Deidre Forbes, Freelance Writer
Usain Bolt (right), 100m world-record holder, and his coach Glen Mills. - photo by LeVaughn Flynn
At the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, research has been going on for two years to pin down what makes a small island like Jamaica produce such spectacular athletes.
Scientist Dr Rachel Irving, a member of the research team, has put it down to a natural "performance-enhancement gene" while, her co-researcher, Dr Vilma Charlton believes that the physical education programme in the island's schools must play a significant role. On the streets, ordinary Jamaicans will vouch for the cuisine - yam, dasheen and other local foods.
From as far back as 1948 (with the amazing triumphs and records of the likes of runners Herb McKenley and Arthur Wint), there has been something magical about Jamaican athletes, and proud Jamaicans around the globe are never afraid to claim and celebrate that fact.
However, no man is an island and, as the saying goes, behind every successful man is a good woman. In the same way, behind every successful athlete lies a good coach.
"We have some serious coaches, who really push us to be the best we can," triple-Olympic gold medal winner Usain Bolt told a newspaper while in Beijing, in praise of his coach Glen Mills and of Jamaican coaches in general.
The sensational Stephen Francis, founder of the Maximising Velocity and Power (MVP) Track and Field Club, and clearly a star coach of the recent Beijing Olympics with five medallists (Asafa Powell, Shelly-Ann Fraser, Sherone Simpson, Shericka Williams and Melaine Walker) in his camp, has much to smile about these days.
His high is shared by Raymond 'KC' Graham, who coached Walker, gold medal 400m hurdler in Beijing, at St Jago High School in Spanish Town, and who is now based at Hampton University in Virginia, who describes coaching as his second love (second only to his wife).
"As a coach, you are really a father figure, especially during high school, because your role is mostly one of a parent. You have to make sacrifices and dig deep into your pockets because you have to ensure that your athletes are getting the right nutrition and that they attend school," he says.
Sacrifices and determination
"To see Melaine coming from nowhere to be number one is just the best feeling ever. That's the kind of reward you get for your sacrifices."
Coach Maurice Wilson, who had medallists and finalists in Beijing, including sprinter Christopher Williams said: "What you have to realise is that it's only recently that coaches in Jamaica have started to see coaching as a business. We have always done it just because we love it and we're dedicated to it. In Jamaica, we seek out talent from an early age, so there is an emotional connection in it for us because we treat our young athletes like our children and we want to see them do their best."
That 'emotional connection' is also felt by athletes. Twenty-four-year-old Curtis Ridell, who is trained by Glenn Mills, better known as Usain Bolt's coach, describes Mills as a father figure to him.
"You have to believe in your coach," he emphasises. "My coach is the backbone of my training. He gives me my game plan and guides me regarding what to and what not to do. He is a very important part of my life."
Ridell says that Fitz Coleman, his first coach at Ardenne High School, first "saw something in me that I didn't see". Despite being injured for the last year, he speaks confidently of becoming the best 400m runner.
Evan Allen, 28, who was 800m champ at the local championships in 2006, also has high praises for his coach, Lloyd Clarke. "He's the most important part of my training. He gives me my programme and gets me to do it. He motivates me to believe in myself and to be the best."
Coaches are often retired athletes (notably, Herb McKenley coached the Jamaican national team between 1954 and 1973 after retiring) and therefore understand much of what the athletes experience. Others are self-confessed frustrated athletes. Wilson is one such coach. "I am most definitely a frustrated athlete. I did well at parish level until I got a life-threatening injury and decided not to continue in track and field. I started doing volleyball and succeeded in that but the passion was always for track and field so I decided to start coaching when I realised it wasn't possible for me to be the type of athlete I think I could have been."
He did various certification courses under the Jamaican Amateur Athletics Association (JAAA), earned a bachelor's degree in physical education and trained at L. T. Walker Training Centre in North Carolina. He followed that with a masters in science at Nova Southeastern University and started coaching in 1990.
As well as coaching, he is a lecturer in track and field and fitness methods at G. C. Foster College of Physical Education in Spanish Town, St Catherine.
"Our coaches here pay great attention to detail in terms of technique and form," he explains. "Because our athletes don't have as many meets, and are not able to race as often as athletes do in other countries, we, the coaches, have more time to fine-tune their techniques and so we get more dividends in the end."
Juliet Cuthbert, 100m and 200m silver medallist in the 1992 Olympics, gives full credit to her high school coach at Morant Bay High in St Thomas, Howard Jackson. "He really did put me on the road because during high school I did need the motivation. The fact that I got to the Olympics at all is really due to my high school coach. I give him all the credit for what I've achieved."
Cuthbert, who also attended Olney High School in Philadelphia and the University of Texas in Austin, notes, however, that while living in the US, she had a coach who was heavily into performance- enhancing drugs. So distraught was the experience that she left him (and athletics to have her son). When she returned to the track, in 1991, she got a workout format from sprinter Merlene Ottey's coach and decided to coach herself.
"I do have some regrets to be honest," she now confesses. "If I'd had someone to steer me along the right path, who knows? The fact that I didn't have a coach then doesn't necessarily mean I didn't need one. What I do know is that I'm very strong-willed and I don't need anyone to push or motivate me - but not everyone can train on their own and it's not something that I would heartily recommend," added Cuthbert, who starred in world track and field in the 1990s and was Jamaica's sportswoman of the year in 1992.
"It's difficult for an athlete to see their mistakes or to judge their progress and change by themselves" says Graham. "That's why athletes need their coaches. The coaches are objective and provide guidance. We do push and motivate the athletes into producing their best performances."
Wilson added: "An athlete with talent and no coach makes no sense at all. Success is 60 per cent about the coaching and 40 per cent about the athlete."
Michael Frater, a member of the gold medal 4x100m relay team and coached by Stephen Francis, says: "My coach prepares me to be great. You can have all the talent in the world but underachieve because you don't have that person to nurture your talent. You will never find a great athlete who coaches himself to greatness."
Alfred Francis, a member of the executive committee of the JAAA says: "We have developed a fine culture where track and field is concerned. There is a keen rivalry and competitive spirit that drives the coaches to excellence. They are trained in the knowledge about physiology, nutrition, techniques and they are great mentors. They know about the psychology of being a good coach because you have to be able to motivate your athletes and that's not always easy. Our coaches are good at motivating their athletes to do the best they can do and to achieve excellence."
Since Jamaica's phenomenal success in Beijing, there is talk of world athletes who want to train in Jamaica to get in on the act.
Asafa Powell with his coach Stephen Francis.
Maurice Wilson (left) with some of his young Holmwood charges. - photo by Anthony Foster
Raymond 'KC' Graham