MOSCOW MEMORIES

My very first real images and impressions of Moscow go back to the late 1940’s when Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of England, talked about the the evils that existed behind “The Iron Curtain”. There was the full realization of a “Cold War” between the Soviet Bloc and the West. The upshot was that school children were instructed in safety drills to crouch under their desks in the event of a nuclear attack from Russia. All of this evil and very sinister activity  and abject fear,was managed and controlled from,…..”Moscow”.

Fast forward 20 years later, to 1969 and the United States and Russia are having a duel meet indoors,….. in Moscow. This is still at a very heightened level of tension and terror between the two most powerful military powers in the world. Despite all of the geopolitical machinations and menace the two counties held for each other, and their respective citizenry, I was excited beyond words to finally have the opportunity to  go to “Moscow” as one of the coaches on the U.S. Team.

The Russians housed us at the National Hotel, which was situated on Red Square. We were told to be aware of the fact that our rooms were bugged and would no doubt be routinely searched. Further at the entrance to the elevator on each floor was a desk with a very dour and menacing person sitting there who took the key as you left, and from whom you retrieved the key upon your return to your room.  Downstairs off the lobby was a Dollar Store. Only American dollars were accepted in exchange for purchasing cheap watches made in the Czech Republic,  and wooden Russian dolls that shrunk into each other.  I do not remember who won the competition, but I do remember certain incidents that occurred during our stay there.

Our shot guy, Brian Oldfield, at one of the training sessions put on a real show of athleticism. With the high jump bar at 6 feet, 6 inches, he took a five step approach and cleared the bar with his 6 foot 4 inch, 265 pound body. Then with shots on each shoulder, from a stand, he threw one 60 feet and the other side 59 feet. Not satisfied with that, he went over to the sprinters and challenged them to starts and more than held his own for the fist 15 meters.

Peter Chen, who won the 1969 U.S. Indoor Championships in the pole vault, beating Bob Seagram( 1968 Olympic Champion and world record holder) and John Pennell ( Silver medalist in the pole vault at the 1968 Olympics ) in the process. He was the first black vaulter to ever win the title and I was the fist black coach to coach someone to that title. Despite being very proud of our ethnic exceptionalism, I can not remember how he did in the meet.

What I do remember is it was very cold, gray, and dour. The people were bundled up and seem to walk huddled up. There was full employment because there were three 8 hours shifts for just about every task. For example, the old ladies that swept the sidewalk in front of our hotel literally used twigs that were lashed together as brooms and every 8 hours a new shift would appear and sweep the exact same area that was just previously swept. The one bright highlight, and it was a very special one, was the visit to the Bolshoi Ballet. The production was Swan Lake and I was very much impressed with the combination of athleticism, grace and elegance possessed by the dancers. It was easy to see why the racist pronouncement that ” white men can’t jump” was/is not only stupid, but obviously fatally false.  There was a phenomenon that remains eternally etched in my mind’s eye. That is the fact that the very good jumpers in the ballet had a way of suspending time and gravity at the top of their jumps. There was an unexplainable extension of the pause at the top of the jump, where science and logic left off and pure performance genius dominated for a millisecond . This has been the touchstone and basis of my coaching approach every since. To assist athletes to get to that point where they transcend science and logic and for that elusive instant, defy the mundane and human limitation.

In 1973 I again went to Russia with the U.S. national team for a competition against the USSR. During that time, there were basically three makes of cars in Russia, all Russian made. They were the Volga, Lada, and Zils and the Russians  seemed to have adopted the Henry Ford promise for his Model – T, “You can get it in any color you want,….. as long as it is black.”.  That year I coached Steve Williams and as he was beating Valery Borzov in the 100 meters, he looked over at Borzov with disrespect and disdain. After the race I pulled Williams over to the side and verbally worked him over in the most scathing terms I could muster, reminding him that Borzov had won the 1972 Olympic 100 and 200 the year before and Olympic champions should always be respected for their achievements and if we were to continue to work together nothing even remotely resembling this was to take place again. He and I worked together through his retirement in 1984. That year ( 1973 ) we saw Sleeping Beauty at the Bolshoi and I was reminded of the magic these dancers could muster and how essential it was that I coach athletes, in their own way, to achieve the same level of arcane and esoteric excellence.

In 1980 the Olympics were held in Moscow. This was memorable to a lot of American athletes and coaches because President Jimmy Carter declared that we were going to boycott the Olympics Games in Russia because the Russians had just invaded Afghanistan. There was a great outcry of criticism and consternation, despite the fact that there was some sort of historical relevance to what he did. In the ancient Olympic games, nations at war could not attend. The Olympics, even then,… at its origins, had political implications and overtones outside of pure sport.  Those who objected to the boycott often played on the lie that the Olympics were above politics. After Tommie Smith and  John Carlos and their courageous black gloved protest in 1968, the International Olympic Committee has instituted restraints against any protest based upon race, religion, or politics . Yet we play the national anthem of the country of the winner, and raise the flags of the top three finishers and keep a medal count by nation.

Jimmy Carnes, the  coach at the University of Florida who gave me my first college coaching opportunity was the head coach of the 1980 U.S. Men’s Olympic Team. I very strongly doubt if there was/is ever a finer person in any branch of coaching. Jimmy was one of the most unique and rare people in a world,….. overflowing with just the opposite. He was a very ambitious and highly motivated, but totally without ego. He rarely talked in a first person singular vein. It was always about the team and what and how could we do to help the team. So I was very upset personally and professionally at the boycott of the 1980 Olympics. However, philosophically I found myself in support of what President Carter did and what it stood for. When I voiced this opinion and notion, I was soundly criticized and castigated by people from all points on the spectrum. Some 33 years later Afghanistan still has White House attention. We have American troops mired in an unwinnable war at a serious cost of men and money and international stability. If the U.S. Presidents who came after Carter had acted in a similar lofty, enlightened and justified manner, we would be significantly clear of  Afghanistan. Sports and politics are in fact kissing cousins.

August 10-18 of this year the IAAF World Championships were held in Moscow. I arrived in Moscow on the 6th of August and the fist shock was the traffic. I was still in a time warp and expected sparse traffic where  black Volgas, Zils, and Ladas took up most of the traffic. Instead what I saw was a Los Angeles rush hour type of  traffic made up of foreign cars. I saw type Mercedes Benz cars clogging the streets of Moscow that I never saw elsewhere,…not even Germany. It was literally bumper to bumper all the way from the airport to the U.S. Team hotel (Crowne Plaza ). In many ways this was symbolic of how much political and economic change can take place and was a lesson to me to never doubt the potential depth for change.

Only Olympic medalist had single rooms, so John Smith and  I were room mates. John and I are usually among the first people each day at the practice track, and each day among the last to leave. When asked why, my reply is simple and direct, “Where can you get this level of athletic and coaching talent training before your very eyes ? If you are trying to learn and stay current, then there is no better place to be !”.   Usually John and I engage in relaxed banter before the other coaches and athletes stream in.

John, Here it is 33 years later and we finally made it ! ( the World Championships were held in the 1980 Olympic Stadium).

Yeah, and I am happy as hell to be here !

Me too. I feel sorry for the people who were not allowed to come in “80.

Me too. But life can throw some tricky stuff at you and you just have to roll with it.

Yeah, I wonder what it was like here 33 years ago.

I don’t know, but I am betting it was nothing like this. Can you believe the cars over here ? I have seen every luxury car they make in just the 12 minute ride from our hotel to the track.

You are from Los Angeles. That is a car culture !

Right and I feel right at home too.

David Oliver and I have been working together in the 110 hurdles since January of 2005. From 2005 through 2010 he got every good break possible and took advantage of every one of them.  By 2010 had matriculated to being #1 in the world and the new American record holder at 12.89 . He had a bronze from Beijing in 2008, was injured in 2009 and could not get that  2010 “mojo” back in 2011 and 2012. So the 2013 World Championships represented a bigger than usual challenge for both athlete and coach. Before coming to Moscow on the 6th of August, we had a training camp at Malmo, Sweden, a mere 2 hours by plane form Moscow. The U.S. Team training camp was in Linz, Austria ( Adolf Hitler’s hometown).  We opted for Sweden because we did not want to experience the trauma and drama that would come from having that many tightly wound athletes, coaches, and agents in one place. David was joined by his training partner Dwight Thomas from Jamaica and Tahesia Scott from the British Virgin Islands. Tahesia’s husband and coach could not make it to Moscow, so had her travel and train with us.

It was evident from the very beginning that we had made the right decision. David and Dwight were both very fit and what was needed was some mechanical tweaking and mental sharpness. Being undistracted and undisturbed for more than a week, we were able to get the final pieces to fall into place for both of them. The last training session in Malmo was final testament to the fact that things were in order. It was a very simple session where we “race modeled”. This means a start to the first hurdle, change gears at #3 , change gears at #7, sprint off of #10 to the tape. This is to avoid what Wilbur Ross has identified as “hurdlers’ boredom”.  His point is that after a good start, hurdlers tend to try and simply maintain the same rhythm for the rest of the race. When this happens, “boredom” sets in and the adrenalin and effort level wanes. In order to overcome and avoid this phenomenon, we break the race into four separate “races”. The idea is to get a fast rhythm, and then work even more to increase that rhythm as you speed down the track. We term this, “getting progressively more aggressive”. Like every other event, the further you proceed, the more aggressively you must become to reduce “time drag” , “boredom”  and/or “rhythm lock”.  The last couple of “modeling” sessions went very well and I cut the rest of the training short because I felt confident that not only were they both fit, but both had the podium “mojo” in place.

Oliver’s fist race was very fast at a very high effort level. The “experts” and “pundits” immediately jumped on this as a tactical mistake.  Like Aries Merritt and Jason Richardson, David was working to get his timing and rhythm to sub-13 pace. It was pretty clear that 13 flat would probably win the race and being as fit as he was, it was more important to establish a fast tempo and rhythm and work down and faster from that,….. than run a slow time and try to make a quantum leap in the final. In the semi-final he hit #7 in an effort to regear and get “progressively more aggressive”, but knew without that mishap he was ready to capture his first wold championship title.  During the interim between the semi-finals and the finals, Star, David’s physio did some light neural relaxation to allow his muscles to relax and “settle” in. There was no massage or kneading of muscles.  This was the very fist time he had gone into a major championships feeling 100%.  His body language said he was ready to go, and my body language said, “Leave him the hell alone !”.

Later David told me that as he was laying down in the Call Room before the final, he looked up at the clock and it read 9 PM. He said to himself, “Dam, in 30 minutes I am going to be a world champion !”. When I heard this I was immediately reminded of what those good  ballet dancers do. They have the ability to go beyond and defy limitations. They suspend logic, time and space. In David’s case he had shaken off the mental disappointment of not making the U.S. Olympic Team of 2012 and had mentally found the “Swan Lake Syndrome”. He was mentally able to jump and suspend in air. For a fraction in time he was mentally without weight. When we can get him where he is physically ready for the “Sleeping Beauty Syndrome”, then there will be a new wold record.

I told John about the Bolshoi relevance on a ride back to the hotel from the track .

John, you got to look for the answers in all sorts of different places.

You are right. The answers are not hiding. They simply are in places that we are not smart enough to look.

Well I am here to tell you that I am looking my ass off !

ME TOO !

Brooks T. Johnson

( 407 ) 758 – 0755

Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed.