Five-time Olympic distance runner Abdi Abdirahman and many of Jim Mielke’s former runners at Sunnyside and Pima College gathered Sunday for a celebration-of-life ceremony for their late coach at Pima’s Proscenium Theater.
Mielke passed away at the age of 86 in September after battling a long illness, that included kidney failure.
“I know I had great success after I left Pima, but (Mielke) laid the foundation for everything that I did in life,” said Abdirahman, who never ran competitively before attending Pima following his graduation from Tucson High in 1995.
“We were student-athletes, but we were his children, to be honest.”
Five-time Olympian 10,000-meter and marathon runner Abdi Abdirahman, who came to Tucson from Somalia as part of a refugee program, began his running career on a whim at @PimaAthletics after he graduated from Tucson High in 1995. He never ran before. One of his friends at Pima… pic.twitter.com/ktJRnA7CK0
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) November 13, 2023
For almost 60 years, Mielke coached cross country runners at Sunnyside Junior High School, Sunnyside High School and Pima Community College
He holds the distinction of coaching Sunnyside and Pima College to their first outright championships in any sport.
He led Sunnyside’s boys cross country team to the 1975 state championship and the Pima College men’s cross country team to the 1980 national championship.
Pima Community College interim chancellor Delores Duran-Cerda mentioned that Mielke “truly was a father of this community.”
“Beyond the victories of his athletes and all the honors, what really mattered to coach Mielke was the profound impact he had on the lives of some 4,000 student-athletes that he coached, mentored, taught and listened to,” she said.
A former language teacher, Duran-Cerda told the crowd that the first four letters of Mielke’s name is “Miel,” which in Spanish means “honey.”
“So he was a very sweet, humble, generous man and I always will remember him that way,” she said. “He demonstrated kindness, compassion, understanding and tenderness.”
Mariachi Los Diabilitos de Sunnyside performing at tonight’s Celebration of Life for Jim Mielke, accomplished cross country coach at @SHSDevilSports and @PimaAthletics who passed away in September at 86. Our late brother Hector ran for Mielke at Sunnyside. pic.twitter.com/xEgC5yqafT
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) November 13, 2023
Carlos Flores, who ran for Mielke at Sunnyside and Pima, recalled knowing Mielke for 65 years since he was 11 years old and Mielke was a teacher and coach at Sunnyside Junior High School.
Mielke supported Flores completing his bachelor’s degree in physical education and sociology at Arizona.
“Because he believed in me, it kept my dreams alive,” an emotional Flores said.
Edgar Soto, Pima’s vice president who directs the Desert Vista campus, believed Mielke, a very spiritual man, was serving his calling by coaching at a junior college after being a mentor and coach to students from low-income areas near Sunnyside.
“He knew that diversity, equity and inclusion was a thing that was a premium in life,” Soto said. “He looked out for those who couldn’t look out for themselves. He felt that community college had so much leverage in making a difference in somebody’s life.
“He knew that sometimes the university route wasn’t going to work for everybody, but he knew that with athletics, and being a student athlete, that the lure to get them here might be the sport, but the true goal is to get them hooked on higher education and get them a career. He did that so well.”
All of his former runners, including Abdirahman, talked about Mielke taking them to buffets and steak dinners after practices and meets.
Mielke paid out of his own pocket. He never shared that with the runners, who always believed the college was footing the bill. Some did not know of Mielke paying for their high-price meals until it was discussed Sunday night.
Many talked about Mielke taking pride in watching his runners experience such grand things in life, especially because they never had experienced them before based on their backgrounds.
“He used to take us to Las Cruces (N.M.), for four or five days, for training camp, before the cross country season started,” Abdirahman said. “He used to take us to the best buffets. One thing about Coach Mielke did is he never left us hungry. He made sure we went to the best buffets. He would just sit there and watch us eat.
“It was amazing. He was like a father figure to us. I really miss him.”
His nephew Chris Mielke enlightened the crowd that his uncle had tremendous wealth because of purchasing land at a relatively low price in the 1960s after earning an education degree from Arizona and making a highly profitable sale a couple of decades later.
“This is something a lot of people don’t know, that he found 210 acres of land in the Tucson foothills for about 180 bucks,” Chris said. “He got with two friends. He said, ‘We’re each going to put in 60 bucks and you’re not going to miss the 60 bucks (the equivalent of about $600 today).’
“He said these guys were kicking and screaming. He’s telling me this story in the 1980s. I said, ‘How are they now?’ He said, ‘Well, we just sold the last parcel for millions and millions of dollars, so they’re kissing my ass now.”
“He was offered a lot of head coaching jobs from four-year schools and he never took them because he knew he could help people,” Chris continued. “He would only give scholarships to people that needed them and only to Arizona students. That was my uncle. In a nutshell, he didn’t care how much you were worth because he knew you had an innate worth in you.
“It didn’t matter if you lived in a big house or a small house or no house. He saw God’s worth and that was his thing.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator in 2016 and is presently a special education teacher at Sunnyside High School in the Sunnyside Unified School District.