Running Off the Track: A Story of Passion

If I had to sum up Coach Caryl Smith Gilbert in one word, it would be “passionate.”

Coach Gilbert, the head coach for the men’s and women’s track and field teams at USC, has led an interesting path to end up in the land of Trojans — a path built on discovering a passion and pursuing it.

It all started when she was a child. Gilbert summed up her early years when she said, “When I was small, I used to quit everything.” She tried it all — instruments, dancing; you name it. But soon after trying each new activity, she’d quit and look for the next one to test out.

One summer, without the support of her father, Gilbert joined the track team at a YMCA. What her father thought would be just another “fling” ended up becoming Gilbert’s way of life.

She said she realized track was the one when in her first race she “beat everybody in [her] age group at the hundred. I just was good at it,” she said. “That was the one thing I never quit.”

A spark was finally lit. Gilbert finally found her passion.

Gilbert took this passion everywhere she went — from her club team, the Colorado Flyers, to the UCLA track and field team, to USC where she coaches now. She gives credit to her Flyers coach, Tony Wells for keeping the passion alive by instilling a motivation in her.

Not only did Wells shape his runners into great athletes, but “He [also] gave us the believe that we could actually go to college and be something as women.” Gilbert understood that running could get her more than a trophy. It could get her out of Denver, and into college.

When Gilbert returned to Colorado after college, her next journey was thrown into her lap: a coaching career. She wasn’t too keen on it at first — she didn’t want to interact with kids, nor did she have the patience to teach and train each one.

“I went back to my high school, George Washington High School, and I was the head coach at 24 years old,” she said. “I told [Wells] I didn’t want to coach, but I was really good at it. The kids just gravitated to me.”

Gilbert fell in love with coaching after she started because she felt like she was making a difference in the kids’ lives.

“I realized somewhere in there, I like helping people,” she said.

It was clear that this was the job for Gilbert when her team won a few state championships under her leadership. After her successes at George Washington High School, Gilbert went on to coach at Penn State, the University of Alabama, the University of Tennessee, the University of Central Florida and now USC. Even though she didn’t plan to continue with this coaching career for her entire life, she says couldn’t have asked for it any other way.

“Things don’t always happen the way you plan them to go. Plan B feels as good as plan A,” Gilbert said. “If it doesn’t go according to how you want, you have to be okay with the plan God gives you — His plan prevails.”