Qualifying two throwers in different events for the Olympics is a dream come true for any coach, including John Smith of the University of Mississippi who accompanied shot putter Raven Saunders and hammer thrower Gwen Berry to the Rio Games. Unfortunately, the women’s shot prelims and finals took place on the same day as the hammer prelims, making August 12 probably the busiest, most pressure-packed day of Coach Smith’s life.
I talked with John a couple of days later, and asked about his impressions of the Rio Games in general, and more specifically how he survived his big day.
Coach, what were the accommodations like in Rio?
I stayed with the other coaches at the hotel for personal coaches of high performance athletes. It had air conditioning and toilet paper, so it was pretty good.
The US has a naval base that belongs to the Brazilian navy and there’s a track there and a weight room there. Basically my time was spent going to the track, practicing and lifting.
Did you lift at the naval base?
Yes. They had a US-only training place. It is right on the ocean. You could see the sailing competitions from it. If you saw the sailing competitions on TV that’s where our track was.
What was it like getting around?
They had shuttles for us to and from the practice track every day. Everything was there at the naval base. The weight room was like the Chula Vista weight room. They even had a safety squat bar that I requested. We were able to do everything training wise that we needed to do just like we would at home. Because of that, our athletes were prepared and ready to go. Compared to other Olympics, it was unbelievably accommodating for the coaches. USATF and the USOC gave us a chance to do what we needed to do.
This was my fifth Olympics and you could tell the organizers weren’t ready. The day we finally got to go to the stadium. they had just put in toeboards at the practice track the day before. And they were building the cage inside the stadium the day before. But, at least they had an Olympic lane on the streets so we could avoid the traffic. Even with that, for the athletes it took an hour to get to the naval base and an hour to go from the village to the stadium. It pretty much took an hour to go anywhere important.
Did the streets feel safe?
You had to be careful. Where we were at there were bars on the windows, metal doors. There were even bars on the windows on the second story.
You had to be happy with Raven getting a PR of 19.35m and finishing fifth.
We were in great shape. In practice prior to the Games, she did some fantastic things, but you never know if they are going to come out or not. We had a practice in the last six or seven days where she threw a sixteen-pound shot 45 feet, and a 3.75k 66 feet. She usually matches her 3.75k distance in a meet, so she was pretty excited. After she qualified for the final, I said “Raven, go for it. On your first throw get into the top eight then just go after it. I don’t care if you foul.”
She was pissed afterwards that she didn’t throw 65. She only has one speed–all out. She is fearless and that is what makes her great. I expect her to throw 66 feet next year. The only think I may add to her repertoire is I may have her lose a little weight and I may add push jerks.
Are you planning on adjusting her diet?
Yes. There is a lot of room for improvement in her diet. I’d like her weigh about 245.
How would the push jerks specifically help her?
As fast as she gets across the ring, she needs to get up quickly. I have her throw into a net every other throw in practice–one to the net, one to the field. And we emphasize getting up at the end of the throw. But after seven days in Rio without the net, she lost her ability to lift at the end. Her speed has to go from horizontal to vertical. When she fouls it is because she doesn’t get up soon enough or hard enough,
How did Gwen look leading up to the Games?
Gwen was ready to go. She threw the 3k 280 feet in training, but this was Gwen’s first time, and the failure rate the first time at an Olympics or Worlds is 85-90 percent.
Deanna (Price. who John coached at Southern Illinois University) was the same way last year. I asked her what was the difference between this year and last year, and she said, “Last year I was scared. This year I wasn’t.” (Note: Deanna made the World’s team last year, but did not make the final in Beijing. In Rio, she did.)
World qualifying is a bitch. Until they go through it…
Can you take us through your day on August 12 when both girls competed?
I got up at 5:30 to catch the 6:30 bus, but it got lost on the way to the track, so it took an hour and fifteen minutes to get there when it should have taken 35 minutes. I had to go get my credentials to get in the practice track, and once I got in, I had Raven take a non-reverse half-turn and a non-reverse full, another non-reverse half-turn and non-reverse full. I had her take a full throw to see that everything was balanced okay, then I took her to the waiting room and went inside the stadium.
She fouled her first throw then hit the automatic qualifier (18.40m) on her second throw (18.83m), which for someone in their first Olympics is fantastic.
I thought it would take 18-meters to qualify, so for several weeks we practiced twice a day where I would give her four warm-up throws then she would get three throws to throw 18 meters with the 3.75k, then she would go home. We did that for ten weeks.
We got to the point where I was comfortable that she could make it.
Then the day before the competition we were going to rest, but it started to rain, and there was a chance it would rain the next day in the competition, so I took her to the track and had her take some throws to get used to those conditions. She threw about 63 feet with the 3.75k.
After the shot qualifying, they had a car for me, Michael Carter (father and coach of Michelle), and Larry Judge (coach of Felisha Johnson) to go back to the hotel. I felt bad for Michael because the airline lost his bags and he ended up wearing the same clothes for six days. We got back just after noon, and I went to have something to eat at a smorgasbord where you put your food on the plate and pay by the pound.
I left on the 5:30 bus to go to the track again, and this time I had Gwen getting ready for the prelims, but the warm-up area for the long throws was at a different practice track, so I had to go back to the stadium and then take a shuttle to the long throws track, which looked like a vacant lot with a hammer cage on it.
From there they took the girls to the call room, and they had another bus to take the coaches back to the stadium.
While you were at the warm-up track with Gwen, where was Raven?
She was at the warm-up track at the stadium and Connie was there. (Note: John is married to former Olympian Connie Price Smith who was the head coach for the women’s track team in Rio).
So you were positioned to manage that potentially difficult situation.
Yes. And if Gwen ended up in the second flight, which competed when Raven was throwing, JC would have coached Gwen. (Note: “JC” is JC Lambert who Smith coached at SIU and who took over as throws coach there when the Smiths moved to Ole Miss) He’s worked a lot with Gwen, so it would not have been a problem.
Anyway, it worked out well that Gwen was in the first flight, because the second flight competed during the women’s shot final, so when Gwen was done I just walked around to the other side of the stadium, and Raven was already warming up.
I never did get to see Raven after the competition. Connie did, but I had to catch the 11:30 bus back to the hotel.
That was quite a day!
Yes. I had one fantastic performance and a girl that came up a little short and still had a lot of emotional baggage. Gwen felt like she had something to prove instead of just getting in there to throw. After the whole thing with the asthma medication, she felt like she had to prove that she wasn’t on drugs.
Will Gwen keep throwing?
I hope so. Whenever an athlete has a disappointing Olympics they sort of re-think their career. But I think she will. She has tons of potential.