A lean, solemn man, about five feet five inches tall, walks down the sidelines of the Nantucket High School soccer field, hands planted firmly behind his back. He meticulously scans the field and the players beginning to gather ahead. Carefully, he ambles in the direction of his players. In the coach’s short but lithe strides, it is impossible to know the extent of his age. After decades of exercise and dieting, the man has successfully captured the essence of youth. But one thing is certain by the vexed looked hidden under the square gradient dark lenses of his glasses. The coach is displeased with the performance of his team. He is not loud but his words are sharp and cut through his players like a surgical laser. They have no choice but to listen quietly and learn.
“You guys, don’t deserve to be winning right now, I could put my best JV team out there and they would easily win,” says Coach Peter Mehlert.
Since he joined the coaching staff of the Nantucket High School boys soccer team in the fall of 2015, Coach Peter Mehlert has left a humongous footprint. During these past four seasons of coaching at Nantucket, the boys’ soccer team has reached two regional finals and a semifinal: the first regional final ever in the history of Nantucket sports. At times his rigorous style has been criticized.
Emmet Clarke, a four-year member of the soccer team and one of this year’s captain, gives Coach Mehlert many praises. “He is different from any coach I’ve ever had. He has very high standards that he holds himself and others too,” Clark says.
Mehlert was born in Shanghai, China at the peak of the Chinese Revolution. His father fought alongside Chiang Kai-shek in the Nationalist party, and against General Mao Zedong and the Communist party. When the Chinese Revolution came to a close in 1949, his father was forced into exile to Taiwan, leaving his family behind. Fatherless, he, his mother, and his siblings fled from China to British-controlled Hong Kong seeking asylum. Mehlert lived in difficult circumstances in the Kowloon side of the island.
“I had no heat, and seven of us lived in one room,” Mehlert says. “You have no idea.”
As a young boy in Hong Kong, Mehlert had his first encounter with soccer. Living near a British air force base, he would watch the pickup games of soccer near the base. “At first we watched” then after a while “we shagged balls for them, and they would throw us a few pennies in return,” Mehlert recalls. Not long after that, he joined the local youth soccer league in Hong Kong and would travel to the main island of Hong Kong for soccer matches.
Mehlert describes his mother as a “traditional Chinese woman”. In Hong Kong, she married his stepfather, an American on assignment as a Chinese translator for the American government. His entire family adopted the name Mehlert from his stepfather.
Mehlert recalls his step-dad as “very old school” and “discipline-based”. He was a “John Muir disciple. Loved to hike and backpack,” Mehlert adds, referring to the famous Scottish-born naturalist. Mehlert senior was very well achieved man. He spoke both fluent Chinese and Vietnamese. His ability command the use of different language secured him many assignments such as interpreting for president Nixon, being a US AID in Vietnam, and working alongside Averell Harriman as a translator in the China talks.
Mr. Mehlert and his family joined his step-dad when he was assigned to London to work with Averell Harriman. In London, his economic status greatly improved from poverty to the middle class. He recalls living in places such as Chelsea, Golders Green, and Hampstead Heath. As a ten-year-old, he took the metro everywhere and did numerous tours of the city with his sister.
Attending the US Air Force School in London was difficult. The change from an all Chinese school to an all English school was too drastic. Learning English proved to be difficult, and since he had no contact with local children outside of school Mr. Mehlert had to “wing it”. His stepdad devised a strategy for his kids to learn English. “He would give each of us an allowance of one shilling each week, but whenever we would murmur something in Chinese he would take away sixpences.” Although the method proved effective it was very hard on his mother who struggled with English and put a strain on their relationship. Without using Chinese at home he lost his ability to converse and read in Chinese.
After the China talks were done, Mr. Mehlert’s family ultimately relocated to the US; they settled in Maryland, close to Washington DC. He began his studies in the eighth grade and described himself as an “excellent student for the first couple of years.” That changed in high school. “In my case, sports hurt me,” says Mr. Mehlert. He alludes to strain sudden popularity and partying can have on academics. Mr. Mehlert became the number one seed in tennis of Walter Johnson High School. When the school started it’s in his sophomore year of high school, he became an extremely involved member. “I was very good, top one or two based on the recognition I’ve received,” he recalls.
During his high school soccer career, Mr. Mehlert’s team won the Maryland State Tournament twice out of the three years he played. He faced opponents such as John Ellinger, the former U-17 US national team soccer coach. Coaches at Boston University showed the most interest in him which resulted in him playing soccer and studying at BU. “Going to BU took many sacrifices, but I am ultimately happy with how things ended up,” says Mehlert.
Ever since middle school Peter Mehler aspired to be a physical education teacher, although he was not always encouraged. His parents wanted him to have a more elitist job such a doctor or a lawyer, and the school did not think his English fluency was strong enough. Based on his high math test scores, Boston University wanted him in the engineering program. Regardless he majored in physical education from Boston University.
Being a teacher himself, Mr. Mehlert believes teachers are extremely underappreciated. “A problem with our country is some of the best educated intelligent people are not teaching, partially because of salaries and the environment,” Mehlert states. “Teaching should be one of the highest paid jobs.” To him teaching has lost the glamor it once had.
Through connections at American University, he was able to secure an interview for a coaching position at American University in the winter of 1972. In August of 1973, he received a call back from the University while working at a summer camp. At the age of 23, Mr. Mehlert had become the coach of division one college soccer team.
Coach Mehlert states coaching is about “life lessons”. Mehlert recognizes the hardships of the world and hopes to spread that knowledge to his players. His coaching can be perceived as harsh.
“At times he can be a bit harsh, but he always speaks truthfully about what he thinks.”, states Clarke, who is a senior captain of the varsity team. But, Mr. Mehlert regards his toughness as what he calls, “tough love”.
Although he wishes he had been more patient with his player at times, his coaching method was extremely successful. Coach Mehlert coached at American University for a total of twenty years. In 1990, he started and coached a women’s team at American. That same year his team had the highest winning percentage at American University ever, and still holds that record. Coach Mehlert was award 1985 Division I Coach of the Year, which he regards as the proudest moment in his career.
By Nathan Maurer