WELLESLEY — Randelle Boots had run cross-country at Providence Country Day School. When she arrived at Wellesley College in the fall of 2009, Boots was steered to the mile for the first time by John Babington, coach of the track and field team as well as cross-country at the college.
“He took me from someone who didn’t know what the 400 was to being the best runner I could be,” said Boots.
Just how good was that? Boots won the NCAA Division 3 mile as a sophomore. “He told me, ‘You can win this,’ ” she said.
There are countless Wellesley College runners who can relate Babington stories; his influence runs far beyond being a coach.
“I grew up most of my life without a father,” said Boots. “John has been the strong mentor I needed. Someone I could turn to. He was always there for me. He’s been more than a running coach.” Boots, who is from Seekonk, has been named Wellesley’s top senior athlete this year.
“She’s the most decorated athlete in our program,” said Babington. But he never drew a line separating the elite runners from the pedestrian.
“He’s a really caring coach who gives his attention to everyone,” said assistant coach Alison Wade. “He gets excited about everyone’s personal best.”
“He’s a legend, but he likes to fly under the radar,” she added.
The 67-year-old Natick resident recently announced that he will be retiring this spring after 26 years at Wellesley. It wasn’t an easy decision. One moment he’ll say “it’s a good time to move on,” then he’ll wonder, “Is it too late for me to reconsider?”
If it’s a good time, it’s because he’s built a solid cross-country program, and has done the same for track and field since it was elevated from club status three years ago. Babington has had nine athletes qualify for the NCAA Division 3 nationals. Six have earned All-America honors.
He was the head coach of the US team at the world cross-country championships in 1990, and assistant coach for the US track and field team at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. He also worked with Lynn Jennings, one of the best women’s distance runners in US history, who won a bronze in cross-country at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.
His Wellesley cross-country teams have won five New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference titles. He’s been the conference’s coach of the year seven times.
Babington was born at Newton-Wellesley Hospital when his father, a Navy man, was stationed in Boston.
“I was not athletically inclined when I was in high school, so I went out for cross-country,” he said. He ran track in the spring. He stayed with both sports at Williams College.
Suddenly, “running was playing a more prominent role,” he said.
Babington went to Harvard Law School, began a legal career, and kept running. From 1968 to 1980 he ran the Boston Marathon 13 consecutive years. He still runs, recently finishing second in his age group in a 5K race.
When he saw an item in Jerry Nason’s column in the Globe about a coaching vacancy at the Liberty Athletic Club in Lexington, Babington applied and was hired.
“I thought ‘I’ll try this’ for a bit,” he said. “Little did I know it would take over my life.”
In 1979 he left the legal profession and became assistant coach at Harvard, before taking a hiatus.
That ended in 1987 when he was hired to coach at Wellesley, which had started its cross-country program two years earlier.
“As a Williams alum I was aware of Wellesley’s outstanding academic reputation,” said Babington. He recalled the Marathon route taking him through Wellesley’s famous “Scream Tunnel.”
The college’s naturally beautiful campus, with numerous trails and hills, and a rugged 2.4-mile loop around Lake Waban, is ideal for cross-country.
“What makes coaching here a great experience is that the students aspire to excellence in everything they do,” said Babington. “They’re hard-working and competitive. But they also like to have fun.”
Which is why Babington considers practice “an oasis from their academic stress.”
Babington doesn’t have to shout. His athletes hang on his every word. That they’d run through a wall for him is closer to fact than cliché.
When Boots won the NCAA mile, “I ran up to him and gave him a hug,” she said.
She’s not sure if she was happier for him or herself. He had guided her that far. “I wanted to make him proud of me,” she added.
Now they’re both moving on with their lives, Boots to a good software job in Denver, Babington to the unknown.
Babington: “It’ll be difficult emotionally to walk away from Wellesley.”
Boots: “I’m definitely going to stay in touch with him.”
That, as much as anything, is the measure of the man.
Lenny Megliola can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.