Olympian runner Marina Muncan joins CMS athletics as head cross-country coach

A woman in red along with many other women run on a track.
Marina Muncan, the new CMS cross country coach, competes in the 1500m at the 2012 Summer Olympics. (Courtesy: Tom Page from Wikimedia Commons)

Years after her first Division III coaching stint, former Olympic athlete and coach of Rutgers University’s DI cross-country program Marina Muncan is returning to her collegiate coaching roots. 

Muncan, who said her new position is a “dream job,” is joining the Stags and Athenas as head coach of the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps men’s and women’s cross-country programs. She arrived after five years coaching Rutgers’ DI women’s cross-country team and assistant coaching the university’s track and field team. 

Under her leadership, two cross-country athletes received the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association All-Region honors for the first time in program history, and a distance athlete qualified for NCAA Track and Field Championships for the first time in 10 years.

But Muncan’s success extends far further than in the coach’s seat; she is an Olympian herself, having represented Serbia at the 2012 Summer Olympics and competed in the 1500-meter event. 

“Reaching the Olympics fulfilled a dream that I’d had for as long as I’d been running. It was incredible,” Muncan said via email. 

Following her Olympic competition, Muncan first began her coaching career in DIII athletics. Muncan first held track and field and cross-country coaching positions at The College of New Jersey and Stockton University.

One of the principal reasons Muncan left Rutgers for the CMS team was to return to DIII coaching again, where she says “attitudes and priorities” shape the experience for her.

“Immediately, it’s about getting to know the team and their goals and expectations both athletically and academically.” -Marina Muncan

“My experience of coaching within DI was a program that prioritized income and ego, rather than pride in the overall school and program,” Muncan said via email. “There is a purity to DIII that is a bit lost in DI, and that is the main thing I love.”

“If you’re in DIII and you’re on this team, you’re here to train, and really put in the work. There’s no scholarship to protect, you’re here to get the best out of yourself and be a part of the tradition,” she said. “I love that.”

At CMS, that grit has built a legacy to live up to. 

Under previous head cross-country coach John Goldhammer, the men’s team made an appearance at the NCAA DIII championships 18 times, and the women’s team appeared 22 times. Both teams have made appearances at the championships for each of the last 12 years.

Muncan is well aware of the reputation of the program she now leads, and she intends to continue it. Among her goals for the team when competition resumes are “winning conference titles and continuing the tradition of CMS athletes on the national stage.”

“It’s a long legacy and tradition of excellence that Coach Goldhammer leaves behind, I’m extremely cognizant of that. I’m hoping that my experience and perspective can continue and enhance both the results we expect and the team dynamic that is so crucial to that continued success,” she said.

Losing a competition season due to the coronavirus pandemic meant that cross-country training cycles were “completely disrupted,” dragging Muncan back to the drawing board to completely rewrite training regimens. To keep her teams at the top, she’s reworked plans to reduce stress, prevent burnout and keep athletes engaged both physically and mentally. And, as the question of spring competition remains open, she’s preparing for all possibilities. 

“I’m extremely impressed in the academic and overall reputation of the Claremont Colleges.” -Marina Muncan

Right now, though, Muncan says she’s prioritizing team culture — her favorite aspect of the sport — as she steps into the new position.

“Immediately, it’s about getting to know the team and their goals and expectations both athletically and academically,” Muncan said, with the short-term goal of building trust and confidence around her “training and racing philosophies,” as well as fostering an inclusive and positive team dynamic.

To get to know her runners, she sent every one of them a questionnaire that asked about athletes’ running goals but also gave the athletes space to mention more casual or personal details. She then followed up with each athlete individually. 

“She called every single one of us,” Olivia Gleason SC ’21 said. “That’s real. I could tell that she really has a desire to get to know every one of us individually and as a team.”

According to Gleason, Muncan sent out mental health resources in honor of Suicide Prevention Week and has been leading the team in an anti-racism workshop and facilitation session.

“She [acknowledges] people as a whole and other issues outside of running that we might be facing,” Gleason said. “I think it’s really great for the team that we’re promoting a team culture that wants to … support everyone.”

Asked about coming to Claremont, Muncan said, “I moved here with my husband, three children and our pug,” from New Jersey. She enjoys the California weather, but that’s not the only reason she likes her new job.

“I’m extremely impressed in the academic and overall reputation of the Claremont Colleges,” Muncan said.

It goes both ways. 

“I’m really impressed by her,” Gleason said. “I think she’s already done a really good job.”

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