Updated: Jul 13
In the recent blog on whether Australia can get back as a world triathlon power, I suggested Athletics Australia were now a 3rd world country in terms of results. We had a few push backs on that, so let me pass on some first hand knowledge of the decisions taken as far back as the 1990s.
How do I know what these were? I was in the very rooms that these derogatory actions took place. The decisions that weakened any renaissance of at least the middle and long distance athletes. Before anyone again writes in about the successes in the field events at a world level, I would suggest that success was not due to a coaching achievement. Rather by a political decision to allow a path to Australian citizenship for overseas athletes of world class level. I don't want a debate on the merits of that policy. However it did deliver what ever success Athletics Australia was looking for - in the insatiable quest for government funding (medals = funding $$$).
I would like to educate the now generation of a couple of decisions that were put in place to stimulate success for athletics in Australia in the early 1990's, who controversially elected a professional swim coach as head coach. This was no ordinary swim coach but one who guided his wife Debbie Flintoff-King to the Olympic Gold medal in the 400m hurdles in Seoul in 1988. However, before one dismisses Phil King as a one hit wonder, he again took an Australian to the gold medal at the Paris World Athletics Championships in 2003. Jana Pittman became the worlds best at the very same event. Phil spent 8 years hanging out at track meets studying the training methods of Australian coaches while he ran swim schools for junior swimmers. So his expertise at the highest level was in athletics. His methods were seen as innovative by the knowing but by athletic coaches at the time 'crazy'. I've watched his wife Debbie run reps up a hill with a tyre I couldn't lift up. Multiple times she would charge up the hill. I also observed his next athlete Jana who climbed the world mountain while swimming at least 4 times a week. These may be some of the reasons that had his athletes disagree with him. I understand the push back he got, and thus the athlete was told how much better she may be if she trained like a proper run athlete. Suffice to say she was at her best with Mr King. What Phil always did was enquire with the best coaches of the time. Not just running, or hurdling, but also swimming, which is where I first met him through one of his mentors Bill Sweetenham. Bill was not only the Australian swim coach in the late 1980's with whom I spent time with, but he transformed English swimming after he pulled a bunch of athletes in England out of their old training culture, and transplanted a new one - that being one of work.
So Phil decided on his new appointment, he was going to approach as many of Australia's great athletes to do seminars around Australia. Where do I fit in? Well at the time, I had three of my triathlon athletes all qualify for different parts of the Australian athletics teams - middle distance, long and cross country. Phil being Phil came to me and asked how did I get such results so quickly, after my transition from national swim coach. He also knew that I had transformed a fringe Queensland athlete (Jenny Lund) who trained with our Triathlon squad to be one of the best long distance runners in the country. I showed Phil our program, and how it all fitted together. The girls all ex-runners had ran their best track times since they had taken up triathlon and left running. I took them back to track meets to ready them for World Cups in triathlon. So he had told me the old great run athletes had told him, that nobody in athletics ever asked them any questions, but all three had said the swim coach guy that does triathlon has had meetings with us a number of times.
Thus when the middle distance and long distance run lecture initiative was instituted Phil had me join Ron Clarke, Herb Elliotand Ralph Doubell who might not have finished the tour - it's a long time ago, so images fail, but what didn't for me was the absolute disrespect these Aussie legends were subjected to by both coaches and young so called professional athletes, I'll never forget it. So Phil has a script for me to follow, as he said that everyone attending the lectures will know Jackie Gallagher, Rina Hill and of course Jenny Lund (who was the runner).
'Now what I want you to do is show everyone their weekly run schedule, and drag 'em in. Then once they agree that this is the right amount of work, you then start adding in their other training such as swim. Then add in the bike sessions.'
It worked a treat.
I'd put up the run training, and then no matter what city we were in, someone would say, 'that's exactly the type of miles we did'.
Captured, Phil would step in and lead them into their own trap by saying 'yes I can vouch for that, as all the programs sent into me are around 20km per week like this', and all looked happy.
Then Phil would ask me 'What else does Jenny do, as she is not a triathlete but the runner that improved three minutes over 10km to be world class?'
So I would add 3 swim sessions to the training sheet everyone was looking at.
Then the head shaking would start. Then he would ask 'is there anything else she does different?'
'Now and then I'd add 3 turbo sets to her program, and to finish off I would then say after long runs on Thursday we would head into the surf like Percy Cerutty had Herb Elliot do.'
Still not finished, Phil would ask 'so the triathlon people do the same?'. I'd say 'Oh no, they do all the running, but I added two more swims and two more road bikes of 2 hours 30 minutes. The room would be stunned. So the opening act was done. Then he would introduce the great Ron Clarke to the audience, and back then Ron was still the Australian record holder of both 5000m and 10,000m some 30 years after he set the records, (and he did it on a grass track.) Ron would then tell them of his own training.
The reaction was incredulous, with a barrage of negative assertions and accusations, of how stupid his training was. It got worse when he told them he worked 10 hour days, didn't do track work at all, and only raced on club night and interclub at which he didn't run his favourite events but instead did the 200m, 400m, 800m. He only ran the 5000m if his club needed the points.
Honestly, they were listening to a running god - and then openly questioning him, that the new advances makes training much more science based. He then pointed out after the question 'which of the runs at Caulfield horse race track each afternoon where the easy runs?'. The answer being, 'they were all the same. Start out easy, then the best you could do every day...., except when Derek Clayton turned up, then it was going to be a World Championship run, as Derek thought anything slower than 5 minute miles was wasted time, and he didn't count it as it was walking!'
These people didn't have to listen to Derek, who I met only once, but by then was terrorising all the bike groups in Melbourne as he took up duathlon to 'keep fit'. He told Phil 'No, I'm not interested, they are all weak bastards. I can't run with them now as I'm an old man, but every bloody run they would tell me they are recovering. I don't need that aggravation'.
A similar scenario also played out for our greatest 800m runner, the great Ralph Doubell. He too suffered nothing short of interrogation after he spoke. It was only one time that I can remember as I think he pulled the plug, and said on leaving 'no one in here can get near me in this room Phil. They are all kidding themselves.'
His crime - he told them he ran track every day except Sunday. In winter on Sunday he did a longer run, and in summer he might be racing or he would do a long run. The audience was up in arms, and I still remember him putting his training up and then a coach asked 'but what did you do each different week?' He said 'I do this all summer, every week. Here is the week I do in the winter, it's slower because it's dark and cold and I work until 6pm sometimes 7pm'.
Again like Ron, this inside information gold was ridiculed, and this guy was now the Vice President of Deutsche Bank in Australia. He did take exception, and lectured them on how with their massages, psychologists, physios they were kidding themselves. He lectured them on how great Ron Clarke was, and how not one athlete in Australia outside of the marathoners did more. He was great because of his ability to train and train consistently hard. I still remember he said 'you people are too scared to even race now. Back in our day, we raced in summer twice a week.' Like Derek he realised that he was wasting his breath. So that was it.
Let's not even talk about Herb Elliot who was a miler who let it slip, that on more than one occasion his coach had him run to his weekend training camp which was 54km. He then ran 6 times over the weekend, before returning to work in Melbourne. He became a very high level executive in Shell Oil, then went on to be CEO of Puma Australia. Phil also brought out 5 Kenyan runners to race our summer circuit, for our up and commer athletes to race against, to stimulate their abilities and to show them what they needed.
However Phil didn't last too long. He too could see, as he said to me, that he was 'pushing shit up hill'. So he went back to running swim schools, with great success. We have two papers from that time published by great athletes, and both were ridiculed. The great Ron Clarke publishes what he thought what was wrong with Australian running:
The myth of long slow running (1995) Then, later in early 2000's, Rick Mitchell (3 time Olympian and silver medalist at the 1980 Olympics) was asked to give his opinion. He too was withering in his criticism:
Ron went on to be long term mayor of the Gold Coast. However if any coach, athlete or constituent wanted to talk to Ron, all you had to do was turn up for Ron's Sabbatical every morning - I joined his two hour walk before breakfast on a number of occasions. He used to say to me, 'you are the only coach that wants to talk to me'.
Herb Elliot tried to help from the inside and become the Chef de Mission for a number of Olympic Games teams, mentoring whoever wanted to listen to him. Conclusion
Many attempts were made by people that knew the problem, and were also all time greats, to break the stranglehold of the science and administration lobby. They failed to do so. So how can Miles Stewart, a World Champion, a 10 year veteran of the Australian Triathlon team, who understands that coaches are the key to success, break that mould? I do know Miles is trying, and wanted to make that public to triathletes. However it is not going to happen until the 'new mould' is broken up and we go back to the old Australian way. A way that is, 'let's drop the bullshit and give it a red hot go'. That is not going to happen. Not just in triathlon, but in all Olympic sports.
The way I see it.