Ahead of the pack

Published 10:52 pm Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Western Branch High School track and field teams continue to set the pace for others around the nation.

The golden standard in track and field in Virginia belongs to WBHS, which since 2008 has been ranked as the No. 1 indoor track and field team in the nation. Last year, the Bruins were the first team to win both girls’ and boys’ indoor and outdoor seasons. No team has ever done it back to back, and the Bruins will be striving for that accomplishment this year.

The Bruins have sent runners to the Olympics, most recently Byron Robinson, a 2013 graduate who ran the 400-meter hurdles in Rio.

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Some may wonder at the magic that has made WBHS so successful, but it’s not a result of the things most folks might expect. Western Branch doesn’t have a top-notch facility, and it doesn’t have millions of dollars to spend on the top resources.

The Bruins simply win by hard work, and the team takes its blue-collar work ethic from coach Claude Toukene. The athletes work as hard mentally as they do physically. Most of the runners have books on physiology and exercise science to help them understand their body.

“We are not as talented as most people think,” Toukene said. “We just work harder than any other team. People with talent don’t work as hard as we do. People don’t know that we are a blue-collar team. Not only that but we are a student of the game.”

Toukene, a native of Cameroon, started as an assistant coach during the 2003-2004 season. Following that season Western Branch’s track was in need of a new direction. Toukene was approached by the school principal to take the leadership role.

At the time, Toukene was still training for the Olympics. He had represented his country in the 1996 and 2000 Games as a sprinter. He ended up taking the job, not because he especially wanted it but because of his great relationship with the principal.

Toukene’s dream was never to become a track coach. After college at Norfolk State University, he had wanted to attend either medical school or law school. But he and his wife needed money, so he planned to coach at Western Branch for just a couple of years and then return to school.

That simple plan turned into something bigger than he imagined. He’d found his calling.
During the next couple of years, he changed the culture of the track and field team. He embraced the challenge of being not only a high school track coach but also a leader of youth who had never had one in their lives.

During his tenure at Western Branch, Toukene has even taken kids who were homeless into his own home. He has helped build confidence in many athletes who went on to do things they could not have imagined.

“There is nothing more important than the impact on a generation,” Toukene said. “I have coached kids who have been told they would never amount to anything in life. A lot of them have gone to college to receive master’s and doctorate degrees.”

Toukene has had offers from other schools and colleges around the country to coach their programs. However, it’s not about a pay raise or more attention for the Bruins’ coach. It is about staying true to his calling, which is helping kids in the Western Branch community make something of themselves.

“I know the type of impact I have on these kids’ lives,” Toukene said. “Every year people offer me jobs. I’m content where I am. The job is not done. There are too many kids out there who need to go to college that I will do all I can to help them.”

The runners have embraced Toukene.

“It’s an honor and a blessing to have him in my life,” WBHS senior and University of Texas signee Micaiah Harris said.

“Without him, I don’t know where I would be in life. He’s one of the wisest people I’ve ever met. He deserves more credit than he receives. Nobody knows the half of what he does for people. For him to take care of his family and run a successful track program is amazing.”