If you have ever had a great coach, you know that you have heard that coach’s voice inside their head during workouts for years afterward. You’re getting ready to knock off the workout early and you hear, “This is the point where you start to get in shape,” loud and clear from the absent coach. Or as you’re running along, you hear your coach’s silent voice tell you, “Good arm action.”
Last week, one of the truly great American track and field coaches came through Los Angeles visiting family members. She and I had competed together on the Millbrae Lions Track Club in the 1960s. Pat Connolly was a three-time Olympian: 1960 she ran what was then the longest event for women, the 800M; 1964 and 1968 she was our best pentathlete before two more events were added to create today’s current heptathlon. Obviously, she was the star of our club in the San Francisco Bay Area. In the 1970s, Pat and I had both settled on the Westside of Los Angeles. She was the first coach of the Women’s UCLA Track and Field Team where she coached sprinter Evelyn Ashford and her team to national championships in 1975 and 1977. In 1984, Pat helped Evelyn win two gold medals at the Games in L.A. In 1985, she invited me to work out with her world-class athletes Marlene Harman (heptathlon) and Diane Williams (sprinter) who were fifteen years my junior.
What fun that was! We changed workout locations every day for variety. Pat believed in getting the feet strong in sand, so there were beach workouts filled with sprints. Other days were on the steep Franklin hill just north of my house in Santa Monica. We raced up the asphalt to the third street light, walked down, then did it again. Next came three sprints to the second street light with walks back down. Then four sprints to the first street light. These two women were FAST, and every step that I could stay with them was a huge victory for me.
Santa Monica’s Clover Park workouts were some of the toughest ones, since they meant repeat half miles. We were all speed merchants, but Pat was one of the first coaches who believed in having her sprinters be able to run a fast mile. It meant we were in shape deep down, not just in sprint shape on the surface. So we valued these long intervals and took them very seriously.
One workout at Clover Park, Marlene and I were racing along neck and neck. We turned a corner of our circuitous route and saw three college-aged male athletes cruising along right on our flight pattern across the grassy end of the park. I knew we were going to hold our position. I could see these were arrogant, young guys who were full of themselves and probably not respectful of female athletes. I saw a potential train wreck coming. Marlene and I didn’t back down a second. We were in the final killer thirty seconds of our half mile where the pain starts to creep in and you feel your strength and discipline kicking in to combat it. It’s the best part of any workout when you’re in great shape. One of the guys looked up and saw us racing toward them. He saw the murder in our eyes and jumped back so fast, he friends jumped with him. They hadn’t stood a chance. Fierceness and pride were qualities Pat gave all her athletes. Not longer after, I broke six minutes for the mile on the Santa Monica College track.
Workouts with Pat were harder than anything I’d done when I was seriously competing in the 1960s and 70s. When injuries came, Pat knew how to work through them, not wait for them to heal and then have to make up for lost time. Her famous “shake ups” helped many an athlete stay on the track, keep the legs moving, but keep the hamstrings and quads safe. Shake-ups may have looked incredibly odd to the uninitiated bystander – arms hanging down long, shoulders shaking forward and back, the work being done strictly by the calves, feet, abs, and buttocks muscles – but they certainly did the job. I used them in my personal training work for years afterward whenever one of my clients couldn’t really run but wanted to.
When I couldn’t do a two-mile time trial on the East Los Angeles College Track one morning due to growing pain around my right fibula (upper lateral side of the calf), Pat turned me around and had me run clockwise (opposite the norm) around the track for my time trial. It worked – greatly reduced pain so I could keep running and keep my high level of fitness.
When I saw Pat last week, she looked spectacular!! She had fought being overweight for some years after having three children and coaching through many stressful Olympic Games. Now she is looking her powerful best again: strong, lean, tall, and athletically beautiful. Over lunch she told me about her knee replacement surgery and how the knee’s instability doesn’t let her run, but she can still do shake ups. I told her how that morning I’d been on the UCLA track for my weekly interval training and had run 3 x 200M and 3 x 150M. She asked if I’d done my leg swings. Oh no! I have been forgetting a vital part of the Pat Connolly program to keep sprinters’ legs injury free. Pat’s early training in ballet had brought leg swings from the dance studio onto the track. And I had been forgetting them. But not any longer.
Yesterday I taught my two running buddies the technique and we all did leg swings at UCLA.
Lynda Huey, M.S., founder of CompletePT and Huey’s Athletic Network, is a former athlete and coach whose own injuries led her into the water to find fitness and healing. She was educated at San Jose State University where she starred on the track and field team during its golden years. In the 1970s and 80s she was a freelance sports journalist.