Win­ter Looks

The Lat­est Cold-Weather Ap­parel

Canadian Running - - FEATURES - “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.” — John Fitzger­ald

par­ents and their in­fants. It proved so pop­u­lar, he was given his own weekly show on a Sher­brooke tele­vi­sion sta­tion.

He retro­fit snow­shoes with a com­plex sys­tem of twine and fas­ten­ers and broke the 800-me­tre world record in the sport. He ran cross-coun­try ‘ beer miles’ decades be­fore the cur­rent track craze.

In his 20s, he be­came a na­tion­ally-ranked marathon run­ner.

One par­tic­u­lar run stuck with him. He was out for his morn­ing jog when he heard the fa­mil­iar roar of mo­tor­cy­cles be­hind him.

The biker g a ngs who cont rolled Que­bec’s east­ern town­ships had been tor­ment­ing Fitzger­ald all sum­mer. The bik­ers would ride up from be­hind and, one by one, they’d slap Fitzger­ald in the back of the head as they passed.

Fitzger­ald de­cided he’d had enough; that day, he looked back, not­ing ex­actly how many bik­ers were com­ing for him. He ab­sorbed the slaps, count­ing down in his head. When the last one got close, Fitzger­ald turned and threw all his weight into the biker’s chest, knock­ing him from the mo­tor­cy­cle. Fitzger­ald ran into the bush and es­caped.

He couldn’t run on that road any­more, but he didn’t care. He had pushed back against the bul­lies. Fitzger­ald has ap­plied the same stub­born­ness to fight for his ath­letes.

He soon grav­i­tated to coach­ing track in­stead. His rapidly-grow­ing train­ing group col­lected one gold medal af­ter an­other in Que­bec school and club meets. He was picked to take a course in Ot­tawa. He thrived be­cause the in­struc­tion was oral and hands-on rather than text­book-based. He stayed for sev­eral years to work with a host of fu­ture stars in­clud­ing Olympic marathoner Bruce Dea­con.

Af­ter more study in Bri­tain with Peter Coe – the fa­ther and coach of mul­ti­ple world record holder Se­bas­tian Coe – Fitzger­ald was re­cruited to be­come Saskatchewan’s pro­vin­cial dis­tance coach. He brought his un­ortho­dox meth­ods to Saska­toon.

Other dis­tance coaches pushed their run­ners and walk­ers hard ev­ery day. Fitzger­ald forced his to take reg­u­lar off days, and would send some­one home to rest mid-ses­sion if they looked tired or in­jured.

In­stead of as­sign­ing 400m or mile re­peats, he’ d give his ath­letes a steady diet of box jumps, medicine ball t hrows and tech­ni­cal drills. In t he win­ter, t hey’ d pull Fit zger­ald ’s kids up a steep tobog­gan hill with spe­cially-made belts tied around their waists.

“Not a lot of peo­ple were do­ing those things, but I was never a by-the-book kind of guy,” he said with a laugh.

On long, cold runs, he’d drive his mini­van in front of Ber­rett or his marathon­ers to shel­ter them from the wind. When he saw them fall­ing off the pace, he’d roll down the win­dow and turn the car stereo to full vol­ume play­ing Bob Dy­lan’s Sub­ter­ranean Homesick Blues or Eric Clap­ton’s Layla.

His meth­ods pro­duced ath­letes like Colin Mathieson, a high school run­ner from Moose Jaw, S ask. who sprinted to 1,500m gold at the 1989 Canada Games in his home prov­ince.

In the months lead­ing to the race, Fitzger­ald knew Mathieson was fast. But he’d lost races be­cause he wasn’t ag­gres­sive enough.

So one prac­tice, he lined Mathieson up on the t rack 10 me­tres be­hind a large pack of run­ners for a se­ries of 200-me­tre sprints. Mathieson had to el­bow and fight his way through the walls and out of the boxes and get to the front. It worked.

At the same time, he pi­o­neered tech­niques for blind and wheel­chair Para ly mp ian sin sev­eral sports. Cy­clists, tr ia th let es, soc­cer play­ers and even shot put­ters came to him for tips.

“You do what­ever you can,” he said. “You al­ways think ‘What can make the dif­fer­ence for this per­son, on this day, in this weather?’”

Af­ter t he pro­vin­cial po­si­tion was cut, Fitzger­ald stayed in Saskatchewan, teach­ing in north­ern towns and on First Na­tions. He con­tin­ued to coach Ber­rett, Olympic race walker Ann Peel and oth­ers from a dis­tance.

Soon, his stu­dents were dom­i­nat­ing pro­vin­cial track meets and vol­ley­ball tour­na­ments, even on re­serves with next to no in­fra­struc­ture.

His men­tor­ship of First Na­tions coaches and ath­letes is still pay­ing div­i­dends. Team Saskatchewan now dom­i­nates the medal ta­ble at the flour­ish­ing North Amer­i­can Indige­nous Games.

“It’s a dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion ev­ery­where, but you can usu­ally get peo­ple to pro­duce,” he said.

“Once we did his work­outs, we felt we could do any­thing... He pre­pared us to be good peo­ple that con­trib­uted, that pro­duced in life.” — Tim Ber­rett, five-time Olympic race walker

Op­por­tu­nity Knocks

He con­sid­ered wind­ing up his coach­ing ca­reer, but that changed when he got an of­fer in 2001 to coach the Aus­tralian na­tional team.

For the first time, he was given a nearly un­lim­ited bud­get and ac­cess to some of the finest tech­nol­ogy and ex­per­tise on the planet.

Al­ti­tude camps in the moun­tains of Mex­ico or Switzer­land, sen­sory depri­va­tion cham­bers and $100,000 equine tread­mills, a team of physio and mas­sage ther­a­pists, doc­tors, nutri­tion­ists and sports psy­chol­o­gists; Fitzger­ald said it was like a candy store, but that was part of the prob­lem. Many of the pre­vi­ous coaches were over-re­liant on the data. They for­got that coach­ing is also an art.

Fitzger­ald used some of the gad­gets and stripped away oth­ers. Af­ter some ad­just­ment, his ath­letes started to re­spond. Just as he did in Len­noxville, in Ot­tawa and on that north­ern Saskatchewan lake, he knew some­thing spe­cial was hap­pen­ing.

But just months be­fore the 2004 Athens Olympics, tragedy struck in the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Sport’s weight room.

Fitzger­ald dropped to the floor un­con­scious. Thank­fully, a doc­tor was in the build­ing and rec­og­nized the ur­gency. An am­bu­lance ar­rived al­most in­stantly. Sur­geons op­er­ated for most of the night, sewing the mas­sive rup­ture in his aorta.

He sur­vived but had to leave Aus­tralia and re­turn to Saskatchewan. Three of the Aus­tralian ath­letes he groomed would later stand on the Olympic podium.

Fitzger­ald was slowed by the heart con­di­tion but still worked for sev­eral years with Ber­rett and a hand­ful of dis­tance run­ners. To­day he helps youth and mas­ters ath­letes in Saskatchewan.

A Ca­reer Filled with Fond Mem­o­ries

Fitzger­ald said the Hall of Fame cer­e­mony in Toronto was spe­cial. He had a chance to con­nect with old friends, in­clud­ing Ber­rett and Se­bas­tian Coe. He has an en­cy­clo­pe­dic knowl­edge of races and per­sonal bests – but those aren’t his fond­est mem­o­ries. Fitzger­ald beams about An­nie, one of his first ath­letes. The 12-year-old girl was born with no arms be­cause of the thalido­mide drug scan­dal of the 1960s. Fitzger­ald not only taught her to swim, but she was soon pass­ing some of the able-bod­ied swim­mers with her mod­i­fied dol­phin kick.

“She could dive for pucks on the bot­tom of the pool bet­ter than any­one,” he said.

Ask him about Ber­rett and he’ll men­tion their joint fam­ily ski trips to the Rock­ies. When he talks about his Aus­tralian Olympic gold medal­ist Jared Tal­lent, it’s about all the times the young man vis­ited him in hos­pi­tal.

He can list his ath­letes who’ve over­come sex­ism, racism and dis­abil­i­ties, or be­came doc­tors and teach­ers.

Ber­rett said it’s great Fitzger­ald is be­ing rec­og­nized for his con­tri­bu­tions to sport, but his legacy goes far be­yond that.

“Once we did his work­outs, we felt we could do any­thing,” Ber­rett said. “He pre­pared us to be good peo­ple that con­trib­uted, that pro­duced in life.”

Ja­son War­ick is a CBC re­porter and for­mer mem­ber of Canada’s na­tional team in the marathon. Like many of Fitzger­ald’s other ath­letes, War­ick now coaches dis­tance run­ners in Saska­toon.

ABOVE John Fitzger­ald (bib 1447) at a marathon in the 1970s

LEFT Fitzger­ald with his fe­male IAFF World Race Walk­ing Cup ath­letes, who won bronze in the women’s team event in 1985

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