It’s early morning on the University of Maryland campus, and Andrew Valmon is standing on the track holding two stopwatches. He conducts his workouts early, before the midday heat sets in.
Just weeks before the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, Valmon was hard at work preparing for the London Games and trying to save the school’s track program, which was marked for budget-driven elimination. Fundraising has been at the forefront lately for Valmon, but as the Olympics near, his focus has shifted back to his side job.
Selected by his peers as coach of the Olympic team, the 47-year-old says he was flattered but somewhat reluctant to accept the job.
“There was some hesitation at first,” Valmon said. “You dream about getting to the Olympics. For a track athlete, it’s the pinnacle of success. When you stop running, you find yourself living vicariously through your college kids, and then you realize that you can’t run for them.
“So your next step is being an Olympic coach and having the opportunity to work with the greatest athletes in the world. I guess I can say I’ve come full circle.”
Inspired by the greats
A native of Manchester Township, N.J., Valmon saw track legend Carl Lewis run when Lewis, four years his senior, was in high school. He decided it was something he wanted to try.
“No one had better form and technique than Carl Lewis, and he accomplished so much,” Valmon said. “He had this sheer will, and he ran so gracefully, it made track seem like a sport that you wanted to do. I thought, ‘I’m from New Jersey and so is Carl, maybe I could go to the Games someday, too.’ “
“One day I talked to Edwin Moses, who had won maybe 80 or 90 consecutive hurdle races, and he said ‘If you believe in what you want to be, you’ll have the opportunity to be successful.’ I thought it sounded kind of easy,” Valmon said. “I was looking for something more sophisticated, but I started thinking about what he said, and started training and thinking ‘OK, one step at a time.’ “
Valmon found success as a 400-meter relay specialist and went on to win gold medals at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and the 1992 Games in Barcelona. He also won a silver medal at the 1991 World Championships and a gold medal at the 1993 World Championships.
“At that moment, on the medal stand, you reflect on your whole life,” Valmon said. “That’s the only time that you think about from birth to where you are at that moment. That medal makes you think about your life.”
Valmon’s coaching career began as an assistant at Georgetown in 1995. He eventually spent four seasons as the Hoyas’ head coach before taking the Maryland job in 2003. He has also worked with the U.S. national team as an assistant coach at the 2009 World Indoor Championships and as head coach at the 2010 World Outdoor Championships.
Now, as coach of the Olympic team, Valmon reflects on the approach he takes with his athletes.
“I tell them, ‘When you get to the trials, no matter how many athletes are there, three-fourths of the field will all have the same talent level,” Valmon said. “What separates those going to the next level are the ones who believe and are mentally strong.’
“It sounds corny, but we talk about how important it is to dream. I tell them if they believe they belong there [at the Olympics], they’ll be there.”
Valmon describes his approach as “athlete-friendly.” As he sees it, his job is part coach, part counselor and part facilitator. He knows he has a lot of hats to wear.
“The sport is so sophisticated now, it’s not just about the athlete,” Valmon said. “It’s the athlete, the trainer, the coach, the masseuse. My biggest challenge is to make sure they peak at the right time and take things off their plate.”
Avoiding distractions and maintaining focus is key, especially if the U.S. team hopes to avoid some of the mistakes that have caused the program to come under fire in recent years and reclaim in some measure the dominance the Americans once had in the sport.
Four-time Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee believes the team found the right man for the job in Valmon.
“It’s not going to be easy, but he has the experience of someone who has been in the Olympic Games as an athlete,” Joyner-Kersee said. “He can relate to the athletes and what they might be going through.”
The two have known each other so long, Joyner-Kersee jokes that she “can’t even put years on it.
“I think our team has done extremely well, but there are highlights of us dropping the baton, and it outshines some of the good performances,” she said. “But Andrew understands how we must pull together for the Games. He’s an excellent choice as Olympic coach.”
Olympic hopeful Michael Walton, a 200- and 400-meter runner, has been working with Valmon for the past year after meeting him through his personal coach, Al Joyner — Joyner-Kersee’s brother.
“It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career,” Walton said of working with Valmon. “He has a great feel for athletes, for your strengths and your weaknesses, without you having to voice them. He’s very good at reading athletes and being able to assign things to help you improve. He read me like a book.”
The struggles at Maryland
As Valmon focuses on his Olympic preparation, he must also deal with the financial struggles at Maryland, where the indoor and outdoor track programs, men’s cross-country and several other sports are in jeopardy of elimination.
The men’s track program must raise $940,000 by June 30 to remain in existence for the 2012-13 school year, and as of last week more than $647,000 had been pledged toward that total. But even if donors come through for the program before next weekend’s deadline, they’ll have to keep giving nearly $1 million each year to keep track alive in College Park.
“We have some donors that we’re still talking to,” Valmon said. “One of the goals I had at the onset of this was to make sure that our junior class graduates, because it’s tough for them to go anywhere else now, and we’re petty close. I’m optimistic that we will get that little bit to close the gap.”
An alumni task force recently met with athletic director Kevin Anderson to devise a plan for restructuring the financial markers.
“The more you can keep the program, five years, 10 years when we’re in a new TV contract, and other sports revenue starts coming in, who knows what it’s going to look like,” Valmon said. “Hopefully, the revenue to sustain the program will be there, so we want to continue to meet the markers so that we can keep going.”
Raising future Olympians?
In addition to the athletes he coaches, Valmon jokes that he could be raising some future Olympians right under his roof. Valmon’s wife, Meredith Rainey-Valmon, a former 800-meter runner, also is a two-time Olympian. Rainey-Valmon competed in Barcelona and the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. They have three children — Travis, 14, Maya, 9, and Mallory, 6.
“My son thinks he’s a basketball player, but maybe one day he’ll come around,” Valmon said. “We haven’t pushed track on them, but they know that if they decide to run, they have to do it right.”
Travis also competes in the 400-meter hurdles, and Maya plays soccer.
An ideal choice
Valmon is excited about what’s to come at the trials and in London, where track and field events begin Aug. 3.
“You’re going to see some fast times at the trials,” Valmon said. “They’re going to be running for their lives. There are going to be some times there that you might not even see at the Games. It’s a fast track, but it’s also the anxiety.
“You wait all this time for one race, for two races, so people are not going to be holding back saying ‘I’m just going to make the team and save it for the Games.’ It’s all going to be put on the line.”
By early July, Valmon will know the composition of the team he’ll take to London at the end of the month. And those athletes who don’t already know Valmon soon will get a feel for his style. Walton already is confident USA Track and Field made the right call.
“They could not have made a better choice,” said Walton. “[Valmon] understands the administrative side of track and field, dealing with the athletes as people, and he can help with your specific event on the track. It’s very rare to find a coach who has all three of those things, and he’s exceptional at all of them.”