The Olympic games are set to start in Rio de Janeiro and John Smith is back. Smith is one of the most decorated U.S. Olympic Track and Field coaches in the history of the Games. He has coached Olympians for six consecutive summer Olympic Games toting 13 gold medals, 6 silver and 4 bronze. For the 2016 Rio Olympics, he is breeding another round of gold medal hopefuls including the spirited U.S. 100-meter champion English Gardner, veteran Tyson Gay who will compete in the 4x 100 meter relay and first time Olympian Gil Roberts who is set to run in the men’s 400-meter and the 1600-meter relay to name a few.
“He has coached champions, he breeds champions, he’s a champion himself,” said Roberts, a track and field star while at Texas Tech who has two U.S. titles in the 400 and a world championship gold medal as the anchor leg of a 1600-meter relay who will be competing in Rio in those events.
In part, Smith figured out a winning formula from his experience as a world record holder in track and field. He is one of the top sprinters in UCLA school history and was ranked as the #1 quarter-miler in 1971.
“That was my year,” after breaking the world record for the 440-yard dash with a time of 44.5 seconds — a record that still holds — he was the favorite to win the 400-meter gold in the 1973 Munich Olympic games. Two weeks before the games, Smith suffered a hamstring injury that thwarted his ability to finish the race in the 1972 finals. While injuries are unavoidable for many athletes, Smith says the key is how you bounce back once you have been knocked down.
“That lesson I learned in Munich lives with me still today,” Smith says proudly. “I found this space where there is no fear.”
It is the same lesson that is a driving force and one that Smith seeks to instill in all of the athletes he trains. While he is an undisputed world class track and field coach, he never thought this would be a path he would pursue.
“This is the last thing I wanted to do,” Smith said. This was particularly true because “When I first started coaching, none of the elite athletes wanted to work with me,” remembers Smith.
“But when I got into it, it made me feel like I had purpose.”
Smith’s transition into coaching was not exactly conventional as his coaching acumen was not an easy sell since he had virtually no coaching experience. So, he began by mentoring and coaching master athletes who are track and fielders who range in age from 64-80. It lacks the glamour and world stage that comes with coaching elite, gold medal caliber athletes, though even in his early days, everyone he worked with broke records.
It taught him that “the fundamentals of coaching are the same,” no matter the athlete. His success gave him the confidence to join the UCLA recruitment staff at which point, ironically, young talent started to recruit him.
Dating back to Smith’s first time as a coach at the Olympic games in Barcelona in 1992 where he led two young track and field athletes to gold, Quincy Watts out of USC and UCLA’s Kevin Young. Watts earned two gold medals in the 400m and as the second leg of the 1600m relay, while crosstown rival Young earned his first gold medal in the 400m hurdles becoming the first man in history to run the 400m hurdles in under 47 seconds (46.78).
These days, a variety of exceptional track and field athletes from across the country travel to Los Angeles for the sole purpose of training with Smith. Just ask English Gardner, the 24-year-old phenom out of Willingboro, NJ.
During the 2012 Olympic trials in Monaco, Gardner first observed Smith, who at that time was coaching Carmelita Jeter, who holds the second fastest 100m time after Florence Griffith-Joyner. “I saw how he coached her, how intelligent he was about the sport, how passionate he was, and their bond together was pretty amazing.”
Gardner got the gumption to knock on Smith’s door and as they sat on his balcony, she said “I’m going to work hard to become a professional athlete and when I do, you’re going to be the one to coach me.”
Four years later, Gardner is coming off her most successful season with Smith. The former University of Oregon sprinter punched her ticket to the Rio Olympics after winning the 100-meter final at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials at her home track of Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon clocking in a time of 10.74 seconds.
“It was mostly him giving me the confidence in myself and my ability,” said Gardner. “When I get on the track, I turn into a beast, an animal, a person who’s not afraid of anything and someone who has faith that they prepared themselves for that moment.”
As she prepares to compete in the women’s 100-meter and the 4×100-meter relay, Gardner says these days she has to contain her excitement.
For Roberts, another Smith protégé, the U.S. trials for the 2016 U.S. Olympic team almost ended in the blocks. Roberts has trained in Los Angeles with Coach Smith for the last four years.
“He’s a technician,” the Oklahoma City native Roberts remarked. “I’ve always felt like I had the talent to be the best, but I needed to fix my technique and I knew John is the best in the business at that.”
While Roberts has been the healthiest now than he’s ever been, the reality is that for him or any athlete who has prepared and trained to realize an Olympic dream, the opportunity can be compromised by a simple misstep. During the U.S. Olympic Trial semifinals, Roberts was called for a false start.
“Before the gun went off, they told us to get in our blocks and there was noise from the sound system projecting into the speakers, so I mentioned it to the official but he told me there was nothing they could do about it,” Roberts remembers.
“He said ‘Set’ and the noise got louder and louder and I thought I heard something so I flinched, but apparently it wasn’t the gun.” Roberts proceeded to run under protest uncertain if his efforts would pay off. Despite his trepidation, Roberts finished second in the race and as the official concurred with both Robert’s agent and Coach Smith, and within the hour he learned he qualified for the finals.
The common denominator amongst all of Smith’s athletes is that they are elite track and field athletes who not only work under the direction of Smith but work in many ways with each other as a result of their common connection to him and their sport.
“It’s good to be surrounded by champions,” says Roberts. “We kind of feed off that, I couldn’t ask for a better situation or a better coach.”
Rio has had an onslaught of concerns that range from security issues to facility/accommodation concerns about the potential for transmission of the Zika virus, all of which have contributed to many athletes opting out. For Smith after his involvement in multiple Olympic Games, his approach is simple “Each games has its own set of challenges, nothing’s ever the same. That’s kind of the exploration I go on each time.”
Perhaps a cliché, but his story as a coach goes back to that old saying “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.” All of the Olympic athletes under his coaching umbrella hope and plan to achieve the ultimate goal that results in standing atop the podium with their gold medal gleaming in the Brazilian sun. Somewhere in the crowd Smith will rejoice in their individual victories and his part in those victories… and yet be thinking about the coaching adventures that await him in the next Olympic Games.