college coaching job. It seems like everyone, no matter what their event, remembers Deem.

Coach Young, who’s been at Miami for a decade, can still recall his first conversation with her.

“The first time we ever talked, she was in London and called me to do a phone interview, which I thought was pretty cool,” he said. “Pretty neat that she was able to find time being six, eight hours’ time difference to call and do that interview.”

Jogging through Coconut Grove, Deem’s watch beeps – she’s just hit three miles. Not bad for a non-distance runner. Catching her breath for a quick second, she looks out at the horizon. Should she go one more? As Kahlua brushes up against her leg, her decision is made. Deem always goes the extra mile.