A 23-time Virginia state championship coach has been the biggest driver of success for Western Branch’s track and field team over the last 14 years. What will his impending departure mean for this program?
Claude Toukene’s feet are throbbing. After consecutive 14-hour days on his toes in Lynchburg, Virginia, leading his Western Branch High School track and field team against some of the nation’s best teams at The VA Showcase, he can feel it.
Since the morning, when he woke up at the hotel and put on his shoes one after the other, throwing on an Arsenal hoodie and tightening his black leather hat, he’s been on his feet, hiking through the crowd, instructing his team in warmups, leading them to the line and sprinting to their side after a finish. It’s been an endless cycle. One race after the other, one athlete after another.
And after two days and too many races to count, it feels like his body is on 1-percent battery. He finally allows himself some “me time” with about an hour or so to go, finding some space in the lobby, a little corner where the rest of his team is sitting. He slumps his back down, lets his feet draw out, and nods off for a few seconds.
He closes his eyes and tries to picture the future. What does it look like?
Toukene, a former Olympic sprinter for Cameroon, has led the Western Branch High Bruins to 23 state championships and 41 regional titles in Chesapeake, Virginia, and built the program into a national power, one that routinely picks up indoor and outdoor national championships, in the sprints and hurdles. He’s won two national coach of the year honors and has been recognized within the state as one of its best, an ambassador for the sport. He’s a regular at coaching clinics, a persistent student of his profession, and an optimistic coach always searching for the next way to solve a problem.
But in December, he made a decision that would change his life, and his high school program’s future as well. He agreed to jumpstart a new track and field team at Bryant & Stratton College, a junior college squad in Virginia Beach located just 20 miles east of Western Branch.
In the time since that decision, Toukene, 42, has experienced emotion he hasn’t faced often, including regret and disappointment, of leaving those he’s coached.
But he also now has to deal with lasting impressions, in these final weeks and months. Every meet is a conclusion to his career; every championship is a memory come and gone. Every moment he experiences is fleeting in some way, which has forced him to ask larger questions, such as how this high school team will cope without him? Will his athletes lose trust? With the VHSL Group 5A/6A Indoor Championships nearing on Feb. 23-24 in Hampton, Virginia, will he get the most out of his athletes?
At the same time, it would be hard not to accept his new path, either. Toukene has earned his way up in the world of track and field. After 14 years with the Bruins, this was as good a time as any to start a new journey away from high school athletics.
Ultimately, it should have been great and celebratory, but that moment never quite came, either. A coach with unparalleled success finally getting his opportunity to coach at the next level? It seemed fitting.
But in some ways, his exit was precipitated by tension. Back in 2012, Toukene briefly resigned as the head coach of Western Branch’s track and field team, citing discrimination, lack of support and lack of fair treatment. He says he almost left in 2007, 2009 and 2011, too.
He could never quite do it, in part because of the kids. A father of three, Toukene has always felt like a parent and mentor to student-athletes on his team. He’s given second chances, even third chances. He’s about opportunity. He wants his athletes to explore the world and find success, even beyond what he was able to accomplish after leaving Yaounde, the capital city of Cameroon where he grew up. He falls in love with his team, his group of runners and sprinters, almost every year.
Toukene hasn’t always felt the same trust, he says, with the politics within Western Branch’s administration. Even after all the state and national championships, the team still practices on an asphalt track. The Bruins still don’t have the right amount of equipment. He’s had to acquire old sprint blocks and hurdles from college programs nearby. He’s bought mats, implements, shoes for athletes and all types of supplies himself. He gets paid next to nothing, though that’s besides the point. No high school track coach is in it for the money.
In 14 years, Toukene has had three principals, but he says he’s only had a good relationship with his first, Art Brandiff, the man who gave him the job from the start, who believed in him. Even today, he says Brandiff is like a father figure, someone he counsels with and speaks to regularly.
Toukene often thinks about what will happen with this team when he’s gone, but he’s not quite sure what direction it will go. He just hopes some of his best traits will carry on.
“That’s up to the school,” he said. “That’s up to the people who make the decisions to whoever become the coach. If they want the program to continue. They can ask my input. But if they go their own direction, that says everything. Who knows. Maybe they don’t want the program to. Actions speak louder than words. If they want the program to continue, they’ll ask. So far they haven’t asked me anything.”
One of his earliest memories as a coach, after he earned the job in 2004, was in a meeting with his athletic director and coaching colleagues. Toukene has always believed in logic, understanding that if A is done and B is achieved, then C can be the outcome.
His education taught him that human motion is a physical science. He earned a math and physics degree in Cameroon in 1994, qualified and competed for the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, and then came to the United States to study a year later. He earned a bachelors of science from Norfolk State University in 2001 in exercise science, then a master’s degree in education from Cambridge College.
By that point, he had met and married his wife, Joann, after their undergrad and the pair decided on a plan. She would continue her studies in pharmacy, while Toukene would earn a job to help support the family. He was never quite set on coaching high school athletics, but was approached by Brandiff after being hired as a special education teacher and became the school’s head track coach in 2004-2005.
At the time, he still had a heavy accent, he says, and wasn’t as comfortable with his English. But he knew that if the right steps were in place, he could do something special. Sitting at the table as a first-time high school coach, he spoke up in front of his peers.
“We can win a state title in three years or less,” he said.
Toukene remembers hearing laughs, of his athletic director ridiculing him for the suggestion. Colleagues brushed him off. Every coaching meeting they would have before the season, Toukene would hear “whether he’s won a championship yet.” Eventually, though, a bit of cosmic karma did take place. Toukene won his first state championship in 2007, just three years after he made that plea. That same year, The Virginian-Pilot wrote a story with the headline, “Prophet,” about Toukene, detailing the situation around that very first declaration.
Toukene has that newspaper clipping framed in his home, along with a few others over his career. Part of what drives him, he says, are the doubts that he often hears from others.
But within the track and field community, very few people have those doubts. Coaches admire him.
Toukene’s athletes follow his every word.
“Most coaches, they have the physical aspect,” said Keilah Tyson, a Western Branch graduate in 2011 and the state record holder in the 100 meter and 200 meter runs. “That’s easy to do in workouts and they try to tap into how fast you are. But coach Touks was able to tap into my mentality. He was able to tell me I was going to be this great athlete. And no matter what he told me, I believed him. If he told me I was going to run 10.9, I was going to run 10.9. I believed him.”
Toukene is headed toward the track. Wearing black sweats, he strides through the hallway, stops a few times to speak with athletes, then pushes through the doors and hits the cold air. He’s barrel-chested, with the compact build of a former athlete.
His voice is distinctive, baritone with a wisp of that Cameroon accent. Three days before The VA Showcase, he’s overviewing hand-offs.
“On the outside keep your hand flat, elbow out. Repeat after me: IN THE FACE,” he says.
“IN THE FACE!” his athletes reply.
“The mistake a lot of people make, CRISS CROSS, we don’t want it that way,” he shouts in reference to his athlete’s arm movements. “We move in a STRAIGHT LINE.”
Toukene cuts an intimidating figure, as much as anyone can see, but there’s a part of him that’s distinctly relatable. He’s a former athlete who’s been through all this before, at a much higher level; after all, he’s a former Olympian and world championship qualifier, with IAAF personal bests of 10.23 in the 100m and 20.61 seconds in the 200m.
His athletes listen and follow, chewing up his every word until their physical process is perfect.
Toukene leads the team through what seems like an hour warmup. Their arms jut frenetically north and south, their feet find a piano-like cadence, 1-2-1-1-2-1-1-1-2.
His athletes know little about Toukene’s history, but his discipline comes from a very obvious place. His father, Charles Guebogo, a former Secretariat of Technical Education in Cameroon for 13 years, was a martial arts teacher. Before Toukene found track, he studied his father. “In martial arts you learn structure,” Toukene said. “Discipline.”
That focus toward discipline has always been one of Toukene’s calling cards, but what’s been his biggest success in coaching has been his willingness to listen, and his ability to relate.
“You have to show respect,” he said. “People get confused between leadership and ownership. You’re dealing with human(s) and you have to show them respect and when you’re wrong, you have to look them in their face and tell them ‘I apologize,’ to say ‘I’m sorry.’ When you make a wrong decision, you have to look sometimes and you have show contrition. A lot of people think sometimes it’s a sign of weakness. But you have to let them know you’re human.”
Toukene is a professor on the track, too. With his background in exercise science, he routinely talks about mechanics and technique, and he encourages his athletes to study movement, too. He suggests they buy books on exercise physiology, some of which they can pick up on Amazon for 50 cents.
“Coach Toukene has taught us how to be a student of the game,” Shadajah Ballard said. “Just the basic training principles, progressive overload, adaption, recovery. Recovery is a good thing, everybody has to recover.”
Ballard, a junior, is one of Toukene’s most talented sprinters and hurdlers. She won her first indoor state title in the 55 meter dash in 2017, and is on the verge of claiming more championships this outdoor season.
From the very beginning, she’s believed in Toukene as much as he’s believed in her. She first met Toukene as a middle school student four years ago.
“I couldn’t understand him, but I would shake my head, ‘Yes’ whenever he said something,” Ballard remembers thinking.
Over time, Toukene’s training has rubbed off. She’s dropped time consistently in the 55m (6.99, -0.22), 55mH (7.79, -0.71), 100m (11.68, -0.68), 100mH (13.51, -3.47) and 200m (24.00, -0.94). She hopes to one day break Tyson’s 100m and 200m records of 11.39 seconds and 23.53, respectively.
“I’ll get Keilah Tyson’s records,” she says.
But Ballard, 16, doesn’t have the bravado of most. Her instincts are humble, while she squares up her competitiveness on the track. It’s one reason why Toukene says she’s special.
“He would always say, ‘You have the potential to take it to the next level,’” Ballard said of Toukene. “A lot of coaches tell you that, but he kept telling me you can be this and you can do that. He’s given me what I need to do that.”
Then there’s Adriana Shockley, another one of Toukene’s talented disciples. She went to a private school in the Chesapeake area in the 8th grade before she met him. A student-athlete with an immense work ethic, she was drawn to Toukene and Western Branch. It was a school and a program in which she felt could get the most out of herself.
“My parents didn’t want me to come here, but I told them I wanted to go,” she said.
And while Shockley, a 16-year-old junior, remains extremely talented -- having won an outdoor state title in the 400m (56.08) and an indoor title in the 500m (1:14.51) -- sometimes she lacks the confidence to believe she’s among the best in the state.
She says Toukene has helped her find that spirit.
“I’m very hard on myself, because I want to do my best and sometimes when I don’t I get really upset,” she said. “But I know everything happens for a reason. I see Coach every day. He’s always talking to us and saying, ‘You can do better.’
Shockley’s aim, like Ballard and some of her teammates, is to qualify for the U20 Championships this summer in Finland. She finished third at USA Jr. Nationals last summer, missing the cut for the Pan American Junior Games by one second.
When the spring ends and Toukene begins his collegiate journey, will she need him more than ever?
Ballard steps into the blocks ahead of her 55 meter hurdle final, her braids tightly wound in a ponytail behind a black headband.
She’s wearing the gray and pink uniform the team designed ahead of New Balance Nationals Indoor in 2017, the one they wore before winning a national title in the shuttle hurdle relay.
But here, almost a year later, the past makes no difference. She’s at The VA Showcases for two reasons: To lower her personal best in the race, and to win a title.
As the gun raises and fires Ballard explodes from the blocks, racing to the hurdle first and gliding over it clean, but then nicks the second, falls behind, and loses ground to Masai Russell, who wins by three hundredths of a second.
She expresses little reaction — how do you explore disappointment in a second or less? — and turns to walk away. Eventually, Toukene finds his way to her, puts his arm around her shoulder and tells her an insight she’s heard many times before.
“Next time,” he says.
These moments are important, each and every one of them. It’s why Ballard doesn’t think past the practices, the meets, or the indoor season. This is how her coach operates. She’s said that Toukene made a decision based on his family and his well being, and she wishes him well. But when he finally leaves? She’ll internalize what his departure means soon enough.
Not now. She still loves this sport, the way she competes for times. She’s still soaking up every insight from Toukene, the former Olympian and future college coach.
She remembers sprinting for the first time at the age of 10 on her street in Chesapeake, racing her sister, Na’Taja, up the block. She hasn’t stopped since.
The sport has given her a lot: A promising future, the kind of work ethic which rubs off in other areas of her life. It’s a discipline that’s kept her accountable.
Sure, Toukene helped instill these things in her, but now she’s creating her own story, too.
“He was able to push me, to help me out in life,” Ballard said of Toukene. “But I have to hold myself accountable.
“I have to look after my younger sister, to push her and make sure she stays focused.”
Ultimately, Toukene’s impact isn’t lost on Ballard, or his other athletes.
“I don’t feel like anyone can fill his shoes,” Keishayla Warren said. “Maybe some things will be different or change slightly. But overall, we know what he taught us. We can be strong enough to keep going.”
Those with college aspirations still need to keep their goals in check, with our without their legendary coach.
“You still have to live your life,” Sadiq Nurse said. “We just have to focus and keep going on with it.”
A day before news hit of Toukene’s planned departure, some of his athletes learned of his plans on MileStat.com.
“I was like, ‘I hope he’s not leaving right now,” said Nurse, a senior sprinter. “We kind of need him.”
It made an emotional decision even more difficult.
The very next day, Toukene summoned a meeting with his team, his nerves racing. But before he left his house that day, he went into the bathroom and remembers sitting in the dark for two hours.
Then he started the quiet ride to the school, about 15 minutes in total. He decided to tell a small group first, a unit of four girls who ran hurdles for the program, a contingent that included Ballard and Shockley, two athletes with as much talent as anyone he’s has ever coached.
No one wanted to believe it.
“I’m leaving,” Toukene said.
“‘Really?’” Ballard replied.
Next up was a team meeting in the weight room. Coaches and athletes huddled together, about 80 to 90 in all.
Once again, he broke his silence.
“We were just sad,” Ballard said.
The reaction was muted, long blank stares and a few tears. Mostly though, the room was eerily silent, devoid of the energy that typically persisted around this team.
Some athletes cried; others remained stoic.
“When I came here as a freshman,” Shockley said. “He told me he was going to leave, maybe before I left. I kind of expected it.”
Toukene knew that if he were to get through this, he had to concentrate on coaching, on sticking with his gut.
“People focus on the running part and the state titles,” he said. “It’s not. It’s about changing kids lives. It’s a bigger mission than just teaching them how to run. Before we even get on the track, I try to teach them about life. If they’re successful in life, they can become better athletes. I’m trying to teach them discipline. I’m trying to teach them (that), if they have good habits, they also become better athletes.”
Before the night is over at The VA Showcase, Toukene gathers up his things and walks around the Liberty University facility one final time. The entire place is colored in reds and blues. But Toukene, still wearing his black hat with the brown rim, pushes it low on his face.
He wants some time to himself, maybe to disappear for a moment. One last time in this place before this chapter ends.
He walks up the stairs and sees a poster memorializing Darius Dixon, a former Western Branch sprinter he coached, a student he guided to college. Dixon’s life ended in 2013. He died tragically in a car accident and his career was cut short. Toukene couldn’t help but let out a tear.
Am I making the right decision?
He keeps walking. Everywhere he goes he’s reminded of his history with Western Branch.
“What’s up, Coach Touks?”
“Coach Toukene, congrats on the job.”
“We’re going to miss you, Touks.”
Area coaches want one last word. They wish him well and tell him how inspired or impressed they are in some small way. They treat him like a legend, a few of them just honored to coach alongside him, even if it was in a losing cause.
They know he raised the level of the sport in Virginia, that he gave other programs motivation. Could they be national powers one day, too?
“It is an emotional period,” said Eddy Williams, a retired coach from Bethel High who still attends track meets and stays in touch with the high school track scene. “I know I had all kinds of thoughts about that. You want that last year to be a very successful year; you want to win a championship on the way out. Everyone wants to do that.
“You look at things like, ‘Who’s going to take over the program. How am I going to leave the program?’ Because you do all that work to build up, you would like that to continue after your gone. You want your legacy to still be there.”
Toukene keeps walking, leaves the building one last time and gets on the bus to go back home.