NIN Honorees: Karen O’Neil named Doug Speck Award winner

by Steve Underwood

A Special Kind of Honesty and Integrity

Karen O’Neil: Doug Speck Award for Excellence and Innovation

When talking about her life in track & field/cross-country, Karen O’Neil conveys how much her late father meant to her, with his support and his personal character that strongly influenced her. In turn, she has made sure her career in coaching, teaching and education in general has reflected the values he personified and that she has made her own.

O’Neil’s embracing of her father’s positive influence was a big reason she was chosen as the recipient of the NSAF’s 2020 Doug Speck Award for Excellence and Innovation. Since the indoor nationals were cancelled in 2020 and 2021, the former Seneca H.S. (Tabernacle, N.J.) coach received the award in person at last weekend’s Nike Indoor Nationals at Ocean Breeze.

These O’Neil qualities inspired a quiet act of kindness and giving in the fall of 2017 that gave wider audience to the work she was doing at Seneca. Not intended to draw attention, but doing so just the same. O’Neil had planned to take her team, one of the best in Jersey, to that fall’s Great American XC Festival in Raleigh, N.C. Meanwhile, the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Harvey late that summer in Texas and the surrounding region had made national news.

“We were reading about it and realizing that there were teams that had lost everything,” O’Neil says. “We were holding a car wash in September to raise money for the Great American trip and we decided we’d donate half the proceeds to a team affected by the hurricane. We contacted the Milesplit Texas editor and he told us about Kingwood HS (near Houston).”

Kingwood was invited by the NSAF to compete at GAXC with the support of travel grant funds and O’Neil contacted the Kingwood AD and coach to tell them what they planned to do. When the Kingwood squad arrived in Cary, N.C. for the meet, O’Neil and her squad presented them with a check for $500.

“It’s a big focus of our school, learning to give back to the community and putting things in perspective,” she said that weekend. Later, in a story in the The Shamong Sun, O’Neil added, “Athletics can play an important role in getting back to normal after a disaster like this, and we wanted to do something to help them return to normalcy just a little bit quicker.”

It wasn’t the first time O’Neil and her team had acted out of a sense of kindness and/or justice in an unexpected situation. In the 2012 South Jersey Shootout invitational, Seneca was victorious after Mt. St. Dominic Academy’s top runner collapsed 20 meters from the finish. MSDA would have won the meet if not for the incident, so Coach O’Neil and her team decided to hand over their 1st-place to them and accept the runner-up award. O’Neil was chosen as the 2012 South Jersey and Burlington County Cross Country Coach of the Year, and honored by the NJ State Board of Education for Act of Sportsmanship.

It all goes back to the influence of Karen’s father, the late James (Jim) O’Neil. “Even with his busy work schedule as a cardiologist, he managed to be at nearly every meet throughout my high school and college careers,” she says. At Princeton, where she majored in politics and economics, O’Neil was an All-ECAC choice and team captain as a senior. She went to work in the financial industry in NYC, but she wasn’t really happy doing so and after 9/11 her father “really encouraged me to pursue teaching and coaching.”

O’Neil began an outstanding career of coaching track & field and XC at Seneca in 2004. As head girls coach indoors, she coached Seneca to its first girls state title in any sport in 2009 and was the South Jersey Coach of the Year. She was also an assistant coach for the girls outdoor team and, of course, head coach of girls’ XC from 2010-19. At the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, several months into the pandemic, O’Neil was named Athletic Director at Seneca.

And always, she was supported by her father. “Throughout my coaching career, he continued to follow my teams, and he would always ask me about my runners and how the team was doing every time I talked to him,” she says. “I had told my dad about this award a few weeks before he passed away, and he was so excited for me ... My dad was someone that had so much integrity.  He was always honest, and he believed in spending your life helping others.  He spent his life taking care of his patients, family, and friends, and that was a value that he instilled into me and my siblings from a young age.”

A special kind of honesty and integrity; that’s what sets both father – and daughter – apart.

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