Previously I wrote a blog about how I became a high school cross country and track & field coach at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory. But thinking back on the events of my life, my road to coaching began as early as my sophomore year at Lowell High School.
It was the spring of 1987 and the coaches at Lowell were James Thomas and Kevin Fong. Kevin was the head coach that year; he would later become an assistant coach in charge of the throwers for me at SHCP. In my sophomore year Kevin made me one of the team captains and I loved it. Up until that point in my life I was much more of a follower, going along with my friends and not straying very far from my comfort zone. The only reason I was even a runner was because my friend Eugene Cho encouraged me to join cross country my freshman year. For some reason, however, I thrived in the leadership role on the Lowell track & field team.
My high school career came to an agonizing end when my team failed to qualify for the State Meet in the 4X400 meter relay; I felt an emptiness in my stomach. For four years cross country and track & field had been my life. Training was hard and I sometimes dreaded it. High pressure meets and big races made me nervous, but they were also thrilling. I knew I had to do something to stay involved with the sport.
The summer after my senior year I attended Lowell’s summer running practices as a sort of uninvited assistant coach. Coach Lloyd Wilson, who has now been my assistant coach at SHCP for thirteen years, didn’t seem to mind – or at least he tolerated me. I wrote evaluations about all my former teammates in a notebook: what their strengths were, what they needed to work on, what would motivate them the most. I was eighteen years old and just out of high school, and I was thinking like a coach.
When I began my freshman year at UCLA, I decided I would see if the cross country team needed a manager. I went to Coach Bob Larsen’s office. Coach Larsen politely told me that he already had two track & field managers (one of those managers has his own coaching story) and that he didn’t need one for cross country. I walked out of his office a little disappointed, but later realized that Coach Larsen was strictly the men’s cross country and track & field coach at UCLA. The women’s team was totally separate. I then went to Coach Bob Messina and asked him if he needed a manager for the women’s cross country team. Coach Messina seemed a little surprised by my question. I don’t think he’d ever had anyone ask to be his team manager before. Certainly not a geeky looking Chinese freshman boy from San Francisco. Coach Messina told me that if I was really interested, to come to the first meet, which happened to be the next day. I had to be at the Morgan Center steps to ride a van to UC Riverside at 5:30 A.M. I believe that was my first test, to see if I was serious about being manager or if I just wanted to hang out and gawk at the pretty UCLA distance runners.
The next morning at the van my days as the UCLA manager began. That first van ride was quite an experience. The women on the team were used to only having females (and Bob) around. They weren’t going to change their behavior or conversations because I was around. In fact, I think they purposely acted more outrageous just to see how I would react. I must admit I was asking myself, “What have I gotten myself into?” as we stopped so that Jennifer Smith could go pee on the side of the road, and the women kept modeling their tight uniform tops in the van.
My job as manager initially required a lot of writing. There was no internet for posting results, so at the end of meets I had to copy down all the statistics. At practice I was responsible for logging everyone’s workout splits. (UCLA is where I developed my counting system, 98, 99, 1:40, 1:41, … and an ability to call out and record splits at the same time.) On some days I would run with the team. It was sometimes a challenge to keep up!
What made the job special was how nice the upperclassmen were to me. Seniors Laura Chapel and Laurie Chapman were super welcoming to me and the rest of the team followed suit. Laurie Andeen went by the nickname, “Andee” because there was already a Laurie on the team. Being low man on the totem pole, that meant I needed a nickname because I couldn’t be “Andy.” Because of my last name, the girls called me “Charlie.” But that only lasted for a year and then someone started calling me Chanman, a nickname that has continued for the twenty years since.
Two memories I especially cherish from my UCLA days involve Pam Thompson and Kira Jorgensen. Pam was a first year assistant coach and she admitted to me years later that when I first came on the scene she didn’t like me because she thought I posed a threat to her authority as an assistant coach. “But you were so nice and so good at what you did that I couldn’t hate you,” she later told me. We’ve been friends ever since. Kira was the all-everything high school phenom of the late 1980’s. A multiple-time state champion and national champion before she came to UCLA. I had read much about her and watched her race a few times. It was a real thrill to meet her in person and find out that she was the funniest, teammiest, most spirited person you could ever meet. We formed a special bond through our UCLA days and I still consider myself lucky that I ended up being friends with someone who in high school I had considered a hero.
The days at UCLA flew by. Each year I would get (and take on) more and more responsibility. I eventually had my own group at practice. I was included in meetings where we discussed the training. Track & field meets were exciting because my job was to have an accurate, up to the minute, score so the coaches could make appropriate line-up changes to win the meet. (My current dual meet strategies were born from this.) My junior year Coach Messina went to part-time, which meant I was even more vital to the team, sometimes directing a workout session by myself.
My senior year Coach Messina did not return and UCLA merged the men and women’s cross country and distance programs into one. Coach Larsen would be in charge of both the men and women. Ironically, three years after saying he didn’t need me as a manager, Coach Larsen was eager for my help. He knew that I knew the women’s team very well and that I would be a real asset during the transition to a co-ed program. He recruited me by inviting me to a sold out Arizona-UCLA basketball game. I felt loyal to Coach Messina and even interviewed for a coaching job at a nearby high school. But in the end, I decided to stay on so I could help the women who I had grown close to over the years.
My senior year was a magical year.
The UCLA athletic department paid for two-thirds of my school my senior year. I even got my UCLA varsity letter in 1993.
Coach Larsen let me give a lot of input about the workouts. I remember writing different workouts for different people and walking into his office to discuss them. Here was a multi-time coach of the year award winner being lectured to by the manager about why Kira Jorgensen should run 300 repeats that afternoon instead of 600 repeats.
One memorable day at the end of a team meeting, I asked Coach Larsen if I could speak. I got up and gave a passionate speech about how the distance women needed to step up their game. After I was done, Coach Larsen looked at me then looked at the team and commented how lucky they were to have a team manager that cared so much about them.
I developed a strong relationship with both Bobby Kersee (then the head women’s track & field coach) and Jeanette Bolden (who would become the head coach the next year). We had a great time together. I got to hang out with Jeanette and sometimes help work out people like Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Gail Devers. That May when Jeanette was named head coach, she asked if I would return the next year as an assistant coach. I decided to pursue podiatry school instead but it sure was an honor to be asked.
The end of my senior year turned into a series of recognitions from Bobby and Jeannette. They decided to fly me to New Orleans for the NCAA Championships; this was my first NCAA meet after four years as manager. I dutifully drove the rental van back and forth between the track and hotel, supported our one distance runner, Beth Bartholomew, and kept the scoresheet that found us in a surprise third place team finish.
At the end of year UCLA athletic department awards banquet Bobby was supposed to present an award to Beth for distance runner of the year. When he got up to speak, instead of introducing Beth, he introduced me and said that it was more appropriate for me to present the award.
Jeanette put on various track & field clinics for her asthma foundation. Bobby was supposed to go with her to Philadelphia for one of these but at the last minute couldn’t make it. Jeanette asked me to step in for Bobby. In this pre-9/11 era, I flew to Philadelphia with a ticket with the name “Booby Kersee” on it. At the clinic, most of the clinicians signed autographs and put their highest achievement (e.g. “1984 Olympian”). I decided I needed something but wasn’t sure what to do. I ended up signing, “Andy Chan, 6/12/93.” Hey, that way the kid collecting the autograph would remember what date they got all these cool autographs.
Even as a recently graduated high school senior I think deep inside I knew I was interested in coaching. All through college when I was bored during lectures my doodles would be training plans and workout ideas. From 1989-1993 I had one of the greatest coaching mentorships anyone could ever ask for. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was developing a love for the sport, knowledge about training, and ideas about how to motivate from great athletes and coaches in the UCLA program.
It’s Saturday June 27, Day Three of the 2009 USA Track & Field Championships. Thursday it was just me, Malinda, and Paul Zager at the meet. But by the time we settled in to watch the 5000’s Friday evening, John Spriggs and Asit Panwala had joined us and we had our Pamakid group of five.
It’s been a great time up here so far. Too many star athlete sightings on the Pre Trail to count. My favorite was a young woman named Stephanie, who I actually stopped and talked to. Stephanie is a big running fan and is relatively famous in running circles because of her posts on LetsRun.com under the nickname “Txrunnergrl.”
As usual, the Villard St. Pub is the happening place. At night after the meet it’s packed with fans, coaches (high school, college and professional), and athletes. On Thursday night I got to talk to John Godina. I know John from my UCLA manager days. He’s the nicest guy. Always says hi and talks to me at the meets when I see him. A 9-time medalist at World Championships and Olympics. Made TEAM USA in both shot put and discus. Nice story about his retirement and how he’s still supporting the sport that he loves can be found here: http://www.iaaf.org/news/kind=100/newsid=49498.html. My favorite story is he once won a fancy car for winning a major meet and he turned it in to get a pick-up truck that he could drive around the ranch when he was home in Wyoming. That’s John Godina for you. When we took this picture, he was joking with Malinda the whole time, “make me look pretty and slender” (we even switched sides to get his better side!
Last night Malinda and I caught Bob Larsen in a talkative mood (check here for a previous story I wrote about Bob: http://www.flotrack.org/blogs/blogger/chanman/22-the-bob-larsen-i-know-2007). One of the greatest coaches in the sport told us how Meb was doing, his opinion that athletes should take their turn leading long races like the 10,000 and not let everyone else do all the work, and some great insights about how the US should be developing steeplechasers better. It was amazing stuff! I also got to talk to Shannon’s college coach, Kevin Jermyn, and Shannon’s boyfriend when they were at Duke, Jon Amt. The three of us can proudly say we were the instrumental ones in developing the runner she’s become before John Cook took her to the next level.
This morning was the Hootie 5K, an informal race put on by the guys who organize the entertainment, vendors, and other activities at Villard St Pub. Before the race the adidas rep said they’d give us a free beer token if we tried on a pair of adidas racing flats and ran with them in the race. So why not? John and I took them up on the offer. The Pamakids were well represented with all five of us running and with me, John, and Malinda in our Pamakid uniforms. We were told we took home the team award but there was not actually a team category. Congrats to John who in the post-race raffle, won a pair of those very adidas racing flats.
I’ve commented to Malinda the last two nights that I am in track heaven right now. Eugene is the perfect venue. It’s small enough that everywhere we go we see someone we know. Although the energy isn’t the same as last year for the Trials, I love seeing so many of my track friends everyday. Some of these guys I only talk to once a year at this meet.
Oh yeah, there’s a meet going on, too.
Coach Bob Larsen may be one of the most recognized distance coaches in the USA. He has had success at every level, from high school to community college to club team to university.
Up until the turn of the century he was most known for coaching the UCLA Bruins for 21 years. Under his tenure, UCLA won 2 NCAA Track & Field Championships, 9 Pac-10 titles, and had a 118-3-1 dual meet record (undefeated against USC). Before UCLA, he led Grossmont Community College (El Cajon, CA) to 7 state titles, founded the JamulToads club in San Diego that won the AAU cross country national championship, and had success at Monte Vista High School in Spring Valley, CA. When he retired from UCLA after the 1999-2000 year, the list of accomplishments by his athletes and teams was quite impressive.
But it is since that time, that Larsen has really come to the forefront of the national scene in terms of coaching distance runners. In 2001, he and Joe Vigil started Team USA California (now Team Running USA). They used the Olympic Training Center (Chula Vista, CA) and Mammoth Lakes (altitude) as their home bases. At the time, the idea of a national athlete development program with the mission to support, promote and assist in the development of elite US distance runners, was completely new. Today, in addition to Team Running USA, which Larsen and Vigil continue to coach, there are Team USA Minnesota, Hanson-Brook’s, Boulder Performance Training Group, ZAP Fitness and others. Larsen is most known for being Mebrahtom Keflezighi’s coach. Larsen was Meb’s coach at UCLA and has continued to coach him since graduation. Over the past six years, Meb has set the American Record for 10,000 meters (27:13.98 in 2001) and won an Olympic silver medal in the marathon at Athens (2004). It is mostly his involvement with Meb and the success of Team USA in recent years that earned Larsen enshrinement into the US Track Coaches Association Hall of Fame (2003) and the 2005 Bill Bowerman Award.
I consider myself fortunate to know Bob Larsen. We first met in the fall of 1989. I was a freshman at UCLA and went to him to see if he would take me as a team manager for the coming cross country season. He wasn’t that interested. But later I found out that Larsen coached only the men’s team and that I could also inquire if the women’s team needed a manager. It turned out that the women’s head coach, Bob Messina, was more than happy to have someone do some of the grunt work. My test, to make sure I wasn’t just doing this to look at pretty girls in running shorts, was to be at the vans at 5:00 A.M. the next day to leave for a meet. I set my alarm, arrived at the vans right at 5:00, and so began my coaching career.
I found my niche as manager for the women’s team, and although I would see Larsen, I did not work with him or the men’s team. Each season I got more and more coaching responsibilities. But at the end of my junior year, UCLA made the decision to combine staffs. My mentor Bob Messina was out of a job and Larsen was to take over coaching both the men and women distance runners. Larsen let me know that he would love to have me return the next year as the manager. I was very torn, however, because I felt loyal to Messina and wasn’t sure I wanted to be manager for anyone else. I even interviewed for a high school coaching job. But, my experience and knowledge of the UCLA women runners was a real asset and Larsen began recruiting me to come back and be his manager (I felt like a blue chip recruit when he offered me a ticket to a big UCLA-Arizona basketball game). After talking it over with the returning team, I was persuaded to stay on as manager for Larsen for the 1992-93 year.
That was one of the greatest decisions I’ve ever made in terms of my development as a coach. I got to learn different things from a different coach. In fact, I was learning from one of the best coaches in history. I just didn’t know it at the time. As a 21 year old undergraduate manager, I thought Larsen was kind of kooky. He talked slow, seemingly about random things, in a real nasally voice. I still remember him taking for 10 minutes to the team after an on the road pre-meet workout about what not to eat for dinner (“If you’re going to have seafood, avoid bottom feeders because they have a lot of other things in them that you don’t want to eat before a race.”) His style was also different than mine or Messina’s. He was very calm during a race, cupping his hands to say a few words as the runners came by, but certainly not screaming or jumping up and down like I have been known to do. The men on the team who were familiar with him knew where he would be positioned on the track and no matter how loud the crowd, they always heard their coach almost whispering out instructions (“That was a 72.5, a little slow, pick it up a bit.”)
Larsen let me do a lot of coaching. That senior year, I felt like I was the one coaching the UCLA women’s distance team. I remember a track team meeting when the women distance runners were getting a little chewed out for not getting things done. Larsen said his thing; then I asked if I could have the floor. (Doesn’t every team meeting close with the manager giving a speech AFTER the 4-time NCAA Coach of the Year?) I got up and gave a passionate speech about crunch time. I told them the team was going to be great with our without the distance runners so they had better make a decision if they wanted to be part of the greatness. After I was done Larsen just told them how lucky they were to have someone that cared so much about them and how they did.
I still have notes from meetings with Larsen. I would write down the workouts that I thought the various groups should be doing and Larsen and I would meet in his office, decide on the workout and who would do what. I felt that I knew the women better than he did and thus had a better handle on who needed what for training. Looking back, I wonder what this great coach thought about having a manager come in and tell him what to do on a daily basis. I figure he either:
1. Felt the specifics of the workouts weren’t that important.
2. Wasn’t worried if I screwed up the women’s team’s running.
3. Valued my insight and saw some potential in me as a coach.
Sometime during the 1992-93 year, I went to Larsen’s office and he was talking to a skinny African American kid from San Diego on a recruiting trip. That was my first contact with Mebrahtom Keflezighi. He started at UCLA after I graduated, but to this day, when I see Meb, he talks to me as if we are old friends. The fact is, although we have some common friends, we never overlapped at UCLA.
After leaving UCLA, I would see Larsen at meets maybe once a year. We would always talk briefly. I think in my mind, he was a good coach who taught me a lot of things. But not some “superstar coach”. After leaving UCLA and starting Team USA it seems his coaching legacy really grew. I started to appreciate that I had worked with a great coach.
I was at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista with Shannon Rowbury for a Junior Elite Development camp in 2001 and bumped into Larsen. He was taking Meb through a workout on the track and they invited me to watch. I was in seventh heaven, getting to listen in on their conversations and watching Meb run intervals just two months after he set the American Record for 10,000 meters. Larsen kept talking to me and we had a very nice conversation. I really enjoyed watching Larsen call all his splits to the tenth of a second. Even the 200 splits from across the track. (Did he really see Meb cross the 200 meter mark and was he sure it was 28.7 and not 28.8?) I loved it. One day I am going to start calling splits to the tenth of a second just because it was so cool when Larsen did it. After Larsen got too involved in talking to me and missed a couple splits (“missed that one Meb, sorry….don’t worry about it.”), I decided I should leave the coach and pupil to their workout.
Larsen has become an in-demand speaker for coaches’ clinics. Unfortunately, his talks are sometimes not that complete. He jumps from topic to topic and throws in a joke or two here and there that only half the audience gets. It’s comforting to know that all this fame hasn’t changed him. He’s still just like he was when he talked to the UCLA team. I have been flattered that at some clinics when he talks about training UCLA athletes, if he sees me in the crowd he’ll motion to me and say, “Andy probably remembers that one since he was with me at UCLA then.”
What Larsen lacks in training advice at coaches clinics, he makes up for with anecdotal tales. At a clinic in July 2004, probably a month before Athens, he shared some of the things that were going on in preparation for the Olympics. Specifically he talked about being in Athens the year before and how they crunched all this data on temperature, the course and Meb’s physiology to come up with some great training for the race. For the next month (and many of my running friends can attest to this) I was unforgiving in making fun of Larsen. I could be heard saying, “Typical USA attitude – applying all this science. I bet all the Kenyan coaches do is show their athletes the starting line, point towards the finish line and say go.” But as Meb’s race unfolded, I must admit I was awestruck. Larsen was right! They were prepared! Meb ran himself to the silver medal. I spent the next month feeling as if I owed Larsen an apology for doubting him.
I now have so much respect for Larsen’s knowledge. I think I always respected him and knew it was a privilege to have worked with him at UCLA, but only in the last couple years have I fully realized what a privilege it was. His knowledge is amazing. He was one of very few people who wasn’t surprised by Hall’s 59:43 half marathon performance. In fact, at the Houston Half Marathon pre-race press conference, Larsen went to sit with the media so he could raise his hand like one of the reporters and ask Meb, “Do you think you can stay with Ryan Hall tomorrow?”. He knew Hall was going to do something big and that Meb was not in shape to go with him. That right there shows how well he knows the sport. But it also shows his sense of humor. How many coaches would put their own athlete on the spot during a press conference like that?
I was very lucky to spend a year with this man. And I am still lucky today, because if I have a question, I can shoot him an e-mail and he’ll get back to me. He has influenced me as a coach. I may never be as calm as he is during a race but when I am getting overly excited at a race and need to relax, I picture him and ask myself, “what would Larsen be doing now?” Scary as the thought is, I probably have a similar sense of humor (if my athletes went to press conferences and I could embarrass them the day before a race to help them relax, I would be all over it). Does that mean my athletes today think I am as kooky as I thought he was? Maybe I am better off not knowing the answer to that. What I do know is, when I read interviews of Larsen, I can practically hear his distinctive voice and see his facial expressions as I read his words. I am lucky to know a great coach like Bob Larsen.