Italian runner finds another home in Point
Portage County Gazette
By John Kemmeter
Simone Coli recently completed his experience as a high school student in the United States, as he spent this year as a senior at Stevens Point Area Senior High School (SPASH).
A foreign exchange student from Italy, Coli competed on the SPASH boys cross country and boys track teams, before he closed the school year by taking part in SPASH graduation Sunday, May 26.
“It’s a real success story, in a lot of ways,” said SPASH boys cross country coach Donn Behnke. “Whoever sets up foreign exchange programs, I think this is exactly what they had in mind.”
“It was an incredible experience; it’s pretty different from everything else that I did,” said Coli. “It’s basically a changing in world and changing in habits.
“You come here and you have to find new friends, you have to find new things to do, you need to find a new routine,” he said. “So in the beginning, it’s not very easy, but if you find good friends like I did like in cross country, it’s very helpful.”
A native of Colturano, a small town in the countryside of Milan, Coli lived in Stevens Point this school year at the home of Dr. Michael and Karen Thielman, along with their three sons ages 10, 11 and 15, and their 14-year old daughter.
In the fall, Coli decided to go out for the SPASH cross country team, which had already been practicing for two weeks, when he arrived in time for the team’s Intrasquad Meet Aug. 31.
“He didn’t get here until the day before we ran our time trial, and he showed up like 20 minutes before race time,” said Behnke. “I went over and I met him, I shook hands, I introduced myself, and I said, ‘well, I don’t expect you to race today,’ and he said no, he’s ready to go, he’s excited about it, and he went out and ran pretty well.
“But I think the thing that stands out most for me that day was the fact that after the race, I circulated around, I shook hands, I talked to kids and then I went looking for Simone, and they said, ‘well he’s gone,’” he said. “And I said, ‘well where he is?’ And they go, ‘a bunch of guys took him to get pancakes.’
“He had been there for all of about an hour, and suddenly he’s got a group of friends, and they’re out for breakfast,” he said.
“Right after the race, some guys went to me and asked me to go to eat something together, and so we went to Perkins,” said Coli. “And from there it was amazing.”
As part of a SPASH boys cross country program that has won 10 State Titles under Behnke and had more than 100 high school and junior high school runners this season, Coli spent the majority of his senior year season on the Panthers’ junior varsity team, after SPASH returned an experienced group from a year ago when it finished second at state.
“I don’t think there’s much question that on just about any other team, he would’ve been a varsity runner,” said Behnke. “He did request that the school he ended up at have a cross country program, and so somehow we came up on that list, and it was just a perfect fit from Day 1.
“He was a tremendous workout runner and he just loved being in our group, and he’d never actually run with a group as big as ours,” he said. “In Italy they have mostly club sports, it’s not a school sport like we have, and he’d never seen anything like our 115 guys headed down to the park in the big mob we travel with.”
In JV races this season, Coli placed in the Top 8 in each of the seven meets he competed in, and helped the SPASH JV team win their 42nd consecutive Wisconsin Valley Conference (WVC) Junior Varsity Title.
He also got a chance to run on varsity at the Rosholt Invitational Sept. 27 and placed eighth overall, while he went on to earn his varsity letter this season, and was on hand to cheer on his teammates Oct. 20 as they competed at the State Meet for the 40th time in 42 years.
“It was a great pleasure; I consider Donn one of the best coaches ever,” said Coli. “He’s not just a cross country coach, he is a life coach. He taught me a lot of things about how to see life, how to prepare mentally and how to see the world.
“He’s done it for a major part of his life, and he wants to give us his love, his experience, his way to run, but it’s not only just running, it’s running with your friends, and then your friends became like a family,” he said. “I actually loved this season, and if I have to describe cross country with one word, it’s ‘family.’ Because all of the people that are JV, varsity and junior high, they’re all together, and they’re a big, big family.”
Coli also went out for the SPASH track team this spring and competed on varsity in a handful of meets, while he capped his senior season by winning the 1,600 run at the WVC JV Outdoor Meet May 13.
“It was very fun; I spent all of the winter to prepare for track and field, and the track and field mates were cool people,” said Coli. “Some are from cross country still, and we know that we needed to push each other from cross country.
“Track and field is big for me, going out with your friends and running together, and maybe also be tired together after a long run and a tough workout,” he said. “And going back to SPASH and drinking some chocolate milk, putting some ice on your legs and laughing about how tired we are.”
Coli’s parents Andrea and Rachele and younger sisters Alice and Federica made the trip to Stevens Point last week to attend the SPASH graduation ceremony, and were due to stay until they all fly back to Italy together Friday, May 31.
In Italy there are five years of high school, so Coli will have one more year of high school when he returns, before he plans to go to college.
“My goal is basically going to university in Italy, and it’s very, very good for physics and math, because these are the things I like to do,” said Coli. “I’d love to be a researcher in math or physics, but I want to keep running somewhere, like maybe keep running in a club in Italy.
“It’s not going to be the same, but you can’t have everything,” he said.
During his stay in the United States, Coli attended a number of events with his host family, and also went on a vacation with them in March.
This summer, he said that he plans to call his former SPASH cross country teammates once a week during their voluntary running sessions, and he hopes to visit Stevens Point again in a couple of years.
“The friendship was mostly the key of my experience, and also my family here was very good,” said Coli. “I had three little brothers and one little sister, they’re not little but they’re younger than me, and they helped me a lot.
“Staying with them, we went to watch some plays in Oshkosh, and we went to Florida for Spring Break,” he said. “I was living with a good family, and being in a good environment is important here, and also I like Stevens Point, it’s an amazing town.”
“He said to me a week ago that he’d really like to stay longer and run with our guys during the summer, and we’re really sad to see this kid go,” said Behnke. “It was just so fun for our guys to bring him into our group, I just love his personality and the way he is so enthused and excited about running, and some of the new things that he experienced with us.
“Our kids that grew up in the program, they expect to go places and to compete and for us to be successful, and for him, this was a new thing, and he was always really appreciative of the coaches and his teammates,” he said. “He said thank you so frequently, and our other guys say thank you also, but maybe not to the same degree as he did.
“He was just an incredibly polite kid who was so appreciative of this experience, and I found that just so heart warming,” he said. “I wish he had another year with us, I really do.”