The Fall cross country season is approaching, meaning another cycle of new faces, performances and expectations. For Will and Samantha Palmer — who recently joined Florida as coaches — “new” has become familiar.
The 2023 season marks their first season coaching the Florida Gators cross country team. However, the balanced dynamic that embodies their coaching style is nothing new for the husband-wife duo.
The Palmers understand what it takes to lead a successful team as the couple had coached together for four-and-a-half years at the University of Alabama.
In January, the Palmers were officially welcomed into Gainesville. Will was designated as the associate head coach for cross country and assistant track and field coach, and Samantha as the assistant coach for cross country and track and field.
They’ve guided numerous runners to All-American and Southeastern Conference honors and even a third place finish for Alabama’s women’s team at the 2022 NCAA cross country championships.
Between these two coaches, there’s a special way they complement each other to keep their dynamic strong and working well, Samantha said.
“We always joke that he’s the tortoise and I'm the hare,” Samantha said. “I want to get stuff done, I want to be on top of things … and Will is very well organized and very detail-oriented.”
The Palmers acknowledge how they balance each other out. Leading a group of roughly 45 runners to remain motivated and content throughout the season is no easy feat, yet their relationship seems to be positive for the team, they said.
“They are so open in communication with one another,” sophomore runner Caroline Bauer said. “That's why I love the husband-wife duo, there’s not a lot of teams that have that out there.”
Will and Samantha coach the women and men’s team together, and Bauer sees that as something special. She feels that the support they provide, both in running and other aspects of life, makes the team her home away from home.
“It's been a lot of fun, but also when it’s time to get to business, we get to business,” Bauer said.
The Palmers enjoy maintaining a fun environment with their team, they said. They’ve hosted Taylor Swift karaoke nights at their home, created bracelets together and Samantha even runs with the women’s team on recovery days.
In fact, the same fun energy the coaches reinforce is what Samantha said initially attracted her to UF.
“There's just something special about Florida,” she said.
Samantha specifically recalls being at Texas A&M for the indoor SEC meet in February 2022, and during the 4x400-meter relay, the Gators section was going insane, cheering for their team.
“It was the coolest thing ever,” she said. “I wanted what those athletes had, and the staff had. It was something special and different from the other teams in the SEC.”
The most enticing aspect about the Florida job was the way the Gators’ running operates, Will said.
Mike Holloway, the head coach for sprints, hurdles and relays for the track and field team, had a big impact on the couples’ decision, Will said.
“When you see the program at meets and stuff like that, it's a really cohesive team, and I think that comes from Coach Holloway,” Will said. “If there's one thing that really drew us, it's a really integrated and together track team.”
The unified and unfragmented program at UF emulated a family-like atmosphere, Will said. For the Palmers, the idea of having a family of their own was fairly new as they entered their roles as coaches in Gainesville with their 1-year-old son Liam.
“He comes out to practice on the weekends, he travels on the road with us,” Will said. “He's going to be a track baby and it's kind of neat.”
Samantha and Will make the same joke, explaining how having Liam around is actually made easier by their 45 new babysitters. Yet, the family found the initial transition into Florida difficult.
After they moved from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Samantha and her son, Liam, were continuously traveling back and forth between Gainesville and their old home for a month. The Palmers initially lived in a hotel because the contract on their home didn’t close until February.
With their newborn now in daycare, the family deems life as a bit more organized going into this cross country season, Will said. The coaching pair is prepared to guide the women and men’s teams through the ups and downs of running, especially by creating an open, comfortable space for their athletes.
“We're really upfront with our athletes,” Will said. “If you've got something going on, and you want to come see me, come see me. But if you want to go see Sam, see Sam. We're interchangeable parts in that way.”
Being a husband-wife duo helps the Palmers balance each other out as coaches, Sam said. Their differing personalities help them create individual connections with their athletes, which encourages a positive atmosphere among the team.
As coaches, Will explained he and Samantha set realistic expectations for their team in order to meet certain checkpoints throughout the season.
“But it's really less about those outcomes than it is creating positive momentum and getting them to find ways to come together as a team,” Will said.
Neither the Florida men nor women’s cross country team qualified for nationals last season. The only individual who represented Florida at nationals was redshirt junior runner Parker Valby.
The women’s team is predicted to finish ninth at the NCAA Division I cross country nationals in November by the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. Although the men’s team is not ranked in this preseason poll, they are expected to finish eighth at the SEC Championships.
“The guys are definitely in the building stage,” Will said.
The men’s team is looking to improve their performance from a year ago. With eight new recruits, Will hopes to get the team into the top half of the SEC by the end of the season.
Florida’s new cross country coaches bring a newfound energy to the team and hope to see a successful year ahead of them. Although a husband-wife coaching pair may be uncommon, Will and Samantha manage to find an equilibrium between their two personalities.
For the athletes, Bauer explains that having the Palmers as coaches is a blessing. With high expectations and the potential to achieve them, the runners are excited for what’s to come.
“They believe in us,” Bauer said.” That's the big message; they truly believe in us, support us and who we are as people and not just runners.”
Contact Isabella Morales at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @isasmorales.