Ben: A Track Athlete

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

The winningest Division I coach of any sport, with 42 national titles, 30 national coach of the year awards, 23 Olympians under his tutelage, is retiring at the end of the school year. Track & Field Hall of Famer John McDonnell has spent 36 years as mentor to the track athletes at the University of Arkansas and singlehandedly made Fayetteville the track capitol of the world. Scores of his former stars crowded the room as Coach McDonnell announced his retirement on Monday. Many of them wept. And the theme constantly came around not so much to the stellar athletic achievements but the team approach Coach McDonnell created out of a traditionally individual sport. If you ran for the Razorbacks, no matter your event, no matter your talent, you contributed equal value to the team.

Track & Field is a love of mine, personally. The purity of the events harkens back to the simplicity of the Greeks running and jumping au natural. And the variety of so many events happening simultaneously all over the field is entertaining in its old-world, circus-like grandeur.

Well, imagine my delight when my 9-year-old buddy Ben announced a couple of months ago that he was joining a Track & Field club. Ben isn't a rabid sports guy. He's not a kid who longs to play Little League baseball all summer. He'd rather go to camp and ride some ramps on his skateboard.

When Ben threw himself into Track & Field this spring, I threw myself onto his team, the Valley Raiders, as one of the volunteer coaches and it has been a deeply rewarding experience…for both of us.

Ben's group is about 30 boys and girls, most of whom had never run track before, and they have all climbed up a steep learning curve with great gusto. They are coming to understand pace, what output they need for the 800, compared to the 400. They are down in the blocks, getting used to that awkward horizontal position at the start of the sprints. They are marking off their strides for the long jump and getting smoother at hitting the take-off board without breaking stride. They are grasping the fact that the shot put is more of a weight-transfer push, not a throw.

It's obvious to everyone which kids are faster, which ones can jump farther, which ones show natural endurance for the longer races. But none of that had been divisive…until the meets started. If it were up to me, kids this age wouldn't enter meets for a long time, maybe a couple of years. We were a team training together those first few weeks and the kids were engaged in the process. The meets brought pressure. Ben started having psychosomatic stomach aches. Other kids dropped out. Still others are coming up lame, not because they're lame but because they're so afraid of being humiliated.

The fun, the teamwork, even the discipline of practice was overtaken by the performance anxiety of the meets. The adults are convinced that the kids live for the ribbons and bragging rights and run thin on attention span for practices. I am observing quite the opposite. I'm trying to understand what Coach John McDonnell brought to Fayetteville. It's as his many All-Americans stated it on Monday. It isn't the first-place trophies they remember. It's the work they put in together, the pride they experienced collectively by each individual best effort, as much in practice as in meets. Ben and I had a heart-to-heart about all this the same day Coach McDonnell retired. Ben expressed the pressure he's been feeling about the meets. So we made a deal. We've gotten back to the excitement of learning and the self-respect that comes with giving every step everything you've got. We've gotten back to team and, by the way, Ben's stomach aches have disappeared. We Valley Raiders are looking to take a page out of the Arkansas Razorbacks storied history book under Coach McDonnell.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad