Tony Wells – Days Dwindle Down

There is a song that a lot of jazz singers used to croon, and one of the lines of the lyrics went ” …and the days dwindle down to a precious few ……”. I talked with Tony Wells a few days before he died, as his days were dwindling down. He had decided that he would not/could not put up with the rigors and indignities involved is his dialysis treatments. There are not that many coaches of the sport I feel comfortable getting into in-depth discussions about the sport. Tony was one of the “precious few” with whom you can carry on a comprehensive discussion because he was so knowledgeable and aware on so many different levels within the sport.  He had mentioned as far back as this past spring that he was getting too tired and and worn out by the process and was really thinking about stopping the treatments, knowing that this would inevitably lead to his death. One of the things that allowed him to hang on was the fact that he had two of his young females athletes doing so well. One was a sprinter and the other a jumper. I was sure that as long as they were doing well this would be enough of a positive thing in his life to hang on.  I was wrong.

Tony was one of what I call “throwback coaches”. These were coaches, like myself, who coached women and girl track and field athletes in the day when neither the coaches nor the athletes got much respect or recognition. This was a time when the U.S. Indoor Nationals for women were contested on a regular basketball gym floor in Dayton, Ohio,…. and they had a scoring event in the basketball throw. This was a time when Ed Temple and the Tennessee Tiger Belles would pack brown bags of food on road trips because they were not welcomed in most restaurants along the highway,….. and often had to stop by the side of the road for calls of nature. All this despite the fact that they were the very best women’s track and field organization in the world, with Olympic medals to prove it.

One of the unintended positives from those times, before Title IX and high school track and field for girls, was the fact that  females in track and field were not coached to compete against  mediocre performances, but were coached, like women’s gymnastics today, and to some extent swimming, to compete as teenagers against the very best in the world, and not the best in a conference, region, or state. The results were coaches and athletes in those days were judged based upon how they compared and fared against the Russian and East German powerhouses. People like Mary Decker and Kim Gallagher ran 2:00.00 ( 2  minutes ) for 800 in high school. Robin Campbell at 14,… ran 2:02.4 for 800 and 53.50 for 400. Mavis Lang at 15 ran 51 seconds for the 400. These athletes were coached to make the U.S. national team as high school kids and then go out and beat up on the Eastern Bloc .

Tony came from that kind of excellence and demands, and his Colorado Flyers Track Club  produced athletes up to that standard right up until he died. It was from this reservoir of excellence he and I would often draw upon in our conversations about the sport. We were both hardened and tempered by the days when female teenagers, and those who coached them, were responsible and held accountable for producing winning results against some of the most developed talent in the world.

Carol Smith-Gilbert ( former #1 ranked high school sprinter in America as a Colorado Flyer and now head coach at the University of Central Florida ) called me to tell me that Tony had decided to go off dialysis. We both knew what that meant. So I called Tony as he laid in his hospital bed awaiting the inevitable.

Tony, this is Brooks man. How you doing ?

Brooks, hey man. How YOU doing ?

I’ m doing fine man.

The Trials were tough, huh ? David didn’t do that well.

David Oliver, the then American record holder in the 110 hurdles, who like Tony, was from Denver, Colorado , did not make the Olympic team.

Nah, had a bad day at the wrong time.

How YOU doing man ? YOU alright ? How was it out there in Oregon ?

Tony, I didn’t call to talk about that stuff. I called to see how you are doing.

Man, Brooks, It just got to be too much.  Now I am on my way out .

You alright with it ?

Yeah, I am alright with it.

Tony, that is some heavy shit.

I am going to be okay. You just make sure YOU are fine and do not let            Eugene  kick your ass !!!

I won’t. Man, I am breaking up. I’ll call you later in the week.

Don’t make it too late.

I won’t.

Hanging up the realization came over me that here he was dying , but also at the same time trying to make sure I was going to get over the Olympic Trials. People like that are not part of the bargain of being here. The unique and special qualities they bring to their craft and relationships are rare and dear.  I was again impressed with how we are indeed “dwindling down to a precious few “.

Brooks T. Johnson

(407 ) 758 – 0755

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