“Coach” and Clara: How Merrell Still Works His Magic
By Alexander Wolff
I still wonder how he did it. Not the elite-level running; Merrell Noden was a strapping and
powerful athlete, and anyone to come within his force field knew what would happen when
he set one of his broad shoulders to the wheel of anything. No, the question I’d ask myself
whenever Merrell left the office for a run, and set out on that first city block already in
conversation with the lucky others in his company, was this: How did he run like the wind at
the same time his voice box was creating such wind, too?
For Merrell had a compulsion not just to be with others, but to tease from them what they
thought, and test those thoughts against his own, and to behold and enjoy the result
knowing that good-faith debate and conversation would raise everyone to a better place.
To Merrell, this individual sport, where you compete primarily with yourself, was as much
an occasion to engage with others. He must have been every bit as happy in the infield,
getting to know his rivals, as he was on the track itself, delivering the best that he had.
In the years since his death I’ve watched, through this track club that keeps his memory
alive, Merrell’s abiding ability to bring people together. And I’ve been blessed to witness a
particularly personal example thanks to the club that bears his name.
Like many supporters of the Merrell Noden Track Club, I read avidly Coach Joe Bolster’s
updates on the fortunes of his runners. In the spring of 2021, I noticed that an Eleanor
Roosevelt High School senior would be heading off the following fall to the University of
Michigan—the very campus where my own daughter was also going to be a first-year.
I asked Joe about that soon-to-be ElRo High graduate, Sibora Berisha. “I call her ‘Coach,’” he
told me, “Because I could leave the team in her hands, and we wouldn’t miss a beat.”
Joe asked me about Clara Wolff, and I mentioned that Merrell had been her godfather.
We made sure that Sibora and Clara would have the other’s contact info before heading off
to college—so a young woman from Albania, arrived in Manhattan at age 14, and another
young woman, whose own journey began in a six-person pre-school in a village in Vermont,
might connect with each other among 30,000 undergraduates in the wilds of Ann Arbor.
And so, it has happened. They’ve not only connected but become fast friends. A slice at
Joe’s Pizza. Saturday morning tailgates before singing “Mr. Brightside” in the Big House.
Walks to the Diag from the Hill.
Clara didn’t know that Dua Lipa is Albanian. Sibora didn’t know that Ben & Jerry’s comes
Now they both know that and much more, all because Merrell flapped one of his butterfly
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