Olympian Joan Nesbit Mabe On Making Strides For Cross Country

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Photo by Briana Brough

Olympian, former UNC running coach, three-time NCAA All-American at UNC and pioneer for North Carolina women’s high school cross-country … Joan Nesbit Mabe is a legend living right in our backyard. The Cedars at Bolin Forest, to be exact. Now the cross-country coach at Chapel Hill High School, Joan is still setting goals for herself – “I am currently training to try to break a 55+ age group American record in the mile,” she says – and for her daughters, Sarah Jane, 23, Rosie, 19, and Lizzie, 15 – “[they] call it the family business,” she says. Among her many races nationally and globally, Joan ran in five Olympic trials, the 1996 Olympics and still holds two US Masters records and a world record.

“I grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, playing tennis, doing gymnastics and [playing] touch football with my brothers. I ran a lot as a kid, but it was mostly [during] games like hide-and-seek, kick-the-can, chase and ditch-it. That was the first time I felt the thrill of racing.

When my family moved to Alabama, I took up basketball and track. The next year, I transferred to Charlotte and went to East Mecklenburg High School. There, coach Larry McAfee changed my life by inviting me to join the boys’ cross-country team. There was no cross-country for girls back then. I won the state title in the mile my senior year at 5 minutes, 5 seconds and am proud to say I helped start women’s cross-country in the state of North Carolina.

My best racing came while I was coaching, because helping others helped me learn more about myself as a racer and as a person. I was the head distance coach for men and women at UNC for over five years, and during that time, I ran all of my personal records and made my Olympic team while I coached several ACC champions and NCAA All-Americans. By the time I made the Olympic team, I had tried out three other times, waiting in line, so to speak, for 16 years. … I was determined that it was my turn.

The hardest times in my life have been the (very) few times when I was not actively coaching. After coaching at UNC, I chose to stay home to raise my daughters, but I was really sad every day around 3 p.m. So, I started a team of running moms called seejanerun to find companionship and keep my toe in the coaching water. But when I learned the longtime coach at Chapel Hill High was retiring, I threw my hat in the ring and hoped for the best. And the best happened. I am blessed to coach amazing kids with incredibly supportive parents. Together, [we] won the boys’ and girls’ state cross-country titles this past fall. The best part is watching the ninth graders ‘catch the running bug’ and really improve between freshman and sophomore year.”


Joan’s Chapel Hill Favorites


“My favorite loop is out at Mason Farm. It’s so peaceful there. I also love Carolina North Forest. We really do live in one of the most runnable communities in the world. Our green space is our greatest resource in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.”


“The Pumpkin Run, of course, and Gallop & Gorge 8K are race staples, but my favorite local race is a little event put on by the Carolina Godiva Track Club called The Misery Run. And, yes, it does live up to its name … racing over 6-foot-high hay bales, through mud pits and finishing in a pile of horse manure!”

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Laura Zolman Kirk

Associate Editor Laura Zolman Kirk is a Kentuckian turned Chapel Hillian and totally in love with this special slice of North Carolina.

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