Questions & Answers with community faces
Traci Knudsen Kelly (42) graduated from Suttons Bay High School in 1995, but not before winning gobs of awards for running—over the course of four years on both the cross country and track teams there, she earned 15 all-state honors, including state champion of the 400-meter, 800-meter, and 1600-meter runs. Not a surprise, she followed this up by attending Indiana University on a full-ride athletic scholarship for cross country, as well as indoor and outdoor track. From there, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in elementary education in 2000, and she has since earned 18 hours toward her Master’s degree from Grand Valley State University. While finishing her last semester of track during her undergraduate studies, Traci did her student-teaching in Bloomington, Indiana, but after graduation, she moved back to Northern Michigan, in part, to be close to her family, but also because she had a job interview lined up with Benzie County Central Schools.
Meanwhile, Asa Kelly (41) grew up in Grand Haven, graduating high school in 1996. He had been an all-conference runner on the varsity cross country and track teams, so it was a natural fit when he became a walk-on athlete at Grand Valley State University, where he continued to compete in both sports. Asa earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology in 2000, student-teaching at his alma mater, Grand Haven Area Public Schools, and he has since earned 21 credits toward his Master’s in Education. He remembers running the Crystal Lake Team Marathon in Beulah every summer during college with friends/teammates from GVSU, and he credits the pull of our area as the reason that he applied for a teaching position with Benzie Schools.
During the fall of 2000, Traci began teaching kindergarten at Betsie Valley Elementary, while Asa began teaching 2nd grade; unsurprisingly, with so much in common—namely a love for running, teaching, and being outdoors—the pair became a couple, and the rest is history. They married in 2002 and bought a house in Lake Ann. Two years later, Traci transferred within the district to teach kindergarten at Crystal Lake Elementary, where she has been ever since. In 2006, they built a new home near Beulah, in part because they were both coaching at that point, and it was more convenient to be closer to the high school. That same year, the couple’s eldest daughter, Mylie, was born, followed soon after by their second daughter, Avery, in 2010.
Nowadays, in addition to teaching, Traci and Asa are co-coaches for both the Boys and Girls Cross Country and Track and Field teams at Benzie Central High School. Every fall, more than 50 young men and women go out for cross country; every spring, there are around 80 student-athletes participating in track and/or field events. This means that the Kellys have coached hundreds of area youth. Moreover, in more than a decade of coaching two seasons per year, their teams have won 10 state championships and 10 state runner-up titles, along with numerous regional and conference titles, and well over 100 all-state individual awards. In addition, they have helped to put countless student-athletes into college programs. Between the two of them, they have also won 10 state “coach of the year” awards, and Asa was nominated in 2015 for the national “coach of the year” award for boys cross country.
Continuing with our interview series on impactful Benzie County characters, The Betsie Current caught up with the Kellys when they had just returned from the Michigan Interscholarstic Track Coaches Association (MITCA) clinic, in anticipation of their 2020 season beginning in March.
The Betsie Current: When did you first get interested in running? What drew you to it?
Traci Knudson Kelly: Elementary track during gym class. I realized then that I was really good at it, and I wanted to get better.
Asa Kelly: I first tried out track in 7th grade, but I was a terrible sprinter. I then tried out distance running the following spring and found I enjoyed that much better. A friend got me to try cross country in 9th grade, and the rest is history—fell in love with the sport, and have never looked back. Funny thing is, that friend quit after just one season, and I am now in my 24th season of cross country, if you count coaching!
Current: When did you know that you wanted to be a teacher? What drew you to the field?
Traci: During my second year in college. I didn’t like the major that I was pursuing [physical therapy], so I took one of those “interest tests” that my advisor suggested, and it was almost 100% teacher.
Asa: I went into college wanting to be a pediatrician. When I fell out of favor with that major [pre-med], I transitioned into education, and my entire college experience changed for the better. Everything just fit! I loved the classes, people in classes, and experiences.
Current: When did you know that you wanted to be a coach? What drew you to the field? Why is it important to train year-round?
Asa: I took the Varsity Girls Track coaching job for the spring of 2003, taking over for Lisa Bluhm, and then I took over for the Boys program, as well, three years later. Then I began to volunteer as an assistant for Coach [Eldon “Pete”] Moss for the Boys and Girls Cross Country teams that following fall, until I transitioned to the full-time head coach in 2008. Year-round training is imperative if you ever want to truly achieve your goals and personal potential. In an endurance sport like distance running, you truly do need to keep running all year long and always work to increase what you are doing to continue to get your body to adapt and get stronger. If you want to be great, you must work at it and make it a lifestyle.
Current: Coach Moss was a legacy in terms of cross country at Benzie, but also in the state of Michigan. What was it like working with him? What kind of legacy do you hope to make?
Asa: Volunteering for Coach Moss for five years was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in life. That man changed my life in so many ways. He taught me far more than just how to be a better coach. All that he shared with me is what I aim to share with the student-athletes that I am fortunate enough to work with. Our five-kilometer [5k] cross course at Benzie was named after Coach Moss many years ago, and thanks to the Grose family, the archway was added in time for his funeral this past summer. It is a fitting memorial to honor such an incredible man. As coaches, Traci and I may never reach the status of this great man, but that is not our goal. Each season is a new one, and our goal is to make every single athlete into a better person that is ready to tackle the world from a better place than when they entered our program—we wouldn’t mind taking home a few more trophies along the way, though!
Current: What does a typical day of work look like for you?
Traci: I leave the house at 7:15 a.m. to drop off our daughter [Mylie] and exchange daughter at the middle school/high school. Avery and I continue on to Crystal Lake by 7:30 a.m. Kids are in my room by 9 o’clock, and school releases at 4 p.m. I teach mostly with small-group rotations within my classroom, so it is a flurry of activity and movement all day. In the spring and fall, when I’m “in season” for coaching, I go straight from school to practice until 6 or 6:30 p.m. every day, and we have meets on Saturdays and a few weekdays. During the winter “off season,” though, I am still doing conditioning at the high school two days a week for an hour each day.
Asa: I get up at 5 a.m. to work out for a few hours, and then I head to school. I come to school full of energy, ready to go every day—I love to bring energy into the classroom! I love to keep the kids moving and thinking. After work, if [either cross country or track is] in season, I head to practice; in the winter “off-season,” I will catch an afternoon run or cross-country ski at Crystal Mountain.
Current: Is there a busy season for you or is it pretty constant year-round? (ex. Everyone always says to teachers, “It must be nice to get your summers off.” How annoying is that?)
Traci: There is no down time. I honestly feel busier right now in the winter than I did in the fall.
Asa: You would think that our times between seasons would be quiet and somewhat “down” times, but our busy season seems to be January through December. We are involved in so many things within the schools and community, that it never really seems to slow down.
Current: How have you seen your work grow and change? How do you hope that it will continue to grow? What is next?
Traci: I’ve seen enrollment go down considerably since I started at Benzie two decades ago, but I have seen many positive changes, as well. I have gone from a mostly “whole group” teaching approach—where I was leading one whole classroom in one activity at a time—to a style that meets the needs of all my students, thus why I go in early every day to prepare the rotations. I find that it makes learning so much more engaging for them. And when my kids are upset because I have to cancel rotations for some reason, I know that I’m doing something right!
Asa: Through now 20 years of teaching, I feel like I have become a much more savvy teacher, with many more tricks up my sleeve. Of course, teaching has evolved a great deal from “dittos” and overhead projectors. I love how we are now challenging students to think more, problem solve often, and really become more independent learners.
Current: And how have you seen your work as coaches change? How do you hope that it will continue to grow? What is next?
Traci: Every season is different. Kids graduate, new ones join. In track, I have coached most everything except throws and long jump, so that has brought some new adventures and challenges, since I was a mid-distance and distance runner who occasionally high jumped. Now, I primarily coach hurdles and high jump, so I have had to grow and learn as I pick up new events. Each season in both cross country and track, we hope to see several freshmen, as well as upper classmen who want to get involved and try something new.
Asa: Your job as a coach is to continually adapt and get better. We are always reading, going to clinics, talking to other coaches, and researching new training techniques. A number of years ago, we became the chairs for the Academic All-State committee for Michigan, which helps us to stay involved at the state level. I have also been involved on a number of occasions on the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) Rules/Regulations and Regional Site Selection committees, too.
Current: What kind of impact do you think that you have been able to have on the community?
Traci: I have kind of grown into an adult here in Benzie County, since I moved here right after college graduation. My hope is that my experiences with running both in high school and later in college, as well as continuing to do so, have a positive impact on kids. I want them to see what dedication and hard work can do and that it is a life-long activity; one you can do well beyond your competitive years. As a teacher, I love seeing my little ones in kindergarten come to me as high school athletes. It shows me that I had a positive impact on their lives. It is also very rewarding when I see them years later and they tell me the things they remember about my class.
Asa: I like to think that we’ve given kids some great experiences and memories, as well as taught them some life skills that have helped to prepare them for college, relationships, and the workforce. We try to go way beyond just the X’s and O’s of the sport, as every coach should. As far as the greater community, I feel we are involved enough in many endeavors that we have helped make our community stronger and a more exciting place to live.
Current: What kinds of things do you do for fun, when you are not working? What other things are you involved with? How did you get involved with them, and why are you passionate about these causes?
Traci: I love reading, hiking, skiing—Nordic and alpine—running, kayaking, traveling, writing, snowshoeing, being on or by the water, paddle boarding.
Asa: We love to travel as a family. We have visited 38 states together and will knock off four more next month, during this coming spring break. We have also visited eight countries together. Along with that, we love to spend time outside—hiking, kayaking, biking, skiing, and many other activities. In addition to our regular coaching duties, Traci and I are also in charge of the Beulah Firecracker 5k on the 4th of July, the High School Elite Cherry Festival Mile that same week, and the Crystal Lake Team Marathon in August. Finally, as I mentioned, we are chairs of the Academic All-State board for both cross country and track and field for Michigan. Needless to say, we are a rather busy family!
Current: You mentioned your family’s travels, and we know some of that international travel has been inspired by visiting former foreign-exchange students—ones you have coached and ones you have housed for a year. How many foreign-exchange students have you hosted in your home, and why do you feel like this program is important, both for your family and for Benzie Schools?
Traci: We have hosted three students, all girls. One from Germany, one from Norway, and our current student is from Sweden. Yet, we have had several others on our teams throughout our years of coaching that we have grown close to and even met up with during our travels this past summer. The exchange program has brought the rest of the world so much closer for our girls. They are learning to better understand differences, both in our community and in different cultures around the world. Things aren’t “weird” anymore; they are just another way of doing something. I love having daughters around the world that we can share traditions with, visit, and enjoy time with both them and their families. For Benzie County, it is much the same—the exchange program brings the rest of the world to us and to the people in this community. While travel might not be a possibility for everyone, this is an opportunity for the world to come here. Benzie Central is amazing and opens their doors to many exchange students each year and gives them the experience of being “seniors” in high school. Other schools limit this number or don’t always let them be considered a “senior.” As a host mom, I would highly encourage anyone who is able to take advantage of this amazing opportunity that we have here in our little community.
Asa: We now have our third exchange student living with us—Lisa from Sweden. These experiences have been great for our family, and our young daughters. Throughout each experience, we learn a great deal about another culture and share a great deal of our own with them. Traveling and visiting with our girls was incredible. Living with each family for over a week was great, and because we were already over in Norway this past summer visiting a former exchange daughter, it was just a short ferry ride to meet our upcoming student, Lisa, and her family prior to her arrival this fall, which was a truly a rewarding experience for them and for us. Now they will be arriving in June to stay with us and experience our beautiful community.
Current: How have you seen Benzie County/Northern Michigan change since you grew up here/first started visiting here? What are your hopes for the area in the future?
Traci: I didn’t grow up here in Benzie, but I visited often while I was growing up in nearby Leelanau County. It’s a peaceful little place with so many hidden gems, but the new businesses, parks, trails are making it an even greater place to be.
Asa: Honestly, things haven’t changed a great deal, but it does seem to be picking up a little each summer. The beauty of this area—regardless of how busy things can get—you can always find a little peace and quiet, just moments away. The pace of life and outdoors is definitely what has always attracted me to this area.
Current: What are the biggest challenges and rewards of living/working in Benzie County and in Northern Michigan, in general? What is the best or most rewarding part of your job?
Traci: It is a long way from Traverse City, when I need things that I can’t get here. But I feel like I live in the place that everyone wants to visit, so in a sense, it’s my own little slice of paradise. Our exchange daughter said it perfectly, “Other kids pay more to go to places like California or Hawaii for their exchange year, but I didn’t and got to come here. I think I got the best deal!” I love seeing my little ones as they grow, and I’m looking forward to eventually getting to coach them.
Asa: The biggest challenges with coaching and teaching here are no different than anywhere else, in that your biggest challenge is to motivate students or athletes to have the self confidence and drive to achieve success. Obviously we have many students who come from challenging situations, and at times, this can make it tough on them to feel like they can overcome. It is our job to help these great kids believe and to set goals in life that are worth pursuing.
Current: What could Benzie County/Northern Michigan do to attract more talented young people to this area?
Traci: Continue to promote things that will appeal to a younger crowd, whether it is shopping, dining, or outdoor adventures. Promote those things that we already have, but be aware of adding too much, as it can take away from the charm that is Northern Michigan.
Asa: Much of this comes down to job opportunities that are sustainable. Also, the local atmosphere is slowly changing, as far as restaurants, breweries, and shopping, which also helps a great deal.
Current: What are your favorite local events and activities? Any favorite dining, recreation, hiking spots?
Traci: I love the new brewery in Beulah; Five Shores! Sleeping Bear Dunes has always been a special place for me, even growing up, so having those trails so close is a huge bonus.
Asa: Of course, we are a big fan of the races! We also love the parades, Fall and Winter Fests, Music in the Park [in Beulah], high school sporting events, band and choir concerts, and musicals/plays put on by the schools. Favorite dining locations include Stormcloud, Fusion, Five Shores, Rock’s Landing, The Manitou, A. Papanos, and Dinghy’s. Favorite hiking or trail-running spots would be Betsie River [Thompsonville] and Lake Ann pathways, Old Indian Trail, Elberta Beach, the Betsie Valley Trail down in Beulah, and, of course, the Moss Cross Course!
Current: What does your perfect winter day look like in Benzie County? How would you spend it?
Traci: I never liked winter until a few years ago, when I decided that I had to stop grumbling about it and make the best of it. I’d probably say that a morning of snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, followed by a cozy afternoon or reading, and dinner with friends would be my ideal winter day.
Asa: Outside! Most likely some cross-country skiing and then some family time, sledding or snowshoeing. We live in an area so full of winter activities, it is really tough to nail down the “perfect” winter day.