AUGUSTA — Luke Fontaine was 9 years old when he decided to run track and field. Like many kids in the summer youth track program, the Augusta native wanted to be a sprinter.

“That’s how I started off,” said Fontaine, “but it’s not how I finished. Taylor (Harmon) told me I was a distance runner. He said I should get into distance running, so I did. I’m glad I listened. He had such a huge influence on my life. I’ll never forget Taylor.”

Harmon, a former Cony High School indoor track and field head coach and mentor to countless student-athletes, died Sunday. He was 70.

Friends, coaches and former student-athletes recalled Harmon on Monday as a tough yet caring coach who had a positive impact on the lives of many. Many shared stories on a Facebook page — “Coach Taylor Harmon: an Extraordinary Man.”

At Harmon’s urging, Fontaine ditched the sprints in favor of the distance events. He then graduated from Cony High School in 2010 as one of the top distance runners in the state. Fontaine went on to run for the University of Miami, where he earned a partial scholarship. He also received a nursing degree and passed the licensing exam. On Monday, Fontaine, 23, started his career as a nurse at MaineGeneral Health in Augusta.

“Taylor used to always say that I should use track as a tool to get me where I had to go,” said Fontaine, the 2009 1,600-meter Class A state champ. “He played a huge role in my life. He saved me a lot of time and money. He’s been coaching me since I was 9. He helped me all the way through. He helped a lot of people. No matter how fast or slow you were, he was there to help.

“He got me into cross country and track. I don’t think I get into Miami without him. He played a huge role in my life. He played a huge role in a lot of people’s lives. He was a tough coach. He would yell a lot and demand a lot, but he was the nicest guy I ever met. I am going to miss him.”

Fontaine said he visited Harmon on Saturday at the VA Maine Healthcare System-Togus hospital in Augusta to say goodbye.

“It was sad,” Fontaine said. “But at the same he could laugh at some stories. I’m going to miss him.”

Added Cony athletic director Paul Vachon: “Taylor gave a lot of himself. He is irreplaceable. No one will be able to replace him and all that he did.”

When he wasn’t coaching, Harmon often volunteered to run meets or races across central Maine, and beyond.

Mt. Blue cross country coach Kelley Cullenberg said she looked forward to greeting Harmon at different events.

“I have known him for years and we always had a relationship in which he would tease the heck out of me,” she said. “As soon as I got on site for whatever meet it was like he would be ready with some kind of sarcastic comment that he could get on my case about — with a smile on his face, of course. I got to a point when I dished it right back to him. We had a lot of fun giving each other a hard time.

“At these meets, if you didn’t know him, you could hear him and go ‘Wow, who is that guy?’ He’s going to be missed. He touched the lives of so many people.”

Lindsey Folsom, 20, of Gardiner, graduated from Cony in 2013 as one of the top pole vaulters in the state. She set the Class A state pole vault record in Brewer that year when she cleared 11 feet, 7 inches.

Folsom, who is a junior at the University of Rhode Island, said she had never heard of pole vaulting until she met Harmon.

“When I started lifting in middle school, that’s when I got to know him,” she said. “When he found out I was a gymnast, he asked if I would give pole vaulting a try. I said OK, and he gave me a pole. I know I wouldn’t be here without him.”

Folsom also hailed Harmon as a dedicated coach and shared a few of her favorite stories.

“In my sophomore year at Cony, the winter of 2010-2011, I went out to Reno, Nevada for a pole vaulting summit,” she said. “I flew out, but it was too expensive to ship the pole vault out, so Taylor strapped it to his car and drove it out himself. He was crazy like that.”

Folsom also recalled Harmon’s swift return following hip replacement surgery.

“After surgery, he left the hospital and drove himself to practice — he was definitely not supposed to do that — to help us out,” she said. “He was an animal. I’m really going to miss him.”

Chris Slonina, 22, of Winthrop, ran distance events on the Cony indoor track and field team.

He said Harmon expected a lot of his athletes but was always around to help.

“He always got us motivated before practice,” said Slonina, who graduated in 2012. “He was tough but he was the best coach I knew. He was always busy helping out. He was an everywhere guy. He touched a lot of people’s hearts.”

Bethany Dumas, 26, of Augusta, graduated from Cony in 2008 as the indoor and outdoor track and field state record-holder in the pole vault.

An emotional Dumas recalled Harmon as a selfless person who was the “heart and soul of the programs.”

“I think it came to a shock to a lot of people,” said Dumas. “I know a lot of us would not be where we are today if not for him. He was by far the hardest and toughest coach I ever knew, but he was that way because he believed in us. He saw the potential in all of us. I like to compare it to a tube of toothpaste — there is always a little more in there. I hope we can all carry on his legacy.”

Elizabeth Dang, 20, of Augusta, is a junior at the University of Louisville. She and twin brother, Luke, competed on the Cony track and field team. Elizabeth Dang won the 1,600-meter racewalk at the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class A championship meet in 2013, her senior year.

She said she had no interest in the sport until Harmon convinced her to give it a try years before.

She said she was 5 when Luke began summer track through Augusta Parks and Recreation, coached by Taylor.

“I had no interest,” she wrote in an email. “However, Taylor would flash one of those winning smiles and coerced me, calling me princess and having me do parts of the workouts.”

She said it took a couple years before she joined. “Taylor pushed us to be the best we could possibly be. Sure, his coaching technique may not have been the most traditional, but look at the athletes he turned out.”

Added Luke Dang, who ran for Harmon for about 13 years: “I remember as a 5-year-old kid that Taylor would teach us about the science of running down to the biological level,” Dang wrote in an e-mail. “Being 5, I couldn’t form an appreciation of what he was saying to us all. He would go to all these clinics and come back with these outrageous drills for us to do and I remember thinking ‘What will these even do for me?’

“Well, as it turned out, those drills he had me doing from ages 5-17 would be the same drills that set the foundation of running for me. … He was a remarkable being.”

Like Folsom, Elizabeth Dang also had an abundance of favorite Harmon stories that continue to stick with her.

“One year after the state meet at Alumni (Field, in Augusta), Taylor handed us all trash bags and had us pick through the trash cans to find recyclables,” she wrote. “We moaned and we groaned but we know Taylor was going to use that money to buy a pair of trainers or spikes for someone who needed them. I have flat feet and bad shin splints and Taylor went out and bought me insoles without me ever asking. He would not take no for an answer or money in return.

“There were times we would see Taylor at a restaurant, so my mother would pay for his meal and then we would get out as fast as possible before he realized,” she said.

“He wasn’t just a coach for us, he taught us to give everything in life our all. When we made mistakes, he taught us to learn and grow from those mistakes,” she said. “It was only a mistake if we didn’t take anything from it. And if you made a mistake, you best believe you better fess up to it because he was going to find out sooner rather than later — possibly before your parents. Taylor showed up to all our meets (and) he traveled the country.

“You bet he was going to be in New York if we were in New York. When I was in Greensboro, North Carolina, for nationals one year, he couldn’t make it and he called multiple times to wish me luck. He felt so bad that he couldn’t be there for me. I thought he would be disappointed when I didn’t medal because I pulled a hamstring during the 3,000-kilometer racewalk but he was just proud of me for being able to finish. He wasn’t disappointed.

“He dreamed, hoped, wished big for all of us.”

Bill Stewart — 621-5618

[email protected]

Twitter: @BillstewartMTM


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