The People Behind the Champions

Get the inside scoop on what it's like to work with the world's best athletes.

By Ryan Halvorson
Jun 20, 2016

It was June 1996. Two-time national track-and-field champion Ashley Selman, MA, CSCS, was looking to fulfill a longtime dream by qualifying for the javelin event in the Olympic Summer Games, to be held in Atlanta in a few weeks. Making the cut for the world’s leading international sports competition wasn’t an unrealistic goal. A year earlier the star athlete had ranked second nationwide, and she felt confident she would join her fellow track-and-field athletes in representing the United States.

However, years of high-level competition had taken a toll on Selman’s body, and she could no longer fight through her injuries. She finished sixth at the meet, not good enough to earn a spot on the team. In an instant, everything she had worked toward and suffered for vanished.

“I didn’t make the Olympic team, and that was pretty devastating at the time,” she recalls. “I felt so lost in the moment after that meet. You gear up and focus on a goal so intently for so long and then . . . it’s over. It left a void, and I wondered, what do I do now? What’s my identity? Where’s my self-worth coming from? It leaves a bit of a scar.”

That meet marked the last time Selman would lift a javelin, competitively. But as the saying goes, “When one door closes, another opens.” A week later, she received a phone call out of the blue from track-and-field coach Bob Kersee. He was training his wife, Jackie Joyner-Kersee—considered by many to be the greatest female all-around athlete in history—for the Olympic long jump and the heptathlon, a competition comprising seven events, including Selman’s specialty, the javelin. Kersee asked if Selman was available to help his wife improve her javelin throw.

Stunned and slightly nervous, Selman knew this was an opportunity she couldn’t turn down—it’s not every day you get the chance to work with one of your idols. Shortly after that call, Selman traveled to St. Louis, where she spent 6 weeks preparing the superstar athlete for Atlanta.

“It was the first time in my life that I went from being an athlete—where everything I learned was focused on myself—to using my knowledge, expertise and passion to help another person,” says Selman, who now owns Evolution Trainers in Mountain
View, California. “[That shift] to coaching and helping others
. . . ultimately led to my personal training career. It was because I didn’t make the team that I got this opportunity.”

When it comes to the Olympic Games, the lion’s share of the limelight deservedly goes to the athletes who give everything to become worthy of the title “Olympian.” But what about the passionate coaches and trainers—like Selman—who work behind the scenes to help these competitors realize their dreams? This article pulls back the curtain for an insider glimpse into what it’s like to support some of the world’s best athletes.

How the Pros Got Started

The circumstances surrounding Selman’s transition to coaching may have been surprising to her, but her story is not uncommon. Many competitive athletes become trainers or coaches because they possess firsthand experience and a passion for their sport—two characteristics that are essential for training elite-level competitors.

Coaching rugby players. In April 2002, Mollie Martin, CSCS, joined the USA Rugby Women’s International team. More than a decade later, she used her experience to help others excel.

“I started by offering two sessions a week to any rugby players in the area,” says the San Diego–based coach. “Word spread quickly, and soon I was working with up to 20 athletes at a time. It was on a volunteer basis for the first year; then statistics started showing that they were all improving.”

Her work, which emphasizes on-the-field skill development, has attracted the attention of major players in the rugby world, including “the Phaidra Knight,” as Martin describes her.

“I have looked up to [her] since I started playing rugby over 14 years ago. This woman has more dedication to the sport than I can explain, and she is being considered for the Olympic team at the age of 41.”

Martin is also training Carlin Isles, who is under contract with the USA National Rugby Sevens men’s team and like Knight is vying for a spot at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Both Isles and Knight could earn a place in Olympic history, as this will be the first time the games have included rugby sevens and the first time there has been a women’s tournament as well as a men’s (rugby union with 15 male players per side was included in the games from 1900 to 1924).

Supporting top athletes with physical therapy. Mike Clark, DPT, founder of Fusionetics® in Atlanta, became involved with Olympic athletes via a slightly different route. He had been making a name for himself as a physical therapist and first attended the games in 1996 in support of the USA Boxing team. He returned 4 years later with his wife, Melissa “Mel” Mueller, who was a pole vaulter. He credits her with helping him extend his reach into the Olympic world.

“Because of her, we were exposed to a lot of champion-level track-and-field athletes,” says Clark, who was also the director of sports medicine for the Phoenix Suns basketball team for 14 seasons. “That’s kind of how it started.”

Those connections included Loren Seagrave of the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. “Any time [Seagrave] got new athlete[s], [I would] assess them and put them through their programming,” says Clark.

Clark spent the subsequent years leveraging his extensive education, experience and research to develop a platform called Fusionetics, which focuses on movement performance and recovery and is being used by Chinese Olympic athletes.

Training speed skaters and other great athletes. Sometimes working with Olympians is simply part of the job description, according to Dan McDonogh, senior manager of performance training for Under Armour® in Portland, Oregon. “[Training Olympians] certainly was a draw for me,” explains McDonogh, a former athlete himself. Since taking the job, he has worked intensively with the USA Speed Skating team, which is currently preparing for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

“Our big focus has been to monitor how [the skaters] recover and how they live [when they’re] off the ice,” he explains. “Recovery is a big topic these days. I think the mindset around how hard and how often athletes train is starting to shift.”

McDonogh and his team also have regular check-ins with and provide support for high-profile athletes like tennis player Andy Murray and sprinter Manteo Mitchell. The latter is known for helping his team to qualify for the 4×400 relay at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Mitchell would later disclose that he’d broken a fibula halfway through his run. Team USA took home the silver medal for the event that year.

A Rewarding Career

Perhaps it goes without saying that a career working with champions is inspiring. Top athletes sacrifice a great deal and possess an unfaltering work ethic to become the world’s best competitors. In a way, they embody everything most fitness professionals desire of their clients.

“It’s an honor to bear witness to anyone who is uncommonly consistent in their pursuit of being at their best,” says Adam O’Neil, MA, a mindset skills specialist. “To pursue one’s potential is not something you see people actually working toward every day. Lots of people talk about wanting to be at their best, but it seems that few people actually do the difficult things that are necessary to trust themselves and their skills when the world is watching.”

O’Neil has worked with Olympic athletes for the past 7 years under the guidance of Michael Gervais, PhD, director of the DISC Sports & Spine Center’s High Performance Program in Southern California.

Clark witnessed an athlete’s keen determination in his wife Melissa “Mel” Mueller, who decided to switch from hurdling and long jump to pole vault after graduating from college—and managed to qualify for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. “[Some people] are so determined to seek out excellence and perfection that they’re willing to endure whatever it takes to get there,” he says. “Most athletes begin training for their sport at a very early age. Melissa took on the pole vault late in her career. For someone to pick that up and compete is incredible—it’s [about] more than speed and strength; it requires a lot of precision and technique. It’s inspiring to watch.”

Mueller may be one of those fortunate individuals born with the talent to excel athletically, but Clark says this will get you only so far. To succeed, athletes at this level must undergo rigorous daily training for months—even years—on end. His athletes complete three separate training sessions every single day.

“One session includes lifting; core and balance training; speed, agility and quickness; plyometrics; and energy system development,” says Clark. “A second session emphasizes recovery and includes integrated manual therapy, vibration therapy, compression and neuromuscular stretching, for example. The third session is working with a skill coach on techniques specific to their event.”

Preparation to compete takes a toll physically, mentally and emotionally, and what separate the top competitors from other athletes, according to Clark, are an unfaltering mindset and the willingness to do whatever it takes to win.

Brent Callaway, in Coto de Caza, California, is the performance director for EXOS™ and is responsible for staffing and managing the performance teams for the organization’s international customers. Their client roster includes more than 100 Olympic athletes.

“I most enjoy the ‘light-bulb’ moments that fire off during training,” he says. “These moments of realization are the key to unlocking potential. For example, if an athlete has executed a sport-specific skill for most of his career in a certain manner, and you find an error in a movement pattern, or a subconscious compensation that limits results and can educate the athlete on why and how this happens, then you can correct it or deliver a cue to facilitate a better result.”

Toronto-based John Berardi, PhD, co-founder of Precision Nutrition, enjoys the problem-solving nature of his work with Olympians.

“I often work as a high-performance adviser specializing in nutrition and supplementation,” he says. “This involves reviewing physiological and performance data and making nutrition, supplementation and lifestyle recommendations aimed at improving training capacity and competition results.”

A large part of his efforts involve analyzing blood chemistry and microbiome data to determine the best nutrition and supplement approach for each client. “I like solving puzzles and translating my knowledge of how the body works into advice that helps both rising talent and seasoned veterans make changes in the way they eat, move and live,” says Berardi.

What inspires McDonogh most about his work? “I think it’s just how much [the athletes] invest in a goal,” he says. “It’s the world stage, and I think anyone who has been an athlete or is one dreams of representing his or her country. Aside from that, I appreciate all the working parts that go into an Olympian’s journey. The organization and coordination of putting the right people in the right places fascinate me.”

The Challenges of Training

Despite the glory of holding the title of Olympic coach or trainer, the job comes with its fair share of difficulty, Martin acknowledges.

“Sometimes there are long training sessions that turn into 4-hour conversations afterward, which you won’t get paid for,” she says. “Strategizing, brainstorming and programming can keep you up all night. Oh, and athletes can get exhausted and say mean things, but they really don’t mean it.”

Clark is very familiar with the time commitment this work requires. “It’s a struggle,” he admits. “If you’re going to do an hour-and-a-half training session plus a 2-hour recovery session and you have multiple athletes, you have to be fully committed. The other part of it is travel. As we get ready for the Olympics, you travel all over the country and the world to events and qualifiers. Your weekends are not weekends. You’re working all the time.”

Berardi has experienced a certain level of success—the Olympians he’s worked with have collected more than 25 medals, 10 of them gold. But he says it can be an unpredictable and difficult career path for many coaches. “It’s important to know that coaching athletes—in both professional and Olympic sport—isn’t usually full-time,” he advises. “Nor is it particularly well-paid.”

He adds that most people in this line of work do it out of a deep love for athletics, often coaching in their spare time in addition to doing other paid work. “Full-time coaching positions are available, but they’re very rare and supercompetitive, and if you do find a full-time position, it may require moving a lot. In almost all sporting environments, coaching jobs are not particularly secure, and full staffs are often let go after Olympic cycles or underperforming seasons.”

Another huge roadblock a coach can face is the athlete’s body, says Selman. She remembers that when she first arrived in St. Louis, Joyner-Kersee was battling injuries. Selman learned that a good coach is flexible and able to think on her feet. “We’d have a session scheduled, but [Joyner-Kersee’s] body was beat up, so we’d have to improvise,” she says.

At the time, Selman was pursuing her master’s degree in sport psychology, and she implemented some techniques she had been studying. “I did a lot of visualization with her so that her body didn’t have to go through all the movements. It was helpful to
get her more familiar with the rhythm and timing without having her throw.”

But disappointments happen, as Selman knows too well. Joyner-Kersee’s body wasn’t up for the heptathlon in Atlanta: She pulled her hamstring during the hurdle event and withdrew from competition before picking up the javelin. The athlete did manage to secure a bronze for the long jump.

The story doesn’t end there, though. Selman returned to St. Louis a few years later to train Joyner-Kersee one last time. “I worked with her again leading up to the 1998 Goodwill Games, which marked her retirement. She went out on top and won [the heptathlon at] that meet,” says the proud coach. “She had one of the best javelin throws of her life.”

Pursuing an Olympic Career

To become a great coach, you have to possess the same level of passion and determination that fuels an Olympian’s pursuit of
excellence. The stakes are really high, says Clark; this is an athlete’s dream, and a coach must make every effort to help the athlete make her dream a reality.
So what does it take to become a world-class Olympic coach?

First, says Berardi, you must reach out to those who have worked in this field—or currently do—and ask questions. “Find out how well they’re compensated, how much they enjoy their work, and what the pros and cons are,” he advises. “Know exactly what you’re getting into before deciding on a path.”

Callaway warns that working with this caliber of athlete can’t be faked: “Elite-level athletes can smell an imposter from miles away. Education, field-specific credentials, vast amounts of experience and high levels of emotional intelligence are requirements. These athletes need support from those who have an innate talent for mentoring.”

Clark adds that a coach has to have an intimate understanding of what athletes go through on a daily basis, as it can be very easy to push them into overtraining and hamper their competitive ability. To avoid this, he recommends extensive self-study and high-level certifications.

“Go for an internship, and find some of the world-class training centers around the country,” he says. “You’ll be exposed to the environment, the practitioners and the athletes themselves. You’ll understand the mindset and the environment it’s going to take to train them.”

Selman agrees that spending time in the Olympic training world is a must. She concedes that coaching at this level can be a difficult career to break into unless you have a foot in the door. “So much of [that] world involves referrals and word of mouth and who knows who,” she says. “Obviously you have to be very skilled in what you do and have the right knowledge base. Beyond that, it’s about how you infiltrate that world and get to know people working with these athletes.”

Clark says that once you have some experience under your belt, the next step is to train “regular” clients the way you would an athlete. “Put in the time, effort, energy and sacrifices required to help an aspiring athlete get to the next level,” he urges. “Take this mindset back to every single client. Develop a systematic approach to help [clients change their lifestyles].”

The right mindset, adds O’Neil—who is currently pursuing a PhD in clinical psychology—is integral to becoming a great coach whom athletes can trust. You need to apply the same mentality to your life as an athlete does to his. It is this concept that drives O’Neil to keep expanding his own education and abilities.

“I guess I couldn’t get enough of learning, and I needed to develop a stronger skill set in regard to clinical issues, which led me to doctoral-level study in clinical psychology.”

While working with Olympians and Olympic hopefuls has its rewards, Berardi urges interested professionals to do some significant soul-searching before pursuing work in this field. His advice? Make sure you understand all the implications and avoid basing a decision on how exciting things appear on the surface. “Don’t copy someone else’s career path because it seems glamorous,” says Berardi. “Rather, make sure you’re following the path that’s right for you.”

Career Impact

Selman believes her current successes have plenty to do with her early experience training one of the most celebrated athletes in Olympic history. While she doesn’t talk about working with Joyner-Kersee much anymore, having been associated
with such a big name has had its benefits. “It’s definitely helped open doors,” she says. “It automatically gave me credibility and also opened people’s minds about who I might be as a trainer and as a coach.”

For Clark, the greatest reward has been seeing his athletes fulfill their dreams. However, he doesn’t discount the financial incentives. “You might work with athletes who are sponsored by Nike, Adidas and others,” he says. “We would be paid by the brands to work with these athletes and keep them healthy.”

Finally, says Callaway, “I have been blessed to have played small parts in medal winning and a few record-breaking performances. Each of these is special for specific reasons. Some athletes have battled through injury or performance plateaus, and some have had to fight through significant pressure-filled moments to have success.”

The Athlete’s Perspective: What Makes a Great Coach?

Nobody knows more about what makes a good Olympic coach or trainer than the athletes themselves. Famed Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who aimed to improve her javelin- throwing technique for the 1996 Summer Olympics and the 1998 Goodwill Games, worked with Ashley Selman, MA, a former Olympic hopeful and two-time national
champion in the event.

“Ashley’s support and teaching were a big part of my success with the javelin,” recalls the six-time Olympic medalist. “She taught me how to relax and have fun with [the] event. Besides Ashley being a great thrower herself, her knowledge of coaching and her ability to communicate on a level that I could understand made a tremendous difference.”

Selman’s natural aptitude for coaching played a role in Joyner-Kersee finishing her career on a high note with a gold medal in the heptathlon—which features the javelin throw—at the 1998 Goodwill Gam

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Ryan Halvorson

Ryan Halvorson is an award-winning writer and editor. He is a long-time author and presenter for IDEA Health & Fitness Association, fitness industry consultant and former director of group training for Bird Rock Fit. He is also a Master Trainer for TriggerPoint.

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