Race Your Strengths! Vol. 1

Race Your Strengths! Vol. 1


THE core principle of the Walden school of thought: more than just a ‘race rule’, this is the essential philosophy of my coach Mike Walden’s approach to training – and to life.


What I didn’t know is that this refrain would serve as a protective layer from the good intentions and unintended negative outcomes of almost all the coaches to succeed Mike over the years.


What I learned much later is that this concept has become the core principal behind one of the great new movements in modern psychology, better known as “positive psychology,” this concept of “Discovering your Strengths” has become part of the corporate ideology for success – and rightly so.



In the summer of 1990 I moved to Colorado Springs to train with the national team along with Dan Jansen, Bonnie Blair and about 20 other top U.S. Speed skaters. The summer program had at its heart a series of tests to determine athletic potential and I was excited to prove my mettle with the best of the best.


I flew into the bright dry air of Colorado Springs flush with confidence: despite spending the prior four years mastering the curriculum of one of the toughest academic programs in the country and living in California, of all places, I had managed to make the world speed skating team both of my last two years, and mustered a 10th place finish at the world speed skating championships in the 500m.


Up until this point I was one of those lucky ones – despite the usual setbacks and failures along the way (I got lapped in my first speed skating race – and that was a long track event in Farwell field, Detroit,) I had made steady progress almost every year.


Four years earlier, as a high school senior, still training under local coaches Mike Walden, Clair Young and Marc Affholter I managed to be the top junior athlete (under 18) in the country in two sports – cycling and speedskating, and traveled to both Morocco and the Netherlands to compete in the world championships for both sports. Four years of progress later, and in the winter of 1990 I was posting some of the fastest lap times in the country for any age group for skating. Indeed, my 10th place finish at the world short track speedskating championships was a result of a fall in the quarter final. I had convinced myself I could win that event…


I assumed, at the time, that with the right coaches and training, my performance would accelerate – that once I joined a “real” program and trained harder, and more consistently, that results would come in spades. The training program set by Mike Walden, Clair Young, Marc Affholter, which I still pretty much followed by default on my own in California had been good enough to get me where I was, but…


At the time I guess I thought it was decent enough stuff for those ‘local coaches’ – but considered myself ready for ‘the real thing.’ I was fully convinced I would not only make the 1992 Olympic team, but that I had a great shot at standing on the podium. Indeed – I was so full of myself, I actually thought I could possibly compete in 3 different sports in one Olympic year – short track, long track, and cycling. Why not?


I had no idea that every one of these assumptions was wrong. I could never have imagined that a mere six months later that I would be a shell of my former self without even a prayer of making even a “B” travel team in any one of those sports, and that after the national team trials in my primary sport I would find myself unfunded, coachless, jobless, hopeless and confused… and that it would only get worse from there as I prepped for the Olympics in 1992 and beyond…


Test #1 of 5, Hard Training: (July, 1990:)


When I stepped off the plane in Colorado Springs, CO less than a month after college graduation. I was not fit. I had just returned from a weeklong trip to Mexico with four of my best friends for a week of partying in Cancun. My lack of fitness was also due to the 36 credit load I had to finish spring quarter to make up for a full slate of incompletes I took in winter quarter due to traveling in Europe for competitions and the world championships.


Still, I wasn’t worried – I had always responded well to hard training and fully expected to quickly assume a spot very high up in the speedskating hierarchy. One thing though, was different this time: I had made the switch to long track speedskating at the end of the season. After getting knocked down in the quarterfinals at the short track world championships in March in an echoing arena largely absent of spectators, I had walked outside of Edens Icehall in Amsterdam to discover nearly 3000 people skating for fun on the long track right outside its doors. I fell in love with the idea that someone (besides my parents) might watch and cheer for the sport that was slated to become my full time occupation.


The coaches at the camp – Susan Sandvig, John Teaford, and Mike Crowe wasted no time in clarifying the route to success: hard work, mental toughness (suffering,) and volume. This was the proven program originally defined by Diana Holum and Eric Heiden and it produced the sport’s single greatest champion (Heiden). This would be our model, and if we wanted to have a chance to be like Eric (we all did) then this was the way to do it. (Eric won 5 gold medals – one in every speedskating distance – in the 1980 Olympics. Just to put this in perspective – this would be like Husain Bolt winning not only the 100m and 200m but the 400m, 1500m, and 10,000m events as well. This is astounding even to this day.)


I, like everyone else, was a believer. The concept of ‘the harder you work, the more you’ll achieve’ was clear and compelling. I threw myself, as is my mode, into it with all my heart and sinew.


This proved to be my undoing rather quickly. After a light jog on the evening of our first day, we entered the 3 – a –day workout regimen that was to dominate the next month, the next year – indeed the next 4 years of my life. The very next morning we did a long bike ride in the morning (at least something I was used to) and then followed it up by a weights ‘test’ in the late morning, and sprints and jumps in the afternoon.


In the weight room I was eager to show my strengths. I had never really done squats before but I didn’t let that bother me. I was encouraged to just use the bar and ‘get used to it’ but I was way too gung-ho to listen and soon was stacking on a pair of 45lb plates, and then 4 (still nowhere near the 10 or 12 plates Dan Jansen would regularly put on) but enough to at least walk out of the gym with my pride intact. I also did bench press, hamstring curls, leg extensions, crunches and all the other things everyone else was doing. Ah… the innocence and stupidity of youth.


That same afternoon, I’ll never forget – we went up into the foothills near the Broadmoor as the sun began to make the fields golden and we embarked on a sprint & plyometrics (jumps) workout, swapping a dozen “knee to chest” jumps with 100 yard sprints. We did 10 sets of each.


Climbing down from the bus prior to the workout, I had some new sensations – I felt awkward and my muscles felt, well, tweaked – sending all kinds of startling signals and shocks to my brain, yet not responding to basic requests. They felt like foreign limbs with electrodes implanted in them jerking them into motion. But after some hill runs for a warmup during which I suffered immensely I regained some semblance of control for the main workout. After a sloppy first set of jumps and the follow-on sprint I was fully warmed up. On the second and third sets, I was on my game – floating like a gazelle on the knee-to-chest jumps – rising up above the crowd in almost in slow motion – bouncing quickly up and then during the peak of my jump, banging my knees upward to extend that float before time resumed and I dropped back down. Then the whistle and I found myself breaking quickly into the clean air of the lead during the sprints as I sailed out into the lead of some of the world’s best athletes. I smiled inwardly, just a little smug in my confidence: everything was turning out just as I planned…


That is until repetitions #s 4, 5, 6, 7 followed through. Each sprint and jump tore the remaining flaps and threads of my muscles. The coaches shouted encouragement and then resulted to goads, “C’mon Coyle – where’s that sprint? Where’s that height?” I tried to respond and for a while I did. By sprint #9 I was done. I couldn’t actually lift my hamstrings and did sort of standing dead lift jumps and then as I tried to sprint I was kicking myself sloppily after a few steps. I broke off and stood to the side as the coaches prodded me, shouting. I said nothing – I couldn’t even begin to describe what was going on in my body – but it had entered that deep down bone ebb – I knew I was hurt but I didn’t know exactly how or why.


I winced and hobbled back to the bus, and then did the same wobbling act to get to dinner with an excruciating effort only exceeded by the walk back to the dorms. After dinner everyone went out to the hot tubs and I desperately wanted to go, but I couldn’t seem to straighten out my legs without incredible pain, so I stayed in bed.


Things got worse.


The next 24 hours reigns unique in my life. It is the one and only full day that I’ve ever been truly bedridden. For more than 24 hours I never left my bed. I was on the top bunk and I couldn’t bend my legs. I had bleeding wooden joints. Even slight movements had me gasping and sweating in place. My abdominals didn’t fare much better – from the jumps – and I couldn’t sit up. Top it off with an extraordinarily sore chest and biceps (I couldn’t straighten my arms), and the unraveling was complete – I couldn’t move.


That day, as everyone packed up in the morning for practice, I asked my roommates Brendan Eppert and Dave Besteman to give me a couple plastic cups of water and then I lay back down – and didn’t move for an entire day.


It wasn’t until late the following evening that biological needs drove me from my bed. I had to have Dave and Brendan lift me down, sweating in pain, after I swung my legs over the edge. It took me several days to recover and rejoin the team. In the meantime, my confidence started to waver


Results of Test #1, Hard Training:  FAILURE




Next up Test #2: VO2 Max w/ Lance Armstrong


A Lucky Club: "Olympic Alumnus"

Last week I enjoyed another “Life of Riley” moment. As a member of the athlete council for the Chicago 2016 Olympic bid committee (which I earned through doing nothing other than being a former Olympian) I was invited to be a “principal for the day” for a school the Chicago area. At first I balked as it meant taking a full vacation day during a very busy time at work – but eventually Diane Simpson one of the leaders of the athlete council talked me into it.


I am glad I made the time.


For about 3 hours that morning my feet squeaked through the shiny white tile floors and peeling paint on the cinder block hallways of the Betsy Ross elementary school in the heart of the south side of Chicago at 59th and Wabash.  Christine Kijowski. the P. E. teacher walked me from room to room and was a study in grace.Per their instructions I wore my Olympic warmups, and then covered my bets in order to entertain the kids and brought props – the silver medal from the ’94 games, the shiny gaudy gold Olympic ring, the 18” blade and carbon fiber boot of my speed skate, and best of all (when I was allowed to light it) the still-working torch from the 1996 Atlanta Games torch run.


Kids love fire. So do I.


Let’s be clear. I’m a white guy. I sometimes forget this as I don’t really think about race or ethnicity very much, but in the 6 classrooms I visited there were only African American children – not a single other ethnicity represented. Whatever I was supposed to think about that I failed, as usual, to do so. They were just kids, sitting at the same uncomfortable wooden desks as I did at their age with remarkable discipline that dissolved and reformed quickly with a teacher’s voice. So I spoke loud to cut through the chatter, asked names, and mostly handed them stuff to look at – they liked to see and handle stuff. Were they any different than kids in any other school? No.


And it was fun – they asked lots of questions, some of which I couldn’t answer, and politely handed around and returned my ring, medal, skate, and torch. The most rewarding moment of the whole morning was when I spoke to the entire preschool of about 80 kids sitting in a circle (after they read me poetry and sang songs in honor of my visit) and they then swarmed me to give me group and individual hugs, hugs and more hugs. Damn little knee biters nearly took me down – I loved it.


I then proceeded into the city up Indiana and then Michigan Avenue to the Hilton Towers where a “Principal for the Day” luncheon was held for all the other volunteers and athletes. Special guests were Mayor Daley and Brian Clay – the Olympic gold medalist in decathalon from the Beijing games just a few months back.


I wandered into the huge ballroom and had no idea where to sit. Just then Diane intercepted me and ushered me to one of the athlete’s tables. I sat down and recognized a face across from me – none other than John Vandevelde – the father of this year’s 4th place finisher in the Tour de France. We had met earlier this summer. I said hello and shook hands and then let my eyes drift to the person in between us. I stopped cold.  You’re… You’re Christian. (Christian Vandevelde his son – 4th in the tour de France this year – another super-stud.) I smoothed out my words and held out my hand. He was funny and gracious and we talked quite a bit over the next hour before he left to get ready for the AC/DC concert to be held that night.

Christian Vandevelde & his dad


We also talked about my former nemesis Jamie Carney – I described some of our old antics and a recent event where I had seen Jamie after 20 years this summer at Downer’s Grove. I laughed and recalled how the old tension still seemed to be there. Christian laughed too and said – yeah, that’s Jamie – he’s never going to change. He then referenced Jaime's name change a while back to "J-Me" but referred to him as "Jay-dash-me" and I howled in laughter. He then said, "my Dad can’t stand him." I understood.

Chicago Mayor Daley


Rewind: a while back I had received this email. It was regarding a different event than the one described above, but it does capture the lucky club I’ve found myself a member of. It is from the "Godfather of Michigan Cycling" Ray Dybowski - a friend, Wolverine teammate, and fellow disciple of the Walden school. More accurately Ray is the heir apparent to the Walden coaching legacy:


From: rd311@chrysler.com [mailto:rd311@chrysler.com] Sent: Monday, September 15, 2008 1:17 PM To: Coyle, John Subject: [WSCRacing] TBAM: Week of 09/08/2008




In my searches of your blog, I found an article about you being invited to a gathering and were told "there would be other fellow Olympians there." This line stuck in my thoughts.


Of course there is the fact that even though I spent time at the OTC (Olympic Training Center), I am not a fellow Olympian. It made me think of all the people that go to the Olympics and miss a medal by the greatest and smallest of margins but are still fellow Olympians and the few that rise to achieve a medal and the incredible odds of it happening.


I think about Lance and his great abilities never accomplishing that goal and Michael Phillips almost making it look easy. The athletes with confidence that show up expecting to and do win and the underdogs unexpectedly standing on the podium and better yet to listen to their National Anthem.


I think about Mike Walden and his almost 'shoot from the hip' style and the successes a number of his athletes enjoyed, and those that dreamed and strived for it........ All those great athletes around the world with talents and abilities but would'a, should'a, could'a and never made it and wonder why. And the Kacey’s and Luke’s that have a chance and are trying to learn how to get there.


Also, the fact that being a part of this (Olympic) club, that has probably close to the same chances of as winning the lottery, yet does happen to people from all social structures around the world.  


So the question is; What does it take for an athlete to become a fellow Olympian?


Kindest Regards,


Ray Dybowski



Well Ray, that’s quite a question. One deserving of a rich response, so I'll post the long answer of what I think it takes – it will probably take me 4 or maybe 5 posts… starting next week. My honest belief is that Walden Principle #1 is the reason that some join "the club" and others don’t – "Race Your Strengths, Train Your Weaknesses."

More to come next week,