By Alyssa Palfey, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State track and field assistant coach Fritz Spence has been surrounded by the sport of track and field his entire life. It is a sport that has given him much more than just a chance to compete, it has given him life.
Coming from the Bahamas, Spence started competing in track and field at a young age. So young, he doesn't even remember exactly how old he was.
"I've run track for as long as I could remember," Spence said. "I've been running and jumping. In the Bahamas they pick up track because it's a relatively easy sport to pick up as far as it doesn't cost a lot of money to run track, so a lot of the kids will do track and field. Over the years, I got better at becoming a jumper. When I graduated high school, I joined a local track club in the Bahamas and we would travel to the U.S. to compete at different universities."
A love for the sport started at such an early age allowed him to dream of becoming a coach someday, with a goal to pass that love on to others.
His dream has come true, now an assistant track and field coach at Penn State leading the jumpers and multi-event athletes for the last 12 years.
"To be honest, I wanted to be a coach all of my life," Spence said. "I enjoy doing track and field. Even as a young kid, I would always kind of be directing the younger athletes, my younger friends, what to do and how to do so. I always had a passion for coaching."
Coaching comes with a lot of responsibility but it also comes with a lot of gratification. For Spence, it's seeing his athletes become successful in life that's the most rewarding aspect.
"The most rewarding part of being a coach is to get athletes to perform a high level but also is to see athletes graduating," Spence said. "It's rewarding to see them coming in as a 17, 18-year-old and they graduate as a 22-year-old and get a good, decent job, and come back 3-5 years later and share their experience."
Even though coaching has proved to be rewarding from the beginning, it became even more important after he was diagnosed with leukemia in 2008. Spence was diagnosed almost 10 years ago on February 28, 2008. That was the first of his two battles with cancer during his time at Penn State.
"During my treatment, I would come back to the track and just hang out," Spence said. "Just being in the environment with my student athletes, they gave me motivation to push through. I remember asking the head coach at the time if I get permission from my doctor will I be allowed to come to meets, just to be in that environment. I got permission and even through the whole process, I've been in and around track and field. I think that's my lifeline. It gives me motivation to continue to push through it."
In remission after his second fight, Spence wanted to find a way to give back to the place that gave him so much during his hardest moments. Starting in 2013, the athletes and coaches at Penn State host an annual walk-a-thon called "Fit for Fritz" to raise money for the American Hope Lodge, the place where coach Spence stayed during his treatment.
"Fit for Fritz is an event we started about five years ago. Now, it has grown so much over the years. This year, we raised over $17,000 for the American Hope Lodge Society in Hershey, Pennsylvania. All the money goes directly to the Hope Lodge because that was a place that I stayed at during both of my treatments. It was a place where you get to live pretty much for free," Spence said.
"After I got healthy, I thought about giving back along with student-athletes who have been motivated and excited to give back and do community service. We continue to do that every year, and I continue to give back to Hope Lodge and help people that is in my positon today."
Senior high jumper, Megan McCloskey was the head coordinator of the Fit for Fritz event this year and has been an athlete for coach Spence the past four years.
"It's been very special getting to work with coach Spence over the last four years, not only in track & field but with Fit for Fritz as well," she said. "He's definitely a tough coach but all with the intention of helping us get the most out of ourselves and helping us realize our full potential. He reminds us after every meet that these days are special and we need to cherish every moment we have with our teammates and in competition because you never realize how quickly it goes or that one day you won't have it anymore. His appreciation for life and competition is something that I'll always be grateful for."
Whether a young child in the Bahamas, a cancer patient getting treatment, or a coach in Happy Valley, Spence has always had an appreciation for both life and competition, and he has nothing stopping him now.