Back in high school days at Germantown in the early 1980s when she was the top jock, Tracy (Tesch) Howard loved getting the baton on the anchor leg of the 400- and 800-meter relay teams in track.
She loved that responsibility. She loved being part of the team.
"The greatest feeling in the world," she said.
And when she went on to UW-La Crosse and was part of a national championship gymnastics team in 1986 and was an All-American individually in 1987, she fought through myriad injuries to stay out there and contribute and remain part of the team.
"I had a lot of them (injuries), but I was lucky, most of them, they could patch me up and I could right back out there," she said. Her idols were La Crosse's legendary gymnastics coaches Liz Mullarkey and Barbara Gibson (who is still coaching).
She got out of college with a degree in mathematics and statistics and stayed in the game by judging gymnastics for a year.
But that wasn't enough for her.
"We didn't always agree on things, but she was always very respectful, always played fair and did the best by her kids. She stuck to her guns and was always a class act."
- Whitefish Bay gymnastics coach Mary Liniewski
So that nagging need to do more forced Howard to submit her application to now-retired Menomonee Falls Athletic Director Ed Manchester for the then-vacant position of gymnastics coach for the Indians in 1989.
The position has not been vacant since and the sport in the Falls and Germantown area has been much the better for it.
But all that changed last weekend after her last WIAA state meet in Wisconsin Rapids (please see separate story), as Howard has made the decision to step down to look after and follow the athletic achievements of three rapidly growing, high-achieving sons.
The end of her coaching career seemed all too close to its beginning, she thought in retrospect.
"I just felt that I wasn't doing enough," said Howard about her application to Manchester. "Not contributing. I put the application in and I surprised myself when I got the position. I've absolutely loved it ever since."
When she started out, she admitted she was flying by the seat of her pants, learning on the fly, watching other coaches, and reading up as much as she could.
"I acted like I knew what I was doing for awhile, and after a time, I figured things out," she said. "Being a math major, I just tried to work through any problem that I had."
And while she did that, life moved on around her.
She happily married Bill Howard in 1995 and during a good chunk of that time, she worked with him at a restaurant they owned in Mequon before she eventually went back to school and got her teaching certificate at Cardinal Stritch. Not surprisingly, she teaches math to upperclassmen at Falls High School.
She also became pregnant (twice), including a now rambunctious pair of 13-year old boys.
Eventually the gymnastics program became a co-op with Germantown (it is run out of Falls) and though it was never dominant, it had its share of successes. It almost always sent athletes to state (including three-time state champion and recent Falls Hall of Fame inductee Kristi Kitzman) and the athletes almost always reflected the attitude instilled by the former anchor runner and hard-nosed put-me-in-I'm-fine gymnast who was their coach.
"I've always been proud that the kids have always embraced a team-first attitude," Howard said. "That we're all in this together. We always had a lot of strong individuals who have had their successes, but we've always found it more fun and meaningful to have success as a team."
Not surprisingly that attitude has fostered some long-term relationships.
When word got out about her retirement, people were contacted, events were planned. An amazing evening was held earlier this season at Krueger's in the Falls the night of the Indian Invitational where about 40-plus gymnastics alums came by to celebrate their time and friendship with their former coach.
"It's really become a lot easier to stay I touch with social media and the Internet," Howard said.
There were other signs of gratitude, too.
"Presented to Tracy Howard in grateful appreciation for your 25 years of dedication and excellence as coach and mentor"
- The inscription on a plaque presented by the Greater Metro and North Shore Conference coaches to Howard at the league meet on Feb. 16.
"I actually had to tell her to come out here," said Homestead coach Mike Giles, who helped arrange both the plaque and the ceremony. "I ran it by our (conference) liaison for gymnastics (Nicolet Athletic Director Kirk Krychowiak) and he said it was a great idea and then I worked with her AD (Ryan Anderson) for some background information."
"You could have knocked me over with a feather," Howard said. "… Honestly, I can't believe how fast the time has gone. It really does remind you how much time does fly. It's amazing to me because over the last few years I've come to realize that I'm older than some of my gymnasts' parents (laughs)."
And she has no regrets about the timing of her decision.
Her sons (the twins, Danny and Tommy, and Billy, age 10) and husband, Bill, have been endlessly supportive of her and now she feels its time to pay them back.
"The boys are doing year-around sports now, and I do want to catch up with that because I do enjoy watching it strictly from a fan's standpoint," she said.
"I've enjoyed each step this last year. I thought that 'the last this or the last that' would make me sad but I truly think I'm ready."
When the season is done, she won't be totally done with coaching just yet as she might come back to help out with the seventh- and eighth-grade track teams in the spring, and she's seriously thinking about going back to her judging roots in gymnastics, too. She's also been asked to commentate on gymnastics meets by Falls' local cable access station.
"So I won't be twiddling my thumbs," she chuckled. "… Seriously, I've just been lucky to have very determined and dedicated people (as athletes) who have always been willing to give all that they have."
"She's always had good kids. She runs a good program, and she's always been supportive of everybody else. She will really be missed."
- Homestead gymnastics coach Mike Giles
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