Athletics: The coach who took Greene and Boldon to dreamland

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The Independent Online
THE STATIONS of John Smith's life are marked by gold medals. Other people's gold medals, although that wasn't how it started out. The first of them presented itself when he was 11 or 12 years old, attending junior high school in South Central Los Angeles. "My gym teacher there was Charlie Dumas, the first man to jump over seven feet, a local boy who won the gold medal at Melbourne in '56. One day he brought his medal to school. When I saw that gold medal, I was hooked. That became the quest."

Ten years later, after a glittering career as a schoolboy and college athlete, John Smith was preparing to travel to Munich for the 1972 Olympics, to complete his quest by taking the gold medal in the 400 metres. Three weeks before the Games, he ran in a 200m practice race and pulled a hamstring.

"I thought of myself as being invincible," he said the other day, thinking back to his 22-year-old self as he arranged his imposing frame in a hotel chair. "I had never imagined getting hurt before an Olympic Games. So I told myself, all right, I've spent all my life getting to this point, and now I've really got something to think about. What's the next best thing? And so I said, `Well, I'm making the final, because I'm going to cheapen this victory. If I'm in the final with one leg, what would I have done with both?' So now that was my quest."

Carrying his injury, he reached the semi-finals. "I said a prayer. `Let me have an easy semi-final and don't put me in lane one.' Of course, that wasn't to be. I had the hardest semi-final and I was in lane one with my leg bandaged. I remember coming around the corner and looking over and there was David Jenkins, a Brit, and I said to myself, `Hm, I'm in last place. But we're going to make this final'."

At that point something inside him took over, something he'd felt as a child in a school race back home in Los Angeles - an inner explosion of competitive fire, a sensation "so euphoric, so out there" that he knew he would always be trying to recapture it. "All of a sudden I just moved down the track and I pulled up to third place and qualified for the final. But it took its toll. My good leg cramped up because I'd put so much emphasis on it, and the following day I think all my spirit and energy was gone." After 80 metres of the final, he pulled up. "I didn't want to tear my body up any more."

Vince Matthews won the gold, Wayne Collett took the silver, and Julius Sang, from Kenya, came third. Their times are burnt into John Smith's memory. "44.66, 44.80 and 44.92." He stood there on the back stretch watching them cross the line, angry tears in his eyes. "There was an emptiness. What had driven me was the quest to achieve this pinnacle in sport. All of a sudden that was gone. Now what was I going to do?"

He walked back to the athletes' village alone, taking the long route, weeping every step of the way. In the dormitory, Matthews and Collett were showing their medals to their families while trying to deal with a controversy about their behaviour on the podium, where they had ignored the playing of " The Star-Spangled Banner". "All of a sudden I started to focus in on that. And I thought, `Oh, I don't feel so bad at all.' I realised that what I was in love with was the process, the work and everything that you went through. The process was more important than the result. And I knew I could duplicate the process any time I wanted, in every aspect of my life. When I saw that, immediately I dropped it. Cut the sorrow, move on. And by the end of the day I was fine."

Twenty years after that day, John Smith was back in an Olympic stadium. In Barcelona, he watched as two of his athletes, the high hurdler Kevin Young and the quarter-miler Quincy Watts, took the gold medals he had been denied. And next year, all being well, he will be looking on as two of his current charges, Maurice Greene, the world's fastest man, and Ato Boldon, his closest rival, fight it out for the 100m title in Sydney.

"So I don't regret anything," Smith said. "I don't even regret the way I got hurt. The path that I chose, and the way I am today, was the right thing. To have Maurice run 9.79, to have gold medals, to be able to coach some of the finest athletes in the history of the sport, I'd have to guess that it was necessary for me to go through that."

HIS FATHER was a truck-driver, his mother a housewife who tried to keep the eldest of her sons close to her and out of harm's way, which meant no baseball, no football, no track races. Education was the priority. For recreation, he sang in the church choir and studied classical trombone. All that changed when he broke his arm and a doctor said the boy needed exercise to help him recover. Let the boy run, the doctor said, let him play. "From that moment I felt free."

And so he was, until that day in Munich when he faced the ruin of his Olympic hopes. Over the next few years he played American football for the Dallas Cowboys, ran in professional track meetings, and spent two years in Australia, where he started to dabble in modelling and acting. "In 1980 I came back to Los Angeles. I had an operation on a ruptured tendon, so for the next four years I concentrated on my acting career, on stage and in the movies."

Even that was to come in useful in the destiny that lay around the next bend. "Acting teaches you how to get connected with your inner self. Athletes perform a daily ritual, working on their skills so that they can bring their magic moment out. That's like in the theatre. You rehearse pieces of stuff and put them together and see what you got. Every day you make a new discovery that helps you develop your philosophy so you can express yourself in a way that's unlike anybody else."

In 1984 he accepted a coaching job at UCLA, his old college. "I started talking to people, and I discovered they were listening to what I said. At first it was frightening. I was influencing people for the rest of their lives, and I had to be very careful about what I said. But I also had to be true to myself. It was what I'd done as an athlete. The day you step up to the line of competition, you know whether you did everything correctly to get there. If you missed something, you know you missed it. And if you keep missing those small things, you will have a big disappointment somewhere.

"In athletics, you will be responsible at some point for what you did do or what you did not do. Same thing for a coach. You're responsible for what you know, and for what you don't know. And both are equally important, because you have to live in the unknown, beyond the edges of everyone else's imagination and expectation. The ideas I have about how fast man can run are beyond what we're doing right now. It might not make sense to anybody else, but I'm not here to perpetuate the status quo. So when people say, `That's impossible,' I say, `You're right. I live in a land of impossibilities.' "

WHEN Greene ran the 100m in 9.79sec in Athens earlier this summer, followed home a split second later by Boldon, the two men rather controversially wrapped themselves in flags bearing the logo of HSI - Hudson Smith International, the athletics management company in which Smith and his friend Emmanuel Hudson are partners. And people started searching out the man who coached them both, looking for the source of their speed.

"Someone asked me, `What is your training regimen?'" Smith remembered. "I said, I don't know, it depends on what they need. There's a foundation that I can explain to you. That's very objective. But when you get into the areas where we are now, there's no script written. No one had ever coached a guy who ran 9.79. Where do we go from here? I don't know."

Smith started coaching Boldon in 1995. Greene arrived in his camp a year later. His theories on the 100 metres have been based on his background in the quarter-mile, where strategic thinking is vital to cope with bend running, getting the wind from all directions, and the fact that "it's a long way to go, so you're not going to feel too good at the end, no matter how good you felt before."

When he analysed the shorter race, looking for areas that might be available for exploitation, he saw an opportunity in the last 20 metres, when the runner is assumed to have lost the capacity to maintain the velocity reached during the middle of the race. "Why slow down? If you plan to slow down, you'll slow down. Instead of trying to run so fast in the middle of the race, why not string together some conservative marks all the way through? A quarter-miler does that. It's not important to run a fast 200. What's important is to come home relatively even. You only have so much gas in your car, and if you punch the accelerator you're going to run dry."

For Smith, the creative side of the coach's job is the translation of the data of reaction time, block clearance and metres per second into the sort of language the athlete can use. "When Maurice is running, he's not thinking at all. He's feeling. He's not thinking about the way the race breaks down into separate phases. He's only feeling one phase, which is in transition throughout the whole race. An athlete is always working in the subjective side of his brain, while the coach is in the objective mode, getting information from them, working on it, and giving it back."

In the end, it's about dreams. "The real answers are in that land where nobody has gone. Our company is based on getting you to the point where you can live in that land. It is OK to fantasise. As a matter of fact, if you can't fantasise, you don't belong in our group. If you don't have dreams, you can't come. If you're not on that outside, it won't work. Because we live out there."