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Monday, 22 July 2013

a conversation with Aries Merritt and Andreas Behm...



For the past month, we have been basing ourselves in Monaco.  The guys at the track have been really helpful - basically giving us full run of the stadium - which houses 24 National Teams, including fencing, netball, swimming, weightlifting, and tennis. Until the recent visits of coaches John Smith and Bobby Kersee, along with their respective groups of athletes, and of course last week's Diamond League Meeting, we have pretty much had the track to ourselves.  

It's been a great month, and I would definitely like to extend my appreciation to Facilities Manager Didier Bognon and track boss (and Monaco Diamond League Meet Director) Jean-Pierre Schoebel from the Fédération Monégasque d'Athlétisme, as well as Monaco Olympic Committee Chef de Mission Sebastien Gattuso.


This past week has seen the arrival of world-record holder and Olympic Champion Aries Merritt, along with his coach, Andreas Behm.  And a couple of days ago - while doing some track-side treatment - we thought it may be fun (and hopefully informative) to film and tape our conversation.  The following is a transcript of that chat...I will also endeavor to put up the video as soon as I can.  I hope you enjoy it...


Andreas Behm: So are you excited about your move to Phoenix, Aries?

Aries Merritt: I actually am excited - starting a new life.  I got a new car. Training in a new environment - it’s going to be nice and warm.  I think my training is going to be better overall - we won’t be struggling to determine where we are going - we will always have access to everything; there’s not going to be any waiting around, you know - sometimes we would have issues with the weight room in Texas, where we would get locked out.  It wasn’t a big deal - someone would always let us in, but we would have to sit there and wait, and recently they changed the access to fingerprint entry, so we sometimes had to wait for 30 minutes for someone to come and open the weight room for us...

AB: ...I was tempted to cut off that person’s finger, so we could use it again and again, but they were not going for it...

AM: There’s going to be none of that in Arizona - it’s going to be way better.  It’s going to be an atmosphere with nothing but professionals, so people are going to be able to relate to me, instead of collegiates who have no idea - but the fun thing about being at A&M was you get to see the collegiates grow - that was a fun thing about training at a University track.

Stuart McMillan: I spoke with Lauryn the other day, and one of the things we discussed was the team around the athletes.  Is that something you have tried to develop?

AM: Yes - starting in 2012 was when I first had a complete team - a nutritionist, and...pretty much Andreas!  

SM: ...so that’s your complete team? 

AM: Ha!  Yes - that’s my complete team...plus obviously, I had my team of therapists - I had Holley Deshaw and Josh Glass - they work for Nike now, but before they were freelancers.

SM: If you’re not someone who is already at your level, what would you suggest to up and coming athletes as far as how to develop that team?

AM: I think everyone needs a team.  I think you should sit down and write a list of what you think you need, and then go after it.  For the first six years of my career, I had no team - well, I had a team, but I didn’t take full advantage of it.  I had Andreas and I had Vince Anderson, but I was lazy in the weight room, I was lazy with therapy, I was lazy with nutrition...I just didn’t do what I needed to do to get it done, so when I got hurt, it was my own fault. I figured - Oh, I have a lot of talent - I’ll be alright.  I don’t really need to work as hard, so my training wasn’t really as good as it could have been - my treatment wasn’t as good as it could have been, and my diet was awful...I was just pretty much going off of talent.

SM: So why was it all so bad?  Was it just out of ignorance, or was it out of laziness?

AM: Laziness...

SM: So you knew all these things were important, you just figured you’d go with what got you there to begin with....do you think any responsibly goes onto your coaches to try to instill some better habits - to change your ways?

AM: Yeh - I think a piece of it does...

SM: Now you’re a pretty smart dude, and you recognized that this was a problem, but what about those athletes that don’t really recognize that this is a potential issue in their development process?

AM: It’s a learning issue.  They have to go through the process themselves - I had to go through it myself, and it took six and half years for me to figure it out.  Everyone will see it how it is, and eventually make the corrections they need to do...

Especially with nutrition, I feel like that is always the last thing to change.  Athletes will learn to change a lot of different things; but nutrition is like the final frontier - the last resort that has to change. They will always change something first - like they will change coaches or training systems, or their weight programs, or get more diligent about getting therapy, but nutrition - particularly for young people - seems to be the last thing they will change, and that’s really a struggle...

SM: Why do you think that is?

AB: I think a lot of the changes that athletes can make with nutrition are internal - so they don’t really have a measurable until they have done it for a sustained period of time and they have noticed that they’re running faster.  But initially, there’s no external benefit to changing their nutrition - particularly for young people that are not necessarily eating for performance - they’re eating for taste, and it’s hard to change that habit

SM: I think one of the biggest things - especially for young people - is that a young athlete who is say 6 or 7% body fat - you talk to them about their nutrition, and they look at you like you’re crazy: ‘well - I’m 6 or 7% body fat!  What do I need to change my nutrition for?  I’m already shredded!’. They don’t understand the the correlation between nutrition, recovery and training.  Again - I think that is our job - our responsibility - as coaches, directors - leaders of the process - to ensure it is understood.  So I don’t blame the athlete for their viewpoint - I absolutely blame us!  That’s just poor guidance! 

AB: Yes - it is.  But you can educate as much as you want, but it’s up to the athlete to make that commitment...

SM: ...right - but the education has to come first...whether it is driven by the athlete - like Aries, or it comes externally, from the coaches talking to them.  I believe if we wait for the athletes to figure it out for themselves, it could be a long wait, and perhaps by the time they do figure it out, their career is over...

AM: What’s really going to get people is when they start losing to people that they murdered in college - that’s what got me: when I started losing to people that I had always beat, I was like ‘what the hell is wrong with me? What’s going on here?’ And then I was like ‘there’s no way they’re better than me’ - and they weren’t - but it wasn’t working, and it was then that I changed all the things that I needed to change.  And I ended up winning everything last year, so...

SM: So you would say that last year was the first year that you had your team set, your strategy in place, etc. and then you drop what - 29/100ths off of your PB!?  Just like that!  That’s a pretty good year!

So - how do you make another 29/100ths difference? How do you continue now this momentum that you created last year?

AM: Well - number one is to stay healthy. I need to stay healthy, and I need steady doses of high-level training - when you’re training at that speed, you have a greater chance of getting hurt.  That’s what we found out this year, because my body - if it trains at 12.80 pace time after time, then I’ll get hurt eventually...so we need to make corrections next time...


SM: There’s a phrase ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’ - basically making small improvements on a multitude of different areas, and the small changes - improvements -  in these many things will - hopefully - add up to a large improvement:  a concept that -through David Brailsford - drove the British Cycling team to almost a decade of global domination, and total domination at the London Games.  As a coach - Andreas - do you see more small changes you can make with Aries, where you can squeeze a few more hundredths - or even tenths - out of him?

AB: Well we definitely feel so, and one of the things that I will point out too is that one of the reasons he ran that fast last year is he basically had 2011 as a completely healthy campaign where he could train and use as a springboard into the next year. He had never had two successive fully healthy training years, which I think made a huge difference.  I have always seen that athletes who have successive healthy years can make large improvements over what they did the previous year. We didn’t do everything perfect last year, so we definitely feel that there is a margin of improvement in certain areas that will hopefully lead to an overall improvement in his race as we move along.

Also - just him going through that experience as a whole - he was already very mentally tough, but he’s even more tough now compared to before last season - just going through that type of year and enjoying those experiences. 

SM: Do you develop a set structure for your strategy as far as what you wan to develop out of a year? 

AB: Yes - we did pinpoint a number of things that we try to improve upon, but unfortunately that got a little torpedoed, because we got a little hurt in the Fall. At which point, we thought it probably wouldn't be wise to try and install certain elements that we targeted - so we may wait until next year now to do that. Our initial concern was to get him healthy, and back running fast and at that point we decided that by doing the familiar over again that would help him, as opposed to trying to implement change.

SM: So you mentioned the psychology there.  How important do you think that is for an athlete of Aries’ caliber.

AB: I think it is huge.  I have said it before - at this stage, I think that Aries is the perfect blend of talent and experience, where earlier in his career, he was very talented, but didn’t have the experience.  He’s basically been on the international circuit for seven years, and has raced pretty much everyone at a high level.  No one phases him. That’s the nature of the hurdles - guys line up week in, week out, and so when he goes to the World Championships, he looks to the left and to the right, and he’s going to see people that he races against all the time. There’s no surprises - it’s nothing new to him in that regard.

SM: Well, what about the other seven guys?  These same guys line up against each other for years, and never really get to that same level of confidence, so it’s not just experience that will lead to that.  What about the guys that never really reach that level of security?  It’s not an issue with Aries, as you have been telling me...

AB: Right - he’s also one of the most competitive guys that you will ever meet...

SM: Is that something that is innate within him? Do you think it is teachable?

AB: I’m sure it is teachable to a certain extent. I’m not sure to what extent you can teach competitiveness and drive - obviously it helps a lot if it is just an innate quality, and it comes from the athlete themselves.  If it comes from within, I feel it is a lot stronger as opposed to if it comes from the outside. 

I guess the best story I could tell you about Aries and his confidence level last year - coach Anderson and I have a very similar philosophy: we both try to ensure that the athlete remains very independent - we ensure that they understand the philosophy - understand the program.  At the Olympics after the semi-finals - back in the warm-up area - we had about 50 minutes - I really didn’t know, as this was a somewhat new situation for us - how he was going to respond after his semi - whether he would be nervous, or what the situation would be.  I had a speech prepared - sometimes he likes a little talk before he goes out there - and I had timed out everything that I wanted to do for the warm-up before he went back in, but when he got back out, he was so calm and he was so in control of what he felt like he needed to do, I just jettisoned the plan, because at that point I just thought I needed to trust the athlete.  We had prepared him for this - we wanted him to independent - he just told me ‘I don’t really think I need to do any starts - we’ll just do a couple of drills, and a couple of accelerations, and then I’ll just walk back underneath.  They’re holding us for a long time, and they have an area down there we can do starts, so I’ll do one or two down there by myself, and I’ll be good to go!’  He was so calm, and so focused, I just looked him in the eye, and told him ‘usually I have a speech for you right here, but you seem so ready, I’m not going to give you the speech, because you don’t need it’.  And that is the first thing we talked about when I saw him after he won - ‘yeh - guess you really didn’t need that speech - you were ready!’

I let him take control of the situation...we must put trust in the athlete that they know what to do.  Obviously, had he been panicky and fidgety, I had a plan in place and would have taken control of the situation, but it wasn’t necessary - and I’m really proud of him for that, because that just showed his level of focus and maturity, and state of readiness.

It’s a good thing he wasn’t faking it! 

SM: Aries - how is it being coached by such a young coach?

AM: Aaliyah said it best - ‘age ain’t nothing but a number!’  Even though he is relatively young, he is very smart, very intelligent, and he learned from my old coach and mentor  - and probably his mentor - Vince Anderson.  I trust him wholeheartedly. I really don’t think his age has anything to do with it. 

AB: And it sets up a special type of relationship.  Obviously, we are almost athletic partners in that regard  - we are very similar in age, so I take a very laisez faire approach with Aries - and I’m not a very authoritative person anyway - but us being so close in age, I know if I tried to be strict, and boss him around, it wouldn’t work - because that’s not who I am, and it wouldn’t be authentic on my part.  We talk things out.  We discuss.  We plan together.  So it’s a very inclusive way of coaching, as opposed to it being just my way or the highway.  He has his input, he obviously knows his body really well - he’s been training at a high level for a long time, so he kind of knows what we do, and he can tell me if he feels that something is not right in the training session, and we can modify it.  So I’m not just going to have him run through a brick wall, because that’s just what I have put on paper for that day.  I read a quote recently that said: “leadership is controlled improvisation”, and I think that is very true.  It is important to have a plan, but we can improvise on that plan as you go along.  We have a plan, but we constantly update it, re-evaluate it, reassess it as we go along.  And as long as it is within a certain deviation, then we will be OK.  I used to write training plans for the entire year - and it was a great exercise in planning for me - but then I realized that after about two weeks, I would already have to change the plan, and that would change the entirety of the plan, so...I stay much more on a week to week basis now, with the long-term goals in mind as we go along, instead of being so rigid...

SM: right - that rigid structure guides you, but it doesn’t define you...

AB: Right - I may not be able to do that with a newer athlete, but I can do it with Aries because we have been together for so long that I know - I can see certain things.  With a newer athlete, I may have to have a little more structure so that I can see and understand what I can deviate from before I do it.


SM: Three questions that I always ask of athletes that I talk to for the blog, or even athletes that I coach - I think it is very important that at least they know the answers of - even if they don’t verbalize them, is:
  1. What is your definition of success?
  2. What is the difference between success and winning?
  3. What are your three determinants of success?  

AM: First - I was successful because I became Olympic Champion.  That was on my bucket list.  Olympic Champion?  Yes - I want to be Olympic Champion some day.  Check!  I can now check that off.  Do I want to be world record holder one day? Check. I can check that off.  The other stuff is jut miscellaneous activities. 

SM: So why don’t you just retire?

AM: Because there is still some things left that I want to accomplish.  One of which being that I need to run five more sub-13 second races to be legendary.  Because then I will have the most ever ran - surpassing Allen Johnson. Last year, I ran 10 races under 13 seconds, but almost all of them were windy, so I still have to run five more to break his record. 

I have to set many goals for myself at this point because obviously a lot of people who have achieved what I have achieved at such a young age end up retiring because there’s nothing left for them to do. But there is still something that I want to try to do, so I set new goals, and if I don’t achieve them , then I will try to achieve them the next year.  It’s going to be a little bit more difficult this year with all the injuries I have had, but I still think I can accomplish it.

AB: We want to chip away at some of those sub-13s.  We may not get all five, but we’ll get as many as we can by the end of the year

SM: So within your definition of success - success IS winning. Is that right?

AM: Success - in my opinion - is doing everything you could in the right way, and saying ‘man, I did it the best I could’ - that’s success.  But I did the best I could, and I actually won, so...

AB: We talked about it earlier, we never want to take any medal for granted - regardless of what color.  There are only three in the world - it is so hard to get those day in and day out - the competition is so fierce.  Regardless of the color of the medal, you can never take anything for granted. 

SM: So what are the three most important factors that lead to your success?

AM: Well - my diet is very important.  People can train hard, but if they don’t eat properly, then it’s kaput. Everything is a wash because you’re not recovering properly.  

Secondly, physiotherapy is as important.  

And then obviously - training.  Those are the three recipes for success. 

AB: And hopefully, having all those integrated and working hand in hand.  We see people who have all three, but they’re all doing their own separate entities. And that’s not always a recipe for success. 

SM: How about the measure of success as a coach?

AB: Obviously, the performance of the athlete is really important.  You want them to perform well, but coach Anderson reiterated this a lot - it is very important to be a humanistic coach.  Even before I coached, I viewed myself as a very humanistic person, in terms of understanding different cultures and personalities and what have you.  It is very rewarding for a coach - regardless of the amount of success an athlete has - that you are able to change that person’s life - whether it be that the person understands work ethic - the growth of a person is a huge contribution to make as a coach besides simply performing and winning on the track.  Ultimately, that is the way in which we are measured, but I feel like there is a lot more to it.  

I always valued that if I had an athlete that I used to coach, and has moved on, that they come back and we still have a really good relationship - they’re excited to see me at a meet - I feel like that is really important too, because that shows me that I was not just able to coach them, but I also left them with an impression that they are appreciative of the kind of relationship that we had on and off the track - so that is a huge measure of success for me.  Aries and I, for example - once he is done running -  we will be friends for life.  Whatever he moves onto and whatever he decides to do, we will still be in touch.  I feel like we have a number of athletes that are just like that.  I understand that as coaches, we have athletes that change training groups - that’s just the nature of the sport - but we do want to have some positive impact on that athlete - whether it is from a training perspective, or the growth of them as a person.  You have to remember that we are often dealing with very young people.  

What is your definition?  What do you feel like contributes to that?

SM: Well - first, I thought you verbalized that really, really well.  A coach essentially is a teacher. A guide.  We spend 25 - 40 yours a week with many of these athletes.  I think many coaches underestimate the influence that they will have on the athletes. And they don’t take that role as seriously as I think they should. It’s more than just standing on the track with a stopwatch and a megaphone.  That is not coaching.  Anybody can do that.  Oftentimes these athletes have moved away from family and from friends, and we become their family and friends. For me it is a massive responsibility.  When the athlete’s career is over - or at least that part of their career where they spent a lot of time with that coach - like you, I think he or she needs to be leaving that situation in a much better manner than when he or she came in. That’s our jobs.  And along the way, if we can make them a little bit better at what they do - which is hugely important obviously - then we have done a good job...

AB: ...I feel like peace of mind and happiness at this level is very important.  You can have the greatest athlete ever, but if they’re not happy - and comfortable - and at peace in their environment, then they won’t perform up to their optimal level regardless of how good the training program and everything else surrounding them is. If you are able to create an environment that is stable.  Is positive. Enthusiastic. Then the athlete will benefit from that greatly. Maybe even slightly regardless of what the training program is.  I don’t want to say that the training program isn’t important, because it is, but I feel like those factors are hugely underestimated...

SM: I agree...and I think that from a professional aspect.  This is the athlete’s career.  In many instances, this is their entire lives.  Their entire life revolves around - essentially - what we put in place for them, and I don’t find that enough coaches come to that realization and understanding, and put enough work into their own development to take that responsibility seriously. 

AB: That’s why I am excited about the World Athletics Center.  Because between you, and Dan, and John, and all the other people that we have associated with this project - as a young coach - that is fairly experienced for my age - I still feel like I have a lot of learning and growing to do, and I really look forward to being exposed to new ideas and theories, and working on some of my weaknesses that I realize I still have.  I don’t feel like I am finished learning...

SM: ...you are a life-long student.  And a good coach is just that - a life-long student.  We never stop learning - we never should stop learning. 

AB: I never want to be the smartest person in the room.  If I’m the smartest person in the room, then I’m in the wrong room!


Sunday, 21 July 2013

on doping...a guest-post from Brad Walker



Obviously a lot of talk about doping this past week.  

And it’s a shame, because in a season including the amazing performances at NCAA Trials and USA National Championships in the United States, the British World Championship Trials, and the awesome Monaco Diamond League Meeting here a few nights ago, the discourse continues to be dominated by drugs.  

Not that I’m complaining.  

As long as doping in sport remains a problem - and it clearly does - the only way to improve our lot is to continue the discussion.  It’s why I agreed to an interview with Guardian reporter Sean Ingle, and it’s the reason why I have asked American Pole Vault Record Holder Brad Walker to share his thoughts in a  short two-part series...and since the last few posts have been super-long, and the up-coming conversation with Aries Merritt and his coach Andreas Behm is also a monster, I thought this would be a nice reprieve...


Influenced by Lauryn Williams’ post last week, and particularly the fact that her answer to the drug problem is an outright refusal to take a supplement at all, Brad articulates a couple of important issues - namely:
  • What is performance enhancing?
  • Is there any intent?



on doping...a guest-post from Brad Walker:

I HATE doping. 

But I do have to admit - it is a strange, hazy line that is easily crossed by uninformed athletes. 

If someone in the general public has high stress (high cortisol), they can walk into a health food store, buy a DHEA supplement and reach a better state of health. 

Most of the aging population takes daily multi-vitamins, fish oils and other supplements to help with deficiencies in their diet. 

We do the same. 

But when a particular substance is deemed too beneficial, it is banned. 


Performance Enhancing

If I have allergies, I take a Claritin, and I feel better. You better believe that it is performance enhancing. If I have a headache and take an ibuprofen, it is also performance enhancing. Caffeine used to be a banned substance in high quantities. The rules are very arbitrary in what is legal and what is not. So in an athlete’s attempt to find better health, and synonymously better performance, they flirt a fine line. 

Our entire careers, we are told "TAKE SUPPLEMENTS AT YOUR OWN RISK!!" We can look up medications on an online reference - but only pharmaceuticals. If I want to know if a fish oil is okay, we are told take at your own risk. So in an effort to attain a better state of health, as we continually and purposefully stress our bodies, we have to consider supplementation a risk and weigh its benefits. And this forces some athletes to refuse to even take a vitamin. 

Its a weird deal. 


Intent

To me, doping has everything to do with intent. 

Are you intentionally trying to cheat the system and other athletes? 
If so, you are a cheater. 

There are soooo many athletes of the 80's and 90's who claim, "I never took something on the banned list". Well guess what? Many of those substances are now on the banned list. So did they cheat??? I don't really know that answer. 

What I do know is that several of the athletes under the microscope right now, were led down the wrong path and I don't believe were consciously making a choice to cheat. They were uniformed, and misled. Anti-doping agencies are doing their job, but there is a very hazy line when it comes down to it. I wish the athletes the best of luck who found themselves on the other side and I hope that if their intent was right, that they are able to pick themselves up and move forward without too much struggle. 

My best advice is to know the list and know your products well. But most importantly know your intent. 

Play fair, play within the rules, and good luck!!!

.....

Check back soon for Part II of Brad’s thoughts, where he shares a very unique perspective into the reason why athletes may dope in the first place...


Thanks for reading.  If you enjoyed this post, 
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Tuesday, 16 July 2013

a little chat with Lauryn Williams...




I’m not going to give a long introduction to this.  Because really, it doesn’t need one.  This post is a conversation I had with Lauryn Williams - one of the greatest female sprinters in history, who has decided to call curtains on her fantastic career (although I - and probably many others - will continue to try to talk her out of it!).  This little chat was the day after the news broke out regarding Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell, and Sherone Simpson, so you can guess what we spent a lot of time talking about the previous couple of days...


In the following post, we discuss this, as well as her thoughts on retirement, supplementation, and the athlete’s responsibility.  


Many Canadians' favorite interviewer is George Stroumboulopolous, who once famously interviewed Bono on the way to the airport in the back of a limo.  I had no limo, but in the style of George, this was recorded in the car on the way to Nice Côte d'Azur Airport...


Retirement...

So - you’re 29 years old...what should be the peak of your career.  And you’re thinking of hanging it up!  What’s up?

LW: Yes - I’m considering calling this my final season, and there’s many different reasons why that is so.  I have been doing this for ten years.  I had lots of success early on, and not so much as of late.  I see that as aging - the resources I have available are different.  Meaning - putting a good team together - it’s not an easy thing in America!  You know - I think a lot of places get a one-stop shop.  We don’t!  Like, my physio can only see me for 25 min here, maybe 25 minutes there.  Right now - where I am in Texas - I drive an hour and a half just to see a Physio.  To get the kind of work that my body needs - the basic amount of work that a professional athlete requires - it’s just very difficult for me to get everything I need to be able to continue to do this well, and one of the huge things that people are saying that is causing me to possibly NOT run well near the end of my career is that I will not use supplements...

Well - let’s discuss that a little later

LW: ...Ok

So basically, you’re saying your body is just starting to break down.  You don’t think you can continue getting faster - but in actual fact, you had a better Season’s Best this past year, than you did last season!

LW: This is true...I was in a new environment this year in Texas (with coaches Vince Anderson and Andreas Behm) - maybe that helped.  To be honest, I really don’t know why.  I can’t really give a good reason...

One of the biggest things for me is I struggle with my weight.  I think that is what has contributed to doing me in the last couple of years - I just haven’t been able to control it.  One week to the next - even one race to the next - I know that when I eat something I shouldn’t have eaten, I can feel how that makes me drag down the track.  How it affects how I run from one week to the next - so it takes a tremendous amount of discipline on my part, that quite frankly, I just don’t think I’m willing to do anymore.  It’s hard...

You’re just tired of the life of being a professional athlete...you think it’s too much work...

LW: I think it’s a lot of work

Do you think that some of that plays into the fact that you had so much success so early in your career...

LW: I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I did it so easily coming into my career.  I didn’t plan on doing this.  I literally fell into it. My goal in 2004 was to win the NCAAs.  And by putting my best foot forward into trying to achieve that, I managed to run the second fastest time in the world at the National Championships, and immediately had to turn my focus onto the Olympics.  If you had asked me prior to this in 2004 about the Olympics - it wasn’t even on my list of things to do - it never entered my mind.  I didn’t know how it worked.  I didn’t know anything!  I literally fell into this sport, and like you said I started at the top and...

All I was doing was getting up in the morning, going to practice - doing what my coach told me to do for a workout, and I was fast!  And now - it’s constant physio - I mean - I just spent 5 days here in Monaco with you getting 3 hours of physio a day, just so I can finish one more race!  

It’s like - you can’t even eat a piece of bread!  It’s constant everything.  Just even to get to the same place where I was...it seems like if you improve all these things, you should be so much faster than you were back then, so how did it get so hard? 

That’s the part that I’m baffled about...

Do you think that maybe because you had so much success at a young age that you took it for granted a little bit?  

LW: I definitely took it for granted

Maybe you thought that you were working just as hard, but weren’t really?  I mean - you worked so hard to try to win the NCAA Championships, and then you were second-ranked in the world, then you went to the Olympic Games - you win a silver medal.  So it came so easy, and you were living the high life a little bit, so maybe there was almost a subconscious letting off of the gas pedal a little.  You didn’t really work quite as hard to continue that success as you did to achieve it...

We see it a lot for instance in the UK, where these young athletes have big successes as juniors, then ‘rewarded’ with big shoe contracts, and then fade into the ether, losing all motivation...did something like that play a part in your development?

LW: No

Ha - OK!

LW: Like I said, I think I took it for granted how good I was back then, but I don’t think I became complacent...

You think that maybe the sport caught up to you a little bit?

LW: Exactly.  I think I was ahead of the game because I was very talented, but every year we are getting advancements - in anything - sports medicine, sport science, all facets of life, but I think that’s what happened - I was ahead of that curve, and then people caught up and the playing field got a little more level, because of all the technology advancements, and I was just using talent....still doing the same thing.  So now I needed to use the ‘technology’ as well....I used as much as I was comfortable with, but it got to a point where that still wasn’t enough.

What were you comfortable with?

LW: Adding physio.  Constant physio.  But as an American athlete, there is a point where you need to draw the line.  Are you flying your physio everywhere you go?   Sanya Richards Ross is a good example.  She travels with her physio, her weights coach, her mom is her agent, her dad is the manager...it costs money to do all that stuff!  If you want to create the perfect environment for an athlete to stay at that optimal level, you have got to put that investment in...

So you think that is too difficult to do in the United States, though?

LW: It’s very difficult.  It comes at a really high price, and it’s really hard to wrap your mind around that price, when you used to just jump on that plane by yourself, and do the same thing.  I can understand the value in these things.  In all these people, and what they provide for me.  Having them there makes it so much easier for me to compete, but the question is how much do I really need them when I never had them there before?    

Well, clearly you are in a different phase of your career.  You can rely on talent when you’re a junior, or when you’re in college.  But when life begins getting a little more complicated, when other stresses begin to enter your life.  You’re looking for a place to live, relationship issues, financial worries, etc., it’s the athletes that can successfully negotiate through this transition stage - that can manage all these additional ‘outside influences’ that will continue to improve through the middle of their career.

LW: I cannot disagree with that.  I would say that I didn’t make the transition well. I’d be the first to admit that.  That might be  a more accurate way to describe me - that I didn’t transition well - more than I got complacent.  

When you are young, your limiting factor is genetic.  It doesn’t really matter who your coach is.  What your program is.  How you eat, etc. Your talent will dictate your results.  As you begin to develop, everybody starts to catch up - everyone has similar genetics - because now you are not just competing against the top college athletes, or the top juniors, but a whole host of athletes from a whole lot of years.  The top athletes from probably the last decade worth of top college athletes and top juniors.  Now you’re competing against grown people!  So now, your nutrition is an issue.  Your program becomes an issue.  Your coaching is important.  Your mechanics become important.  Your physio becomes an issue.  Your supplementation, etc.  Now it becomes important to stay on top of all these things, and I think this is where a lot of athletes now - in supplementation and nutrition especially - get a little bit lost.  They hit these plateaus in their careers, and they wonder - ‘hmm, I’m in a plateau...how do I break through?  What I used to do isn’t working anymore’.  And some make poor choices - not knowing any different.  



Supplements...

Now one thing that interests me about you is that you are one of the very rare athletes that instead of risking making a poor choice, decided to take a hard-line stance against supplementation.  You don’t take any supplements at all.  Not a vitamin pill.  Not whey protein.  Not creatine.  Fish oil.  Nothing!  I find this very interesting...

LW: I just have - like you said - the very minority perception that even the most safe of supplements are grey.  For an athlete, it is really hard to put yourself in a position where you have the knowledge where you are confident of what is going into your body.  I think it is worse for an athlete that started at the top.  I think there is a subconscious sense of entitlement that I can be a lazy athlete because everything was given to me on the front end, and I don’t want to do the work to find out whether the supplement is good, bad, or whatever.  I know and I understand that supplements can be good for you, and I know that there is a difference between a supplement and a drug, but I also think that there is a fine line between - this in-between grey area - that I’m not comfortable with.  Like - how do I know the difference from one to the next? Me - I don't have the specific intelligence to be able to say that this is a supplement, and this is a drug.  And this supplement is clean, and this will test me positive.  The intention of taking a supplement is to enhance my performance, and that is negative either way  - if you want to enhance your performance by using something other than what you can naturally do - how is there really a difference? 

Yeh - I know what you’re saying.  But for me, that’s a very black and white way of looking at it...and possibly that’s the best way.  I mean - if everybody looked at it that way, it would be pretty simple.  But unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in.  The world plays in shades of grey.  If you’re taking a 100% legal over-the-counter supplement, that has been batch-tested free from contaminated substances, then I don’t really see an issue with athletes taking them.  But you do...

Here’s the issue I have - when you’re competing against athletes that clearly are breaking the rules, for me you need to try to optimize all those things that we talked about before - your physio set-up, your coaching, your mechanics, your nutrition, and your supplementation.  Everything that you can do - in a legal manner - to try to level that playing field.  And in my opinion, it can be done.  

LW: There’s just a really fine line that I am just nervous about crossing...

So on the continuum between black and white - somewhere there is a line that crosses over.  And because you don’t really know where that line exists, you just choose to stay white.  Right?

LW: Right.  There is no way to be really knowledgeable enough to know. And if you’re taking something that is commerically available over the counter, can it really be that beneficial anyway?  And at the other end, if you are having something custom-made specifically for you, you are placing your trust in someone else...

Yeh - and that’s a big thing.  Especially with what came out two days ago with both Tyson and Asafa apparently putting faith in the wrong people.  Ato Boldon said that "an athlete is trusting of the person he is buying the supplements from, or the coach, or whoever is providing these supplements. When you listen to Tyson, he is saying he put his faith in someone and they let him down."  

And from all I know - and the people I have spoken with - Tyson is one of the good guys.  But not meaning to take any banned substances...putting your faith in the wrong person?  These are not viable excuses.  The athlete is always responsible.  Ato says that the athlete “doesn’t have a degree in pharmacology”.  And yes - most of them don’t.  

But ignorance is no excuse...

So in your opinion, what is an athlete to do? 

LW: You go to black and white, like me.

That’s the only answer for you?

LW: For me, it’s the only answer.  And like I said, most people disagree with me, and most athletes are willing to do what they need to do...

So it’s your career, and following the WADA code of ‘strict liability’, you are 100% responsible for what is in your body.  You will not listen to any advice - even if someone said to you “take this supplement.  It is batch-tested”.  You still say no.

LW: Yep

Now what about athletes that are not as hard-line as that?  Do you have any advice for them?  Maybe they don’t see it black and white.  They want to compete on the world-stage.  They want to be the next Lauryn Williams.  But they don’t want to go down the wrong road.  Do you have any advice for that athlete?

LW: Do as much due diligence as possible.  But ultimately understand that you are putting your trust in someone else’s hands.  Whether it be that over-the-counter supplement that is batch-tested, or whether it is your coach that says ‘take this’ - it is the same good intentions they may have, but when you accept something or buy something, you are counting on someone else to have done the right thing for you.  I just choose not to count on anyone but me.  I just don’t trust people that much...it’s just that simple. 

I think the bottom line in all this - what I take away from it - is you are 29 years old.  You have never taken a supplement.  You haven’t optimized your therapy situation.  You haven’t optimized your nutrition.  And you still have an Olympic gold medal, an Olympic silver medal, an NCAA title,  3 World Championship gold medals, and a PR of 10.88.  

I think that is the bottom line: it is possible - and this is for all those that say it is impossible to run sub-10 seconds as a man, and sub-11 seconds as a woman without performance enhancing drugs - it is possible to run very fast, and have an amazing career.  

You ran 10.88, and made all sorts of mistakes.  You ran 10.88 seven years ago.  So in that seven years, what has stopped you from running 10.68??  

So for me, it’s very encouraging.  If you look back at your career, you will see a lot of positives.  A young athlete can take a lot of positives from it.  They can see that they do not need to go down the roads that many others have.  That, with a little bit of talent, some hard work, and some effort in optimizing some of things that let you down in the middle of your career, they can run 10.6! 

I see it as very encouraging...

LW: I totally agree with that.  600%!!  And - with faster tracks, faster shoes, better conditions, and things like that, people are going to continue to get faster.  And it’s not unrealistic for people to run faster than 10.88.  And beyond.  Without taking a supplement at all.  If you are talented - if you believe you are talented.  Put your best foot forward to ensure that you achieve all that you can.  But I walk away from this knowing that I was great at this sport.  I was really, really good.  In my own head, that’s what I tell myself.  Because it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.  It only matters what I think.  So I can watch other girls on TV and say ‘yeh - she’s pretty fast.  She ran 10.6.  Good for her’.  But I could have ran 10.6 if I took the exact same thing she took, and probably faster.  In my own mind, I’m the best that has ever done it.  It doesn’t matter if everyone else believes that or not.  I did it to the best of my ability, and I feel if I would have done some of the things that some of these other people have done...if the playing field was level, that I’m the best athlete there is. I feel that is all that matters - that I feel like that.



Responsibilities...

Now - you said earlier that it’s hard in the United States - that you don’t really have the support - do you see a solution to this?  Is there an alternative for the up and coming athlete?  you see a lot of other countries for instance - the UK being a great example - that have a ton of Federation support, government support - from a medical perspective, physiotherapy perspective, nutrition, supplementation, coaching, strength training, etc., where in the US - outside of the OTCs, it is very limited.  Do you see any alternatives?  Any solutions?

LW: Yeh - I’d put a call to action for the government to start helping!  We are already the best in the world without their help, and we are struggling.  You shouldn’t hear stories of people who are on the Olympic team who were living in their car earlier in the year. That’s ridiculous!  So - an easy solution is for the government to find a little bit of money, and start to help Olympic hopefuls.  

But without that, what would be beneficial is a training center.  A real track that is for professional track and field athletes.  With a weight-room that is for professional track and field athletes.  With a physio there that is for professional track and field athletes. In a climate that is warm enough for athletes to be able to train year-round - outdoors.  Because that is the season where we have the biggest potential, and the season that is most important.  There is no indoor Olympics!  With information about nutrition, supplementation, etc.  Availability to batch-tested approved supplements.  So if nothing else, if you choose to take this supplement - which even though I would choose not to - at least you can be pretty sure that you’re not going to test positive. And the facilities that are amazing, and you have that opportunity to be at the one-stop shop, where you can be the best that you can be.  That’s the best alternative.  If an athlete can find that place, and it be affordable for them, that’s when we will start to see athletes optimizing their potential. 

You sit on the Board for the Track and Field Athletes Association (TFAA).  Can you tell me about that?  What is the goal of this organization?

LW: The TFAA was created to give a voice to track and field athletes.  Two of our biggest downfalls are that we are not educated, and we don’t stand together.  We are fed information from our agents, from our phsyios, from our coaches, and we count on them - and it’s really hard to professionalize a sport when kids are coming out of school at age 20, and you’re looking at your coaches, managers, and agents as father figures - as respected elders, but you forget sometimes that they work for you.  And I think it is a really hard thing to balance that exchange.  Because you need to rely on their education when you come out, but in the interest of professionalism, you need to educate yourself, in such a way that you’re not dependent on these people.  They are dependent upon you.   

But we don’t educate ourselves well enough, and we don’t unite well enough to exercise our collective power.  Instead, we run around the circuit, as much as we can - by ourselves - in our individual events.  It just makes it seem like that all that matters to you is yourself.  When I think that you know that it could be much better if we were all doing this together.  We could be making more money, for example, if everyone got together.  Like, your agent tells you what you’re going to get, what your appearance fee is, and there is no way to compare it to your colleagues whether it is a good number or not.  You are just forced to take it and go with it.  Even if you feel you are worth more, you still take it.  

What choice do you have?

Do you not think that it is not a part of an athlete’s responsibility to learn some of these things?  To educate themselves a bit more on supplements, on nutrition, on appearance fees, etc. 

LW: Yes - it is very much the athlete’s responsibility!

The athlete has strict liability for what goes in the their bodies.  In the same manner, they are responsible for all these other things. That’s what you are saying?

Yes.  We show up as kids with a sense of entitlement, because people are throwing money at us - telling us we are wonderful, telling us we are so great, and you feel like everyone else should do all the work, and that’s what needs to switch.  You need to come into this understanding that you need to do some work.  your work is not just run fast, jump high, throw far.  It is knowing about what supplements go into your body, it is knowing about good appearance fees, knowing how to get from one place to the other, knowing who to call if your flight gets cancelled! Knowing how to book a flight.  How to take a train.  Simple things, that we are not taught...

So how are you going about doing this?  How are you going about educating the athletes, or are you still in early days where you are still trying to figure out the best vehicle in which to do it from?

LW: I think the best way to do it is a life skills program in the colleges.  In track and field, we are not coming out of high school.  So the responsibility...

Do you think the NCAA has a responsibility in this?

LW: ...I definitely think the NCAA has a responsibility in.  And I think they are remiss in not recognizing it at this point.  And I know they have been approached about it.  Many times.  But they don’t want to take any responsibility for it...The NFL and the NBA - because they’re revenue sports I guess - they have gotten involved, but for track and field, I guess they don’t see the potential...

I mean - what’s the point in all of this compliance stuff if you’re not really trying to educate the athletes?  Educate them that there is more to this than books.  You need to be prepared for life.  Having life skills is a very important part of being a professional athlete. Sport is almost like having another major...you go to school to get an education, but at the very least, you are minoring in sports, and there are some life skills that you need to be taught through your particular sport. 

And they are failing miserably at that!