Kepler’s road to coaching unconventional

Dire diagnosis inspired Kihei Charter coach to commit to running

Kihei Charter School cross country coach Cassie Kepler speaks with her team during a retreat to Keanae in 2019. Kepler has taken an unconventional route to coaching, having not played organized sports as a youth before commiting to running when she was 22. Photos courtesy of Cassie Kepler

* Coach Speak is a special series of stories highlighting coaches from around the Maui Interscholastic League. Stories will run periodically throughout the summer in The Maui News.

Cassie Kepler’s call to coaching is different than most.

While becoming the head cross country coach for Kihei Charter School, as well as a runner and taekwondo athlete later in life, was “untraditional,” Kepler knew that all she wanted was to be a positive role model in the community.

“Maybe I didn’t envision coaching on my horizon, but I did always want to make a positive difference. Coaching allows for that,” Kepler said. “While it pretty much governs my free time, coaching has been one of the greatest gifts of my life. The accidental part might just be how much I get back by seeing my students grow as both athletes and people.”

Kepler, who is also an assistant coach for the Tiger Sharks track and field team, joined the cross country program in 2015. Athletic director Dave Kannewurf said last month that the school has been “extremely fortunate to have a person such as Cassie” on the coaching staff ever since.

Cassie Kepler smiles with sons Josh and Pohaku after completing her fourth marathon, the San Diego Rock and Roll Marathon in 2006.

“Cassie’s programs consist of many different types of student-athletes who have varying goals,” Kannewurf said. “She is able to motivate all of her athletes through positive coaching and genuine caring for all of her student-athletes.”

He added that she understands and encourages the growth of the “total student,” not just their athletic performance.

Other than simple exercises or runs, Kepler didn’t grow up participating in organized sports at the youth level or during her time at Baldwin High School and the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

“I am neither a traditional coach nor a traditional athlete,” she said.

It wasn’t until she was 22 years old and diagnosed with a basilar artery dissection — a rare, life-threatening condition in the brain — that she was inspired to commit to running.

Cassie Kepler is pictured during the USA Taekwondo Championships in 2013.

She started training for her first marathon, raising funds for the Leukemia Society of America in Honolulu, and later added on two Run to the Sun ultramarathons.

“I signed up for my first marathon not because I was a good runner, but because a diagnosis of a problem in my brain solidified my determination to defeat the odds,” said Kepler, now 46 years old and a mother of two. “It turns out that diagnosis was a false positive, but I didn’t know it for more than a year — a year in which I was not allowed to run or lift heavy items or even think about having children for fear of rupturing an artery.”

After that year, running became ingrained in Kepler’s everyday life to relieve stress, improve her fitness and health, and just for overall enjoyment, something she hopes to share with the high school runners today.

“She really shows her athletes that she’s working towards her own goals,” said Malia Crouse, assistant race director of the Maui Marathon and organizer of the Maui Running Company. “Like we meet at 5 a.m. every Tuesday morning and do our own kind of workouts together, and that’s because she still has her own running goals and health goals.”

Crouse, who has been running partners with Kepler for over three years, said that Kepler’s coaching style involves positive reinforcement, individual goal-setting and leading by example.

“She really recognizes that everyone has their individual challenges and she just also has this really special way of also showing your strengths,” Crouse said. “I think what makes her a good coach is that students view her as their track or cross country coach, but I think they know that she will help them out in whatever way she can also.”

Before anything else, Kepler said she continued running throughout her late 20s and until now to make connections and build relationships with others, and to “feel good about life.”

Coaching initially presented itself when Kepler’s two sons, Josh and Pohaku, played a few seasons of AYSO soccer and the team needed volunteers. She also later helped coach the youth cross country team at Haiku Elementary.

When her sons were taking classes at Kiffmann Taekwondo, Kepler spontaneously decided that for a 40th birthday present to herself, she wanted to earn a Kukkiwon-certified black belt.

After competing at the state and national level in taekwondo in 2012-14, and bringing home a few age-group medals, Kepler said she finally considered herself an athlete.

“I have to admit that even my foray into (taekwondo) was not necessarily intentional,” she said. “My children competed in taekwondo. I got tired of sitting on the sidelines. I figured I might as well get some exercise. Besides, as a small woman, I figured the self-defense skills could make my running safer.”

In 2015, the head coaching position at Kihei Charter opened up and Kepler took over a team of nine runners that season, with none qualifying for the state meet.

“Honestly, I felt like a fraud, but the need was real, so I stepped into shoes that didn’t feel like mine,” Kepler said. “This year, we had a team of 17 boys and girls and qualified seven. Equally importantly, we have a cohesive team where athletes have voices and feel unified, belonging to something bigger than themselves.”

Kepler has run several daunting races ranging from the mile to the 36.3-mile, but coaching is “a whole new beast.”

Along the way, she researched different training styles and spoke with several coaches in the community about leading a team.

“I decided early on that all athletes matter,” she said. “While we would help those that were there to be fast, we would also value the people who were there to get PE credits, lose weight or deal with their depression.”

Kepler’s coaching philosophy, in part, is to help them “grow as people who take care of each other, who do the right thing, and who work hard in the face of great difficulty,” she said.

Even though her original plan was to exit the Tiger Sharks program when her son Pohaku graduated this year, Kepler agreed to stay for both the cross country and track seasons this upcoming year.

“We are lucky to have a person such as Cassie who is not only a great coach but an even better person,” Kannewurf said.

* Dakota Grossman is at dgrossman@mauinews.com.


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