The long run: Bolt, Phelps and their coaches who won the test of time

  • N Ananthanarayanan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Aug 13, 2016 12:42 IST
For all his talent, Usain Bolt’s career took off only after he sought out Glen Mills, whose wards have won a total of 71 medals at World Championships and at the Olympics. (Getty Images)

In this day and age of hiring and firing and top sportsmen frequently splitting with their coaches, there are a couple at the Rio Olympics that have stood the test of time, and reaped great rewards. Behind every successful sports champion stands a coach, but some of the relationships don’t even begin to explain how vital they are in the rise of great champions.

Usain Bolt and Glen Mills as well as Michael Phelps and Bob Bowman are the two shining examples, although there have also been a few down the ages.

Here, we take a look at the special bonding that has fired great sporting performances, and helped athletes discover and rediscover themselves.

Usain Bolt and Glen Mills

The world’s fastest man, the Jamaican 100 and 200m world champion and record holder is chasing a third triple-treble at the Olympics. And he owes the sustained excellence to his Kingston-based coach, Glen Mills.

Mills’ wards have won 71 medals at World Championships and Olympics, with 19 of them by Bolt. For all his talent, Bolt’s career took off only after he sought out Mills, following elimination in the 200m heats at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

A modest athlete who took up track work and grew to become the chief coach of Jamaica for 22 years, Mills is respected for his focus on potential than stars, ability to analyse technique, the biomechanics of sprinting. And he keeps his wards grounded by reaching out to them. He is said to give his views, and then leave it to them.

Mills told Bolt in 2004 that he was a two-year project. The tall youngster had an ungainly, backward arching running style that led to frequent hamstring and back injuries. He dismantled his style and essentially reassembled his technique. The emphasis was on strengthening the core muscles to avoid injuries.

Bolt training in March, 2016 with song in the background.

Soon after, came their first disagreement. Bolt wanted to take on 100m but Mills, who usually keeps his wards waiting to know which events he will let them run, wanted him to focus on 200m.

A deal was struck. Bolt had to break the Jamaican 200m record of 1976 Olympic champion Don Quarrie to run the 100m. Bolt eclipsed the 37-year mark in 2007, and was permitted to attempt the sprint double in Beijing 2008. Rest is history!

Bolt’s implicit faith in Mills and the coach’s understanding of his star pupil have cemented this relationship. After Bolt’s comeback 200m win in London last month, Mills ripped into his race. “He went on and on, it left me depressed,” Bolt said.

But Mills acknowledges him as the greatest sprint talent ever, and Bolt says if his coach is happy, everything is in place.

Mills says Bolt’s “ability to focus almost instantly” gives him a big psychological edge over rivals. He adds: “Not a workaholic, but Usain will work hard if it is necessary.”

“Bolt is probably the greatest talent in sprinting that he world has ever seen but that said, getting him to be able to perform at his best level has its challenges. It’s like there is a diamond in a particular area but to get to it or to get it out, there are a lot of dangers to be encountered,” Mills said in an interview.

Bolt said last year before winning the 100-200 double in the Beijing world championships: “My coach is happy, that’s the key thing. When he’s happy, I always know I’m in good nick. I’m good to go.”

Bob Bowman has been with Michael Phelps for over two decades. (Getty Images)

The US swimmer has seen many troughs as crests, but owes it to his guiding force of two decades, coach Bob Bowman for his glittering career. Two strong personalities, but their relationship has held firm through thick and thin.

Bowman is his friend, philosopher, sounding board and the one who understands what is going through the mind of the greatest swimmer ever. His has been the father figure after the separation of his parents left a deep scar in Phelps.

It all started when a 11-year-old Phelps walked into the North Baltimore Aquatic Club with his sisters. Bowman saw the potential and promised to make him an Olympian. When he moved to Michigan, Phelps followed.

Bowman’s principles are three-fold, visualising to have a clear goal and work towards it. Phelps reportedly gets into that state of mind before heading to a competition, seeing himself even from the outside, and preparing to overcome any setback during the race.

Their relationship has withstood the strain of the swimmer losing his focus on swimming. Phelps was charged for drunk-driving in 2004 and 2014, and photographed smoking pot in 2009, which led to a three-month suspension by the US swimming body.

Phelps felt listless after the London Olympics, where he said he went through the motions, and his erratic training before it stretched the mentor-disciple bond to its limit.

“I will never allow another athlete to treat me the way Michael did during that stretch,” says Bowman in his recent book. “We just kind of tolerated each other. There was a time in 2010 where I got so frustrated I just left and went to Australia for three weeks.”

Phelps realised he was sliding down a dark path with alcohol and gambling. But he checked into a rehab centre after the 2014 DUI charge. “Without Bob I have no shot at achieving the records I’ve achieved or winning the medals that I’ve won,” he said in his foreword to Bowman’s book.

Bowman is a versatile man. He minored in music composition, plays the piano and loves classical music. He has even bred horses. But his place in sports history will be as Phelps’ mentor.

Bowman explains the relationship: “The reason we have done so well together is that we are both absolutely honest with each other all the time. We know exactly where the other stands at all times. That can mean some fireworks sometimes because neither one of us likes to back down on anything, but I think that’s the deal.”

Sebastian Coe and Peter Coe

Sebastian Coe, the only man in Olympic history to defend the 1,500m gold, was tutored by his World War II veteran father Peter, a self-made coach. (Getty Images)

The British middle-distance star turned president of the international athletics federation had a unique coach, his father. It wasn’t too emotionally stressful though, despite Peter’s obsession to win, and media criticism that he was dominating his son.

Coe is the only athlete in Olympic history to defend the 1,500m title, in Los Angeles in 1984. He also won 800m silver in Moscow, 1980, and LA. But he was a small and frail boy when Peter, an engineer who jumped off a train to escape from being made a WW II prisoner by the Germans, was a self-made coach, and scientific in his approach.

He set stiff targets for his son, though his obsession with winning caused some early tension in the family. But Peter had already mapped his son’s career. The partnership started in early 1970s and held firm till Coe retired in 1990.

Peter’s methods were vindicated when Coe broke the world records in 800m, 1500m and the mile in the space of 41 days in 1979. He then bettered the 800m mark in 1981, which stood for 16 years.

Peter even made his son train on Christmas Day, but Coe said there was no tension on the family dinner table and all he had to do was keep his father away from his personal life.

He admitted: “What helped, which may sound elitist, was an intellectual approach. Running is to a great extent theoretical, but it’s also an art. When I came into the sport, I sensed no coach really knew for sure about things. Seb’s training was tailor-made for him.”

Their first big test came in the 1980 Moscow Games after he was pipped to the 800m gold by compatriot Steve Ovett. Peter boosted his son before the 1500m by saying his finishing kick would make the difference, and it did.

Their bond didn’t crack due to mutual trust and understanding.

Peter once said: “He was the only one of our four children who would let me stand behind him and shove.”

Nadia Comaneci and Bela Karolyi

Bela Karolyi spotted Nadia Comaneci when she was only six-years-old. (Getty Images)

She is the finest gymnast the world has seen and he is the best coach there ever was. This legendary coach-pupil relationship of Romania gave the world its first perfect 10 in the sport.

As a 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci stunned the world with her flawless routines at the 1976 Montreal Games. Awarded the first perfect 10 score in uneven bars — the scoreboard showed it only as 1.000 as the timers were told a perfect score was unlikely. And Comaneci had eight perfect 10s, winning three gold.

“She has three qualities. The physical qualities-strength, speed, agility. The intellectual qualities-intelligence and the power to concentrate. And above everything, Nadia has courage.” This was how her coach, Bela Karolyi said in the 1990s.

But it was another quality that captivated the coach in a small Romanian town in 1971. Looking for girls he can train as gymnasts, he spotted two young girls do cartwheels in their school yard before running into their classes. He followed them into their class, and persuaded their parents to let them join his club.

Bela though had an admission test. It comprised a long jump, 15m sprint and walking without fear on the balance beam. The six-year-old Nadia passed it with flying colours. Soon, Karolyi and wife Marta, also a gymnastic coach, became like parents.

After the 1976 Games, the Romanian dictator split the coach and pupil, taking her away to train in capital Bucharest. But it led to a form slump and the administration was forced to return her to Karolyi. She immediately regained her best, fetching her two more gold at the Moscow Games.

Unable to bear the dictatorship, the outspoken coach defected to US in 1981. Comaneci suffered at the hands of the dictator before finally escaping, and reaching America.

Though Karolyi has revolutionised US gymnastics — his wife Marta guided the US women’s team to gold in Rio — his brutal regimen, controlling the diet of gymnasts and harsh comments that hurt the self esteem of young girls have been criticised. But Comaneci has fiercely supported Karolyi’s methods.

Herb Elliott and Percy Cerutty

Percy Cerutty took Herb Elliott under his wings when he was 18. (Getty Images)

This relationship is as unusual as they come. Australia’s Herb Elliott, the revolutionary middle-distance runner of the 1960s, set many world marks and won gold at the 1960 Rome Games. He was shaped by a self-taught, eccentric coach, who took up running and lifting weights after suffering a nervous breakdown at the age of 43.

Cerutty made his wards train in calm surroundings, but it took a lot for athletes to trust in his method. His ‘Stotan’ method of training laid stress on the all-round development of his wards.It included a regime of natural diets, tough training and mental stimulation. Elliott was 18 when Cerutty took him under his wings. He started improving immediately, and Cerutty was immensely proud of his star pupil.

Elliott won two gold medals at the 1958 Empire Games (later Commonwealth Games), and set world records in the mile (3:54.5) and 1500m (3:36.0) the same year.

He was only 22 when he ran a world record 3:35.6 to win 1500m gold at the Rome Games. He never lost a 1500m or mile race till retirement.

An interesting story sums up their bond. The two got into an argument and Cerutty challenged one of the world’s finest middle-distance runners to a mile race to settle it. Elliot eased to victory, but Curutty, on finishing, said he was the winner because he had put in more effort. It also reflected his “Stotan” training philosophy.

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