Taking one for the team
Laureen McGurk Seeger has always been a pacesetter.
The UW-Eau Claire business administration graduate and former Blugold women's cross country runner currently serves as executive vice president, general counsel and chief compliance officer for McKesson Corp., a leading pharmaceutical distributor and health care information technology company. San Francisco-based McKesson is one of the largest corporations in the U.S. with a female as its top attorney.
The youngest of 10 children, Seeger funded her own undergraduate and postgraduate education, first by working as a secretary in a law firm during her senior year of high school and later with part-time jobs in Eau Claire.
She graduated cum laude from UW-Eau Claire in 1983 and went on to receive a juris doctor degree in 1986 from UW-Madison, where she served as managing editor of the Wisconsin International Law Journal. She has been at the front of the pack ever since. Prior to joining McKesson in 2000, Seeger represented technology firms as a trial lawyer and conducted compliance investigations for other Fortune 500 companies while employed by private law offices in Atlanta.
While attending UW-Eau Claire, Seeger was co-captain of the cross country team and captain of the track and field team, and she was named All-American in track her senior year. She says her experiences participating in collegiate athletics have had a profound effect on her life and career, so much so that she returned to campus in May 2011 to make a gift to the UW-Eau Claire Foundation to benefit the women's cross country team.
During her first visit to campus in 26 years, she spent a morning with Coach Dan Schwamberger and members of the team. She was accompanied by her daughters, Angela and Grace.
"Returning here reminded me of a couple of things that were really special about UW-Eau Claire," Seeger said, recalling how helpful and friendly everyone was when she arrived as a freshman. "Stepping onto campus today and seeing the individuals on the track and cross country teams, I saw similar people who cared about others, who not only had their own schedules to keep but want to make a difference to others.
"Definitely the memory of participating in sports came back to me," she added. "It was a wonderful experience, and I'm not sure that at a bigger university I would have had the opportunity."
In her many professional speaking engagements around the country, Seeger recounts a pivotal moment that took place when she was a Blugold distance runner to illustrate the impact of leadership and the power of teamwork.
"There was a year when we made it to the national championships, and I really wanted to have my best race ever," said Seeger, who had an outside chance of placing high enough to become an All-American in cross country. "But prior to the race, my coach pulled me aside and said he had a job for me."
Coach Kirk Elias, who is now the head cross country coach at the University of Nevada at Reno, wanted Seeger to pace the "chase pack" — the third through seventh runners — to improve the team's standing in the three-mile race. He asked her to hold back during her first mile and then every mile after that slowly accelerate and encourage her teammates to run faster with her.
"I did that at his request," Seeger said. "The girls were shocked when the gun went off and I was hanging with them. I told them we were going to pass people the entire race together as a team. My teammates soon realized they were running the race of their life, and I was having the most fun I ever had in a race."
Elias' plan worked. The team took second place at the NAIA National Cross Country Championships, which ties for the third highest national finish in team history. (The team won NAIA Nationals in 1984 and NCAA Nationals in 2009, and the team was second at NAIA Nationals in 1985 and at NCAA Nationals in 1997.) Although Seeger fell short of becoming an All-American in cross country, she cherishes the memory of the entire team receiving medals.
"Our job as a team was to run the smartest race we could to maximize each finish," Elias said. "It was one of those fun, magical moments because finishing second was truly unexpected."
For Seeger, the race was a revelation of her leadership ability. She not only had made an important contribution to her team, she had inspired her team to do more than they thought possible.
"I remember that lesson to this day," Seeger said. "That what mattered in my success was not me; it was the impact that I had on others. I've used that in my litigation practice and as an executive of a large corporation. My team shines, and I spend most of my time helping them do that."
Elias said Laureen — known as "Lolly" by her teammates — was a "talented young lady who also put in the work." He called it "fairly mind blowing" to learn how far that one race had taken her.
"We simply needed some leadership," Elias said. "She was the obvious choice for the role she played at nationals that year."
They had an opportunity to reminisce about it when they both attended a major meet at Stanford University in May. Seeger had tracked her former coach down to introduce her daughters to the person who brought out her best when it meant the most.
"There are times as a coach where you are more frustrated by the missed opportunities to inspire than you are confident of actually having inspired someone," Elias said. "She never told me how she felt until this year. She is a remarkable woman."
Seeger's visit to UW-Eau Claire coincided with spring commencement and the Alumni Association's recognition event. Seeger received the President's Award for outstanding professional and personal achievements and service to the university. She also announced her gift of $25,000 to establish the Women's Cross Country Opportunity Endowment. The effort is part of a series of events leading up to the university's centennial celebration in 2016 during which the UW-Eau Claire Foundation plans to help raise $220,000 for the cross country program.
"I recall in 1979 that obtaining uniforms and sweat pants and affording travel to the races that would help us become better athletes, and get us out of Wisconsin to run, only happened through tremendous fundraising and sacrifice," Seeger said. "And for students like myself who also had to work it was very challenging.
"I've given the money so that in the future, no matter what happens at the university, the programs continue and, perhaps someday, some of that distraction is removed so the coaches and participants can just focus on their studies and their love of running."
Teresa Coughlin, a senior nursing major who also serves as co-captain of the cross country team, was touched by Seeger's sincerity and support.
"When Laureen met with us it made the donation more personal and special to our team," Coughlin said. "Hearing how much running had meant to her and how it made her a stronger person made us feel important. We share this same belief here at UW-Eau Claire that running is not a sport, it is a lifestyle."
Schwamberger, who works with about 60 student athletes on the cross country team, enjoys witnessing the athletic and personal development that occurs over time.
"Running is a very personal thing, and you can be very individually successful at it," Schwamberger said. "People progress and improve going into other areas of their lives as well. Laureen is a shining example of this, and it was so good for our team to hear her talk about it."
According to Schwamberger, Seeger's gift and the contributions of other alumni and friends will transform the cross country program by allowing coaches to provide educational, training and competitive opportunities that haven't been possible and taking some of the financial burden for meals, travel and preseason camps off of student-athletes.
"Right now they are paying for a majority of camp expenses out of pocket," Schwamberger said. "The students are not only going to school full time but running cross country, which is kind of like a full-time job, and many are also working."
On a personal level, Seeger's visit struck another chord with a grateful Schwamberger.
"Meeting her was very inspirational," he said. "Her time at Eau Claire obviously contributed to her success. Maybe in a small way, with the kids I'm coaching now, I can have an impact on their success down the road."
Seeger also spoke of the academic benefits of getting her degree at UW-Eau Claire, which meant she didn't have to choose between academic and athletic success. She recalled having a rough time in economics and accounting, but having smaller class sizes and professors who gave extra time to help her master concepts made a difference.
"The faculty helped me prepare for my legal career and guided me through the law school admissions process," Seeger said. "That kind of support is not really heard of at larger universities, and it's difficult to come by. I feel fortunate to have come here.
"My time at UW-Eau Claire allowed me to realize that I was capable of competing on a national level, not just in sports but in everything."