Thirteen state championship titles. Eleven State runner-up titles, 38 Section Championship titles, and 38 Conference Championship titles. Very impressive statistics for one man, but in my opinion, not his greatest coaching accomplishment. Twenty five years of the largest, most inclusive cross country ski program in the state is an even bigger accomplishment than such an amazing winning record.
I have always admired Bill and have often tried to identify what it is that he has – what he does – that makes him such a special person. I have been privileged to know Bill in many capacities: as a skier, as an assistant coach, and as a friend. And, I believe that he has several characteristics that have most profoundly and consistently affected me in each of the capacities I have known him, most notably: his respect for and consideration of each individual and his profound loyalty to his community.
I remember my sixth ever day of ski practice. I was an eighth grader and was tired of running up and down the streets of Stillwater on overcast November afternoons. I’d barely spoken to anyone on the team, and given that there were 120 kids at practice, I was pretty sure that Coach Simpson wouldn’t have any idea if I took a break and skipped practice. But I was wrong. The next day he cornered me in the hallway and asked where I had been the day before and then proceeded to reprimanded me for not keeping my commitment to the team and working up to my potential. Later that year, halfway through the season, Bill put a star by name on the results poster at school, indicating that, in his estimation, I’d had a good race. I don’t know that I ever cracked the top 30 on our team that year, but with his scolding in November and with his placement of a star by my name after that race, Bill let me know that I was a contributing, valued member of the team. An individual, worthy of respect and consideration despite the fact that I’d never raced before that year.
I have seen this part of Bill over and over in the years I’ve been lucky enough to coach with him. Unlike many coaches, Bill’s enthusiasm for his skiers doesn’t stop at the top 2 or top 5 or the top 10. He is as likely to be excited about the finish position of the 33rd place skier as he is by the skier who finishes first. He considers each individual and the performance of each individual within the context of that person’s goals and previous accomplishments. It’s an amazing person that can do that year after year for every kid on what has grown to be the largest high school ski program in the country.
After high school, I left Minnesota for a time and one of the things that drew my husband and me back here to live was our desire to be part of a community. A community defined as a group of people with common interests and similar goals who contribute to a common vision for living together in society. Bill is one of the strongest community builders I have ever met. When I was in high school, I remember being amazed at the number of ex-skiers and parents that came to support the Stillwater team at the state meet. At the number of citizens out skiing at O’Brien during our Saturday practices that would cheer encouragingly for us as we raced by during a grueling set of intervals. At the number of people that contributed to our success by donating time, equipment and experience. I naively believed every community had this much enthusiasm for their cross-country ski team. I didn’t realize just how special the Stillwater ski team is. That sea of red and black supporters, cheering in the wind at our races, enthusiastic claps muffled by heavy mittens, is the foundation of lots of positive things for life in the St. Croix Valley.
For a year before joining the coaching staff at Stillwater, I coached at a different school and I was amazed by the number of people who shook their heads at the mention of the Stillwater ski team: “No wonder they’re so good! Have you seen how many coaches and parents they have helping them out?” It’s true that our team is blessed with an abundance of people who give their time and knowledge to our team despite the fact that their kids have long since graduated from it. Other folks volunteer tirelessly although they have never had kids on the team. But it’s not just good luck that our team has such a high density of saints. It is due to Bill; his leadership inspires generosity and selflessness in people and his enthusiasm for skiing and his openness to every person channels his strength into our community.
The community that Bill inspired as head coach transcends one race or one season or one year’s team and inclusion in that community, now 25 years old, is open to anyone who wants to participate. Since his retirement 2 years ago, Bill continues to work with our ski program on a daily basis, as a volunteer technical coach.
Kris Hansen, November 2002
Co-head coach, Stillwater Area high School Nordic Ski team
Member Stillwater High School Ski Team 1982-1987