Mike Walden

People I owe: Mike Walden What do a tennis school in Siberia, a soccer club in Brazil, a music camp in upstate New York, and a baseball club in Curacao all have in common with a bicycling club from Detroit?

They are all “chicken-wire Harvards,” a term coined by Daniel Coyle in his great book “The Talent Code”. That is, each of these remote destinations has a number of things in common: they tend to be underfunded, they have programs with a relentless focus on the fundamentals of a sport or activity, and at their helm they have or have had iconic coaches who “say a lot in a little,” and “repeat a little a lot.”

They also produce champions. Lots of them. So many that, when plotted on map in red, they become a “talent bloom” – a rose against the white of the page. In fact, one small, yet famous tennis club in Siberia, called Spartak, which has only one indoor court, achieved eight year-end top 20 women’s rankings for professional tennis players for 3 years running (as of 2007.) During the same period, the entire United States only had 7. As it happens there is also a little cycling club in Detroit with even more striking results.

Statistically speaking, it is impossible to conceive that there was more talent concentrated in the environs of Spartak in 2007, or around the Dorais velodrome in Detroit in 1980 than the entire United States. In fact the preponderance of talent from these locales belies their demographics – the argument can, and should be made that these coaches and environments created talent. But how?

Detroit, 1978. The Wolverine Sports Club was one of many of its ilk – typical in many ways. Underfunded, provided for primarily by largesse from Mike Walden’s bike shop in Hazel Park, the club also supported its activity through fund raiser “bike-a-thons” (also a Walden invention.) The Wolverine Sports Club (WSC) ran a regular series of practices – Tuesdays at the run-down Dorais Velodrome in Detroit, Wednesdays were the iconic “Wednesday night ride” from the Royal Oak Library complete with fans in lawn chairs who blocked traffic for the huge peleton, and Thursdays featuring practice races in Waterford on a 2.2 mile race car track. Weekends were for racing, because “racing is the best training,” or so we were told.

To an 8, 10, 12, even 18 year old kid, it all became so normal. I remember my first visit to the Dorais velodrome. Names were inscribed in the cement along the homestretch – Fred Cappy, Mike Walden, Clair Young, Jim Smith. These etchings were meaningless to me and hidden each year under more and more graffiti. Today the track has fallen into disrepair.

One of my first nights at the Dorais velodrome was in the fall, with a low turnout and leaves skittering across the cracked banked surface. Walden was mostly occupied shouting at two female racers who were preparing for a big competition somewhere. I was clueless and didn’t care. That is until, after a series of timed flying 200m events by the two women, Walden suddenly focused his shouting at me. “What about you? Let’s go: 200m as fast as you can go! Pedal circles and finish at the line!”

The two muscular women quickly shared some strategy – line up high on the track on the first corner and then dive for the blue line (marking the 200m mark) and then stay as low as possible on the “pole lane” or black line to the finish.

Moments later, exhausted but exhilarated by the speed, Walden barked out a time (“13.8!”) and turned to other riders. The two women, Sue Novara and Sheila Young, slowed to pass along compliments, “wow – you’re a fast little thing.” Little did I know that both were rivals and world champions in this exact event – the match sprint on the velodrome.  I was surrounded by greatness. I was lucky. It only takes a quick spin through Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” to realize that one of the core elements of the Wolverine Sport Club and my own success was simply the environment: we all got an early start on the requisite 10 years/10,000 hours of deliberate practice that greatness requires.

Another great book, that might have have featured Walden as its poster child is by Geoff Colvin’s “Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else.” The thesis? “Greatness doesn’t come from DNA but from practice and perseverance honed over decades - and not just plain old hard work, like your grandmother might have advocated, but a very specific kind of work.”

“The key is how you practice, how you analyze the results of your progress and learn from your mistakes, that enables you to achieve greatness.” Deliberate practice, as practiced by Mozart, Bill Gates, Tiger Woods, Sheila Young and Frankie Andreu, is an unrelenting focus on the potentially mind-numbing basics of a sport or activity. In fact, at the tennis camp in Spartak, Siberia referenced earlier, kids spent an inordinate amount of time swinging rackets at the air before they were even allowed to hit balls, and then they were not allowed to enter a tournament until they had 3 years of practice under their belts.

Daniel Coyle then describes the unique characteristics of the coaches who create the right environment for focus on deliberate practice. In one chapter he details the key elements of a master coach, by documenting the actions of a certain famous athletic coach. This coach’s “teaching utterances or comments were short, punctuated, and numerous. “There were no lectures, no extended harangues…. "He rarely spoke longer than twenty seconds. “What made this coach great, “wasn’t praise, wasn’t denunciation, and certainly wasn’t pep talks. “His skill resided in the Gatling-gun rattle of targeted information he fired at his players.”

This, not that. Here, not there. “His words and gestures served as short, sharp impulses that showed his players the correct way to do something. “He was seeing and fixing errors. “He was honing circuits.”

For those that knew him, this sounds exactly like Mike Walden. But this case study was of basketball’s John Wooden. The circuits Daniel refers to are the biological occurrences of “myelination” – the wrapping of neural circuits that become “talent” through repetition, coaching, and deliberate practice.

The hubris of youth suggests the following: “everything good that I have - I’ve earned.” And then the corollary “Everything I don’t have? Not my fault – I wasn’t born with that talent (or I’ve been thwarted by outside forces.”)

With time, maturity and a series of books by acclaimed authors I’ve been forced to realize that virtually all my athletic accomplishments and perhaps even all of my achievements in general – even in academics - boil down a couple simple facts: 1) I had the right parents (a subject for another day), and 2) I was born, raised, and trained at the right place at the right time: Detroit, 1980, WSC... with Walden.

Take away Dorais, Walden, Waterford, and the repeated refrains of “pedal circles,” “win it at the line,” and “race your strengths, train your weaknesses,” and humbly, it is clear that my entire life’s journey would be on a different trajectory. Gone would have been a bid for the Olympics, gone the silver medal, gone the singular element that encouraged some strong undergraduate (and graduate) schools to accept a student with SAT’s and GMAT’s that were at best “average” for these institutions.

My relationship with Mike Walden was not one I would have described as friendly: I came to practice, and he yelled at me. During practice, he yelled at me. Sometimes, after practice, he yelled at me. This was the same for most of the team, though I sometimes I felt singled out. Dorais velodrome was the worst – in the oval you were always within shouting distance. The bumpy track in the inner city was fraught with danger – bumps, graffiti, random kids throwing rocks, and the worst of all, crosswinds. Week after week, year after year, Walden demanded that riders should have only a 4 – 8 inch distance between the tires of other riders in high speed pacelines against crosswinds, over uncertain pavement, and variable speeds – all on racing bikes without brakes or gears. “Follow the wheel” meant be right on the wheel in front of you. If you let a few more inches stretch out as the peleton accordioned down the homestretch, then Walden’s penetrating voice was right there, “close the gap Coyle! Get on the wheel!”

Between each activity, Walden was not shy on letting anyone and everyone know how bad they had failed. “Alcala – you’re a disaster – can’t ride a straight line.” “Andreu – you pick it up every single time you hit the front.” “Paellela – you’re herky-jerky – ride smoothly, quit riding up on everyone.” I was afraid - everyone was afraid - to get it wrong, and you modified each and every pedal stroke to pedal circles, keep an even distance, accelerate smoothly, and drop down after pull at the front. I didn’t know it then, but this extraordinary focus on pedaling fundamentals every Tuesday for nearly 10 years allowed a 30+ year racing career featuring 3000+ races, with almost no crashes (<10), and not one injury serious enough to prevent racing the next day. It also gave my limited strengths a path for success: to move swiftly and safely through the peleton in preparation for the sprint in a manner that may be my primary defining strength as a cyclist. Mike always said, “race your strengths,” here’s a video of that put into action. 


Walden was not one to shower complements. In 1980 at 11 years old, racing as a Wolverine, I won the national championships at the Balboa Park Velodrome in San Diego, California. In the process I also met Eric Heiden who I would “pro-fro” with (live with for a week as a prospective freshman/frosh at Stanford 6 years later.) My relationship with Walden had only slightly warmed over the years, nonetheless I was fully expecting some warm words after my victory against some difficult odds against the likes of Jamie Carney. Immediately after the awards ceremony, still wearing my stars-and-stripes jersey, Walden sought me out and came up extending his hand. I was beaming and expecting (finally) some recognition. Instead I heard, “Don’t get cocky - it’s just a race. “There are a lot more important ones in your future.” He turned on his heel and stomped away. 30 years later and I can still feel the flush of heat to my cheeks as I describe that moment.

By the time I was in my late teens, I was winning races left and right. At 15, like Frankie Andreu, I was solicited by the almighty 7-11 team, and raced for them over the next couple of years. I continued attending Walden practices and continued to fear his penetrating bark. I had decided that he must clearly hate me until an odd morning one summer when I was 18.

I had been invited to a club ride that was leaving from Walden’s house in Berkley one Saturday morning. I rolled into the driveway a little early and no one was there, so Harriet Walden, Mike’s wife invited me into their comfortable, but humble home. I was struck by how normal it seemed. For nearly a decade Mike had been an enigma to me, someone ‘other than human’ who only pushed and prodded, who only repeated the same damn things again and again, “pedal circles! “Finish at the line! “Race your strengths!” Harriet was very accommodating and seemed to know all about me. As I waited for the other riders to arrive, she said something to me that shocked me then, and still cuts me to the core now, “You know, Mike is quite fond of you…” She paused, waiting for her words to sink in. “He speaks very highly of you.” I was stunned.

I didn’t know. But I know now. I should have known then. How could I not know? What kind of courage does it take to push someone to become all they can be and never even ask for any acknowledgment in return?  

A few years ago Richard Noiret made a movie, “Chasing the Wind” about Walden and the Wolverine Sports Club. I believe this is the tip of the iceberg. How did a club in a random suburb of Detroit produce 5 Olympians, 10 World Champions, 300 National medalists, and more than 25% of the nation’s national champion cyclists for two decades?

I’m a coach myself now, both for an incredible team at work, and as the head coach for the Franklin Park speedskating club. It’s odd: I’m relatively terrible at coaching speedskating despite a life dedicated to practicing the sport - it feels like total mayhem. Yet, every Tuesday night, more than one of the kids will say to me, “thanks Coach John!” as they leave the ice, despite all my yelling and it gives he a huge thrill. During all my formative years, it never, ever occurred to me to thank my coach – Affholter, Young, Walden – and it never occurred to me that they weren’t paid for all that time, effort and shouting.

Theron Walden (Mike) died February 12, 1996. I never even new his real name. I was probably busy with something I thought was important. I missed the funeral. It came to me later that I had never really known the man, and worse, that never, in my life had I ever said, the simple words I write now, 15 ½ years later. Thank you, Mike.

I owe you more than you could possibly imagine, but it is only now that I realize it. Thank you Mike – for your (tough) love, and your legacy that I’m attempting, clumsily, to pass on.


PS: In order to pass on Mike’s legacy I feel I must pass on the below verbatim. It concerns a sophisticated understanding of strengths vs. weaknesses that is best described in the incredible book, “Now, Discover Your Strengths” by Marcus Buckingham. As usual, an incredible amount of science belies the couple sharp barks that only become clear with time and repetition. This is another great legacy of Mike’s: repetition is the key to coaching. Think carefully about the conundrum posed by the below and what it suggests for your life’s path regarding your strengths, passions, and weaknesses:

Race your strengths, train your weaknesses. Racing is the best training. Race your strengths, train your weaknesses.


  • “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell 


  • “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle 


  • “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin 


  • “Now Discover Your Strengths" by Marcus Buckingham


National Championship results, 10 years:  1972 – 1981, Road & Track

1972 -  Road – Milwaukee, WI, Aug. 5-6


1.        Debbie Bradley, IA, 28mi in 1:19:10

2.        Jeanne Omelenchuk, MI

3.        Eileen Brennan, MI


 1973 Track – Northbrook, IL, Aug. 1-4


1.        Roger Young, MI

SENIOR MEN’S MATCH SPRINT : final for 1st and 2nd: Roger Young. Ml beat Jack Disney, CA, 2,0

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT: final for 1st and 2nd: Sheila Young, Ml, beat Sue Novara, Ml, 2,0


1.        Jeff Bradley, IA, 21

2.        James Gesquiere, MI, 10


1974 Road – Pontiac, MI, July 27-28


1.  David Mayer-Oakes, TX

2. Pat Nielsen, MI

3. Tom Schuler, MI


1974 Track – Northbrook, IL, July 31-Aug. 3

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT – Final for 1st and 2nd: Sue Novara, MI, beat Sheila Young, MI, 2.0


1.      Connie Paraskevin, MI, 21


1.         Kevin Johnson, MI, 14

2.          Troy Stetina, IN, 8


1.        Jacque Bradley, IA, 21

2.         Debbie Zbikowski, MI, 9


1975 Road – Louisville, KY, Aug. 14-15


1.        Wayne Stetina, IN, 114mi in 4:35:53.22

2.        Dave Boll, CA

3.        Tom Schuler, MI


1976 – Track – Northbrook, IL, Aug. 3-4

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT- Final for 1st and 2nd: Sheila Young, MI, beat Sue Novara, MI, 2,1


1.        Jane Brennan, MI, 17


1.        Jeff Bradley, LA, 17

2.        James Gesquiere, MI, 15


1.        Connie Paraskevin, MI, 19

2.        Nancy Merlo, MI, 12


1.        Kirstie Walz, NJ, 19

2.        Susan Schaugg, MI, 15

3.        Anne Obermeyer, MI, 8

4.        Lisa Parkes, MI, 5


1977 – Road, Seattle, WA, July 26-Aug. 6

SENIOR WOMEN – 1.        Connie Carpenter, WI, 38.24mi in 1:38:31


1.        Greg LeMond, NV, 71.5mi in 3:10:40


2.        Jeff Bradley IA


1.        Beth Heiden, WI, 31.5mi in 1:24:28


1.        Grant Foster, CA, 11.25mi in 31:27

2.        Greg Foster, CA

3.        Jimmy Georgler, CA

4.        Glen Driver, CA

5.        Frankie Andreu, MI


1.        Sue Schaugg, MI, 9mi in 27:50

2.        Lisa Parkes , MI

3.        Ann Marie Obermayer , MI


1977 – Track  - Marymoor Velodrome, Redmond, WA, Aug. 2-6


1.        Connie Paraskevin, MI, 15

2.        Dana Scruggs, IN, 10

3.        Nancy Merlo, MI, 8

4.        Rena Walls, MI, 7

5.        Jane Brennan, MI, 7


1.        Susan Schaugg, MI, 14

2.        Lisa Parks, MI, 12


1978 Road Milwaukee, WI, July 26-30


1.        Jeff Bradley, IA. 7Omi in 2:50:48

2.        Greg LeMond, NV


1.        Sherry Nelsen, MO, 24mi in 1:03:51

2.        Tracy McConachie, IL

3.        Nancy Merlo, MI

4.        Karen Schaugg, MI

5.        Louise Olson, MI


1.        Jeanne Omelenchuck, MI 15mi in 40:26


1.        Elise Lobdell, IN

2.        Tyra Goodman, MI

3.        Beth Burger, PA

4.        Karn Radford, CA

5.        Celeste Andreu, MI


1978 – Track – Kenosha, WI, Aug. 1-5

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT – final for 1st and 2nd: Sue Novara-Reber, MI, beat Jackie Disney, CA, 2,0


1.        Mary Jane Reoch, PA

2.        Cary Peterson, WA

3.        Sue Novara-Reber, MI


1.        Eric Baltes, WI, 13 pts

2.        James Gesquiere, MI, 12

3.        Jeff Bradley, IA, 8


1.        Connie Paraskevin, MI, 17

2.        Sherry Nelsen, MO, 15


3.        Tracy McConachie, IL, 7

4.        Nancy Merlo, MI, 6

5.        Rena Walls, MI, 3


1.        Beth Burger, PA, 19

2.        Elise Lobdell, IN, 11

3.        Tyra Goodman, MI, 7

4.        Karn Radford, CA, 7

5.        Celeste Andreu, MI, 7


1979  - Road – Milwaukee, WI, Aug. 1-5


1.        Connie Carpenter, CA. 39.6mi in 1:44:16

2.        Beth Heiden, WI


1.        Greg LeMond, NV, 70.4mi in 2:55:08


1.        Jean Omelenchuk, MI, 15mi in 43:30


1.        Sarah Docter, WI, 15mi in 38:02

2.        Sue Schaugg, MI

3.        Abby Eldridge, CO

4.        Lisa Parkes, MI

5.        Laura Merlo, MI


1.        Celeste Andreu, MI, 9mi in 27:09

2.        Elizabeth Keyser, CA

3.        Melanie Parkes, MI

1979 – Track – Northbrook, IL, Aug. 7-12


1.        Gus Pipenhagen, IL, 18 pts

2.        Roger Young, MI, 18

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT  Final for 1st and 2nd: Sue Novara-Reber, MI, beat Jackie Disney, CA, 2,0


1.        Rebecca Twigg, WA, 16

2.        Connie Paraskevin, MI, 13


1.        Mark Whitehead, CA, 15 pts

2.        Jeff Bradley, IA, 13

3.        Peter Kron, IL, 7

4.        James Gesquiere, MI, 6


1.        Brenda Hetlet, WI, 17

2.        Susan Schaugg, MI, 10

3.        Laura Merlo, MI, 10

4.        Lisa Parkes, MI, 7


1.        Susan Clayton, IA, 17

2.        Jennifer Gesquiere, MI, 15

3.        Celeste Andreu, MI, 13

4.        Elizabeth Keyser, CA, 4

5.        Melanie Parkes, MI, 3

1980 – Road – Bisbee, Az, Aug. 13-17


1.        Beth Heiden, WI, 35mi in 1:43:56


1.        Sarah Docter, WI, 28mi in 1:25:58

2.        Rebecca Twigg, WA


1.        Dedra Chamberlin, CA, l7mi in 57:52

2.        Lisa Lobdell, IN

3.        Mary Farnsworth, CA

4.        Lisa Parkes, MI

5.        Susan Schaugg, MI


1.        John Chang, MI, 7mi in 24:29.54

2.        Steve MacGregor, WI

3.        Hector Jacome, CA

4.        John Coyle, MI

5.        Jamie Carney, NJ


1.        Celeste Andreu, MI, 7mi in 39:59

2.        Lisa Andreu, MI


1980 – Track – San Diego, CA, Aug. 20-23

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT -Final for 1st and 2nd: Sue Novara-Reber, MI, beat Pam Deem, PA, 2,0


1.        Tim Volker, IA, 19

2.        Brad Hetlet, WI, 11

3.        Bobby Livingston, GA, 10

4.        Joe Chang, WI, 4

5.        Frankie Andreu, MI, 4


1.        Susan Schaugg, MI, 14

2.        Dedra Chamberlin, CA, 9

3.        Amy Saling, NJ, 7

4.        Mary Krippendorf, WI, 7

5.        Lisa Parkes, MI, 6


1.        John Coyle, MI, 19

2.        Jamie Carney, NJ, 11


1.        Celeste Andrau, MI, 17

2.        Jennie Gesquiere, MI, 15


1981 Bear Mountain, NY, Aug. 3-9


1.        Gordon Holterman, VA, 33mi in 1:33:47

2.        David Farmer, PA

3.        Frankie Andreu, MI


1.        Elizabeth Keyser, CA, 23.4mi in 1:15:15

2.        Bozena Zalewski, NJ

3.        Celeste Andreu, MI


1.        Lisa Andreu, MI, 11.7mi in 38:17

2.        Joella Harrison, AZ

3.        Gina Novara, M


1981 Track – Trexlertown, PA, Aug. 11-16

SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT –  Final for lat and 2nd: Sheila Young-Ochowicz, WI, beat Connie Paraskevin, MI, 2,0

Final for 3rd and 4th: Sue Navara-Reber, MI, beat Betsy Davis, NJ, 2,0


1.        Rene Duprel, WA, 19

2.        Celeste Andreu, MI, 15


1.        Jenny Gesquiere, MI, 21

2.        Gina Novara, MI, 15

3.        Alicia Andreu, MI, 9


This list only represents cycling – note the rising tide of MI athletes on the national stage.

 What is missing is the world and Olympic results for cycling and the same results for speedskating. Champions like Gold, Silver and Bronze Olympic medalist Sheila Young, World Champion Roger Young, World Champion and Olympic medalists Connie Paraskevan, World Champion Sue Novara, 9 Times Tour de France Rider and Olympic 4th place finisher Frankie Andreu – and on and on the list is a Who’s Who of American cyclists and speedskaters.