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Nearly 60 years ago, the track coach at St. Joseph Prep School in Bardstown needed a miler. He spotted a scrawny country boy sitting in one of his classes by the name of Press Whelan, and urged the New Haven youngster to join the team.
Luckily for the running community, Whelan agreed.
What began that day started a lifetime of achievements for Whelan in cross-country and track and field, featuring multiple championships, hall of fame inductions and contributions on a national and international level. The sport was a perfect match for Whelan’s mantra of always wanting to be the best.
“I have a Type A personality and that’s what drives me,” Whelan said. “You run to win. That’s what I competed for.”
Running was a different sport back then. While today athletes have to train almost year-around in order to be successful in any sport, back then training for track consisted of showing up in March, running around the track a few times and competing in a meet.
But Whelan was a natural from the beginning. While competing at St. Joe, Whelan never lost a cross country race and won the state championship in 1954 and 1955. He also was a two-time runner-up in the mile at the state track meet, and received St. Joe’s Outstanding Athlete Award his senior year.
“I really had a great experience at St. Joe Prep,” Whelan said. “I liked competing. If somebody was out there I wanted to beat them.”
Whelan’s high school career set precedence for success in all areas he ever competed. Following graduation from St. Joe, Whelan received a running scholarship to the University of Kentucky, where he continued his knack of crossing the line first.
At UK, Whelan transformed into an All-American, breaking the Southeastern Conference cross-country record by six seconds and winning two conference titles in 1960. After graduating from UK in 1961 with a degree in physical education, Whelan started coaching, where he made an even bigger impact.
Whelan’s first stop was at Manual High School, becoming their head track coach and teaching 10th grade biology, an experience he termed “terrifying” at 23 years old. Perhaps his biggest contribution was creating the school’s first ever cross country team in an effort to get his athletes training longer than others.
The philosophy worked. Whelan’s team won the state championship in track during his only year at the school in 1962. Recently, Whelan was inducted into Manual’s Athletic Hall of Fame for his efforts.
“I was just fresh out of running and I knew to truly be successful in track, it’s a year-around deal,” said Whelan, who is also a member of the St. Joseph Prep School and the USA Kentucky Track and Field and Cross Country halls of fame. “Everyone ran in the fall and we got a jump on other teams.”
From there, Whelan moved back to UK where he attended graduate school, working as an assistant coach for the track team under head coach Bob Johnson. He also taught science at a local junior high school.
After graduating with his master’s in 1965, Whelan was asked by the U.S. State Department to work with Turkish coaches as they prepared athletes for berths in the 1968 Olympics. Whelan relocated overseas, learning the language and giving clinics to different groups, helping the country set five national records in the process. After completing his duties in Turkey, Whelan also worked with athletes in Lebanon.
Whelan again returned to UK, this time as head track and cross country coach, in 1967. At the time of his hire, he was the youngest coach in the SEC at 29. The Wildcats were immensely successful during his tenure, winning 33 titles in SEC competition, compared to the nine previous titles won before his arrival. In 1970, UK won the SEC Cross Country Championship, the school’s third, under Whelan’s direction.
Perhaps Whelan’s biggest achievement came away from the track. In a time where many talented African-Americans were moving north for college, Whelan organized the first meeting between UK athletics and Lexington’s black community, and coached the first black track athlete in the SEC to receive a degree.
“The whole society was changing and we were changing along with it,” Whelan said. “We wanted to be a leader. The entire athletic department embraced the change.”
Whelan left UK in 1973.
“I enjoyed it,” he said. “It was a stage of my life I loved and I don’t regret anything about it.”
Immediately following his tenure with UK, Whelan was named President of the National Junior Pro Basketball Association, for children ages 7-14. The organization was started by former UK basketball coaches Adolph Rupp and Joe B. Hall, and featured smaller balls and lower goals.
Whelan got out of the sports industry in 1975, relocating to Atlanta before beginning a business of remodeling homes in Florida.
Whelan used the same mindset that made him successful in the running world in his career and other endeavors.
“When you go to compete you want to be the best,” Whelan said. “In my mind, you want to compete against the best, you want to be the best. If you get an athlete who wants to compete for second place, you don’t want to recruit him. I never shot for second place.”
Despite a long layoff, Whelan did eventually feel the itch to start running competitively again, where he showed the talent and work ethic that made him so successful in his younger days. He has competed in three Senior Olympics (1999, 2001, 2007) and was a four-time Georgia State Champion in the 800 and 1500 meter races for his age group.
“I’ve always been a competitor, and I started talking to friends I used to compete with,” Whelan said. “Once I start something I go full-blown, but your muscles don’t react the same way they do at age 25.”
Whelan is now retired and back in Atlanta where he lives with his wife, Phyllis. He also has a son and a daughter, and five grandchildren, and is a Stage Four cancer survivor. Whelan gets a great deal of joy watching his grandchildren compete in track, and says they are the fastest kids in their school. He notes the large differences in the sport since the beginning of his career, such as more nutrition, better technology and the creation of substances like Gatorade.
“I just want to keep them exposed to track, but I don’t want to burn them out,” Whelan said. “I want them to have fun.”
No matter what happens to Whelan from here, you can always expect his motor — and his legs — to always be moving.
“I am not someone who can just sit in a chair and just rock,” Whelan said with a laugh. “I have to be doing something.”