Shorecrest High School’s popular coach has performed comedy on a national stage, but his hurdlers’ performances will be his focus at this week’s Class 2A state track and field championships.
“I’ll tell you a little bit about myself. I’m recently a widower … if everything went as planned.”
That one is a staple of Brad Upton’s stand-up act. It helps him lead into his marriage, which leads into his kids, which leads to his audience howling.
A full-time comedian since 1986, the Lake Forest Park resident has opened for the likes of Johnny Mathis and Joan Rivers and still tours today. Except from March to May.
That’s high-school track season.
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Turns out that one of Washington’s most prolific comics is also one of its best hurdling coaches. Three of Upton’s hurdlers from Shorecrest High School qualified for the Class 2A state track and field championships, which run Thursday through Saturday in Tacoma.
The 60-year-old has also coached a slew of All-Americans at Washington, and once beat decathlete Dan O’Brien — the 1996 Olympic gold medalist — in the 110-meter high hurdles. True story.
“O’Brien false started,” Upton said.
No one else in the country is so committed to track and comedy. A couple of years ago, a man Googled “comedian with a track background,” and Upton’s was the only name that came up.
So in an attempt to add life to the USA Track and Field National Championships in Sacramento, Calif., the same guy offered Brad a job as the event’s on-field announcer. As kids these days might say: Best. Gig. Ever.
“The human brain is not fully developed until the age of 25. I know that’s true, because people under 25 are the only ones who would put a $3,000 sound system into a $1,000 car.”
Upton’s most popular bit might be the one mocking today’s youth, but the truth is that he treasures kids. After a college track career that included stints at Spokane Community College, the University of Montana, and Eastern Washington, Brad began teaching fourth grade while coaching track at Pasco High School. Over the next seven years, Upton produced a state 400-meters champion along with some of the best relays in Washington.
He was happy — but he knew he could be happier.
Upton always wanted to do stand-up. He conjured up the courage to perform at an open mic one night and killed it. Years later, he won the Las Vegas Comedy Festival, where he was the only comic to use completely different material in each of his three sets. Clubs, cruise ships, and corporate events around the country all sought his services, which were always PG-13 at worst.
Lifelong dream of being a full-time comedian? Check.
Still, Brad wasn’t quite Brad without coaching in his life. So he worked as a volunteer assistant coach at Washington from 1988 to 1994. And when his wife, Julie, had a cancer scare, he dropped out of comedy and became a full-time assistant for three years.
Fortunately, Julie has long been in remission, and by 1997, Upton was back in comedy full time. Well, full time for nine months of the year, at least.
“When some of my athletes are screwing around in practice, I tell them ‘knock it off! I could be on a cruise ship in the Caribbean right now!’”
That’s not part of Upton’s act, but it is a line he’ll use with his kids when necessary. Spring after spring, he stands in the rain at Shorecrest High in Shoreline and molds fledgling hurdlers into formidable ones.
Senior Sophia Viviano? She holds the school record in the 100-meter hurdles (15.42 seconds) and has a shot at the state title.
Sophomore Marieke Visscher? She’ll be competing in Tacoma after taking an absurd 1.1 seconds off her 100-hurdle time in the past month.
Upton has dedicated his life to making people’s bellies ache, yes. But his track athletes — they’re no joke.
Visscher said her success is a direct result of Upton’s positivity.
Senior Aubrey Victor added that Brad “just knows how to push you.”
And Terra Barter, who has held the UW 400-meter-hurdle record for 21 years, called Upton “almost a perfect coach — because he helps you, but he’s never too much in your face.”
Don’t think Upton keeps his coaching and comedy completely separate, though. His profession requires him to keep up with pop culture, and you won’t find a more conducive environment for that than at practice with a few dozen teenagers.
Just a couple weeks ago one of his athletes started jawing at him, and Upton came back with a Justin Bieber lyric: “My mama don’t like you, and she likes everyone.”
This was a big hit.
Then again, Upton has been a hit with his athletes for decades. He said his favorite part about coaching is the long-term relationships it breeds, and by this point, he may have more friends than he does jokes.
Will he ever walk away from track and field? Don’t count on it.
“I told my wife ‘I’m going to do this till the day I die,’” Upton said. “And when I do, just cremate me, put me in the long jump pit, stir me in there, and I’ll be good.”