Coaching Against the Grain
Saskatchewan coach’s unorthodox methods produced champions and changed lives
John Fitzgerald needed to improvise. He was working as a teacher in northern Saskatchewan. His f ive-t ime Olympic race walker Tim Berrett , had driven nine hours from Edmonton to train with him. But the town’s only dirt road was a rutted, icy, dangerous mess. There were no indoor tracks, no treadmills and the school gym was only 15 metres long. “Get in the truck,” Fitzgerald told him. They drove to the shore of a frozen lake. The pair shoveled a layer of snow off the ice until they had an 800-metre loop. Berrett did two hours of intervals, and Fitzgerald made a fire for Berrett to keep warm during the breaks.
“It was a good workout. That’s the day I walked on water,” Berrett said of that frigid day in April, 1993. One week later, Berrett finished a career-high fifth place in the World Cup 50-kilometre race walk.
Fitzgerald knows biomechanics and physiology but says there’s a lot more to coaching. It’s about adapting to the environment and the athlete.
“I try to get to know the person inside and out, find the right buttons to press and the difference between the body, the brain and the heart,” Fitzgerald said. “I try to find the positives in everyone and bring it out.” For the past 40 years, across Canada and beyond, Fit zgerald has been f inding t hose posit ives. He’s produced track and field champions at the Canada Games, Olympics and Paralympics. But he’s equally proud of the legion of recreational 10k runners or high school volleyball players he’s helped.
He’s stood trackside or biked the trails while his athletes ran in the wind and rain and snow, handing out bottles and yelling split times. This summer, Fitzgerald became the seventh coach inducted into Athletics Canada’s Hall of Fame.
“It’s a good feeling,” he said after helping the youngest of his six sons at a Saskatoon badminton tournament.
John Fitzgerald died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm on October 26, 2018 with his wife, Lorraine, by his side. The final interview and photos for this article were completed one week before his death.
RIGHT Circa 1979, John winning a 15 km canoe portage race in Chicoutimi Quebec in -23 C. He ran 1:00:20 breaking the course record by 20 min
LEFT John Fitzgerald