CAMPING OUT: Princeton High cross country head coach Jim Smirk gives the thumbs up from one of the campsites that he stayed at last fall, isolated from his family to reduce the risk of COVID-19 for his wife, Rebecca, who had open heart and lung surgery in 2012 for complications caused by chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension. Despite his nomadic existence during that period, Smirk was still able to guide his PHS runners to a superb 2020 campaign. (Photo provided by Jim Smirk)
By Justin Feil
Although Jim Smirk was forced to make adaptations in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic like all coaches, his adjustments were a bit more drastic than most.
Princeton High cross country head coach Smirk guided his boys’ and girls’ teams to growth and success while making sacrifices behind the scenes in his personal life.
Over the final month of the season, instead of driving home to his Yardley, Pa., home after practices or meets, the Tigers head coach made his home camping either 20 miles up the Delaware River in Tohickon Valley Park, or across Route 1 in Mercer County Park.
“I was cutting a lot of wood to stay warm and cooking over a camp stove and grading on my laptop in my hammock,” said Smirk, who also teaches environmental science at PHS. “It was definitely a unique experience.”
Smirk isolated from his family to reduce the risk of COVID for his wife, Rebecca, who had open heart and lung surgery in 2012 for complications caused by chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension, a blood clotting issue that damages the lungs. The couple also has a ninth-grade daughter, Emma.
“We do a lot or risk management,” said Smirk. “Any kind of respiratory infectious disease — COVID notwithstanding — is a risk for us. For a long time, we’ve had some things in place to mitigate that risk.”
The Smirks had been cautious when there were outbreaks of flu in PHS through the years. If Smirk suspected having anything, the family isolated from each other.
Smirk was able to remain home with his family through last winter, spring, and summer as the pandemic struck and schools went to remote teaching. When PHS asked him to return to teach in-person this fall, Smirk first looked for an apartment before settling on camping as a viable alternative.
“When we were unable to secure anything else, I said, ‘I grew up camping up my entire life, I have all the equipment, I’m comfortable being out camping in any condition, why don’t I just for the short term go camping?’” recalled Smirk. “The short term went from 10 days to longer than 10 days.”
None of his previous isolation times had lasted more than a few days. The long stretches away made Smirk appreciate more the last month after Thanksgiving that he has spent at home with family.
“Being home with my daughter and wife has been a really positive experience,” said Smirk.
“When you get to come home every day, maybe you take that for granted, but I’m certainly not doing that now. I’m incredibly filled with gratitude for being able to see them every day and spend the time that I do with them.”
Being isolated gave Smirk constant reminders of the changes brought on by COVID. His family adjusted as best they could to the interruptions of their normal routines, and found new ways to connect.
“It was nightly FaceTimes with my daughter to help her with physics,” said Smirk.
“Or doing a shared dinner where they were at home eating and I was at a campsite, but we were having dinner at the same time. There are good ways to stay connected, but they’re certainly not the same as being home and cooking together and sitting down and talking about the day. It’s been a challenge.”
While camping out, Smirk relished the short interactions he had with others. He shared his story and heard the background of other campers, though most were only at a site for a weekend stay. He fell back on lessons learned from growing up camping. He prided himself on his campfire cooking and his ability to adapt regardless of where he had to go.
“My wife affectionately called me a COVID nomad,” said Smirk. “We were never quite sure where I would end up in a couple days. It was always a bit of a mystery what was the next step.”
Smirk’s odyssey also reinforced how caring and compassionate his runners and students are. His students were engaged in class and followed his special environmental lessons that he offered from his outdoor experiences.
Smirk returned to coaching – which brought with it some increased risk of exposure to COVID – relishing the chance to provide opportunity for his runners to have support and some semblance of normalcy. They ended up helping him just as much.
“The cliché is that teams are like families and you dig down when you need to,” said Smirk.
“That idea exists for a reason. I’m really proud of what we accomplished and I’m also really proud of how we took care of each other during the season.”
His teams showed strong development. The boys young mix of talent made huge strides to raise their level of competition after a loss to Robbinsville.
“To have this much elevated performance towards the end of the season was pretty cool to see because we weren’t there at the start of the season,” said Smirk.
“We didn’t really have that figured out. To see them, given all the challenges, work through that was pretty impressive.”
The girls’ squad won the first Central Jersey Group 4 championship in program history. They had won Group 3 titles before, but never the sectional after moving up a group. Smirk felt last year that the girls were on the edge of something special and was thrilled to see them find their way.
“Every time we had a challenge and every time there were moments where it wasn’t easy, we fell back on that idea of, ‘how do we make this valuable?’” said Smirk.
“If it’s not valuable for us, then why are we doing it? It did make things a little easier. The success is the product of that idea, rather than the other way around.”
Smirk found inspiration in the way that the Tigers handled the challenges that they faced. The teams’ achievements helped offset some of his toughest times. There were nights with cold rain, and a few times with below-freezing temperatures when Smirk had to toggle between devices as the cold sapped their battery strength, all in the constant backdrop of missing his family while camping.
“I would love to say it went perfectly,” said Smirk. “I think it went really well. It was a struggle at times. There were days where maybe I was burning the candle a little too much at both ends. For however much I think that the athletes benefited from it, and I think it was great for them, what they gave to me in terms of support and caring was immense. I’m greatly appreciative of them and their families in terms of the concern that they showed for what was going on and the support that came with that.”
The program presented him with a cake in the summer after he finished his master’s degree. They offered constant leads for one-person apartment possibilities when he began camping. There were days when Smirk came back to his truck to find a meal prepared for him. And there was one day when several runners stayed to help him outfit his truck with a new heavy cap more functional for camping.
“It was awesome to know that someone was thinking about me and caring about me,” said Smirk.
“Those are the sort of things in the times I was a little crispy, a little fried, from having to try to figure it out, it helped keep me motivated and keep me in a positive mindset.”
While Smirk continues to seek an affordable apartment for the winter, he is preparing for another stretch of camping if PHS goes in-person again. Having come through the fall, he feels better prepared for more challenges ahead until the pandemic subsides.
“Hopefully the vaccine will be available to teachers and high-risk community members sooner than later and we’ll be able to go through that process,” said Smirk.
“Certainly we will be in line for that vaccine as soon as it becomes available for us. Hopefully that’ll help us resolve some of the challenges. It’s certainly been a wild year so far.”
Smirk is optimistic that he and his family can be reunited long-term in their house before long. There is a finish line in sight for the COVID nomad.
“One of the biggest things I’ve learned from this is how important it is to really celebrate the small stuff and keep a positive mindset,” said Smirk.
“It would have been easy on those cold nights, where you wish you were warm sitting home on the couch and you’re having to split wood to stay warm and get a fire going, to get down on what’s going on. All those little things that went well on the day and being able to reflect on those things really helped me navigate some of the bigger challenges.”