Race walk coach Gerry Dragomir recipient of prestigious CAC Coach of the Year Award
Athletics Canada is extremely proud to announce that race walk coach Gerry Dragomir has been named as the 2014 recipient of the Coaching Association of Canada’s (CAC) Jack Donohue “Coach of the Year” Award. The award recognizes outstanding contributions of a Canadian Coach who exemplifies the great qualities of the legendary Jack Donohue. These qualities include honesty, integrity, a positive attitude, competitiveness, and a love of sport.
Gerry is the personal coach to a very talented group of race walkers in British Columbia that includes Evan Dunfee, Inaki Gomez and Ben Thorne. Inaki represented Canada at the 2012 Olympic Games and all three were members of the 2013 IAAF World Championships team.
Athletics Canada caught up to Gerry prior to receiving his award this evening at the Petro-Canada Sport Leadership conference.
AC: How did you get into coaching?
Gerry: I started coaching a few years ago, I think it was 1978. One of my boss’ daughters wanted to play softball and there was no coach for the team. I did that for 25 years, gave it up and decided I need to become an athlete. My coaching career was behind me. Around 2000 Evan Dunfee came along and was the most incorrigible little character and no one was going to coach him on race walking. So I picked up with that, he kept getting better and I kept getting better. I kept upgrading my coaching skills to get to the next level in order to keep up with him. Afterwards we picked up Inaki and a few others, most recently Ben Thorne and it’s continued to progress. I don’t really understand why but it’s doing what it’s doing.
AC: Your group has grown of it’s own volition and you don’t have any plans for world domination?
Gerry: No, that is our plan. In 2000, two other young people and Istarted a race walk club. For some reason, the application required us to determine what our club vision was. So we put ”Total World Domination”. We figured if we were gong to be the best, we’d have to do that. That’s what’s been driving us ever since, and it works.
AC: What pulled you to race walking in particular?
Gerry: I decided that I needed to be the best in the world at something. I’d been through 45 years of my life and I really hadn’t accomplished much by my reckoning. So I picked race walking. I hated running and was a terrible runner. I couldn’t do it. I picked race walking and found that I had some aptitude for it.
I had great mentors and a wonderful coach, Joanne Fox. I was 45 and she was 25, she was just amazing. She got me to the point where I could work myself.
There’s one fella that was such an amazing mentor to me but will probably never read this because he is a baseball guy, Bob Campbell. He could get kids to do things that you would not believe unless you saw them. He just had a way to allow kids to motivate themselves to perform that was uncanny. He opened my eyes to that.
Roger Burrows from Ottawa, he’s been a premier race walking coach. He was the person for technical and strategic knowledge, he was definitely my guy. Al Johnson in BC who was my on the ground, day to day in this process.
I was definitely a guinea pig, tested things on myself. Some things worked, some didn’t. Some things were really stupid and I was glad I didn’t hoist them onto my athletes. Other things worked really well and have become part of our program.
We’ve been very fortunate because there wasn’t much in the way of walking competition in Canada; we had to look at other places in the world. In doing that it gave us access to some of the best people and the top athletes in the world. They got used to working with the best. Once you work with the best, it’s much easier to be one of them rather than seeing them at a distance. They show you what’s possible. It’s hard to get that idea until you see someone do it.
AC: What do you find most satisfying about coaching?
Gerry: I’ve always been very interested in performance. What makes people do well. It’s something that fascinates me. I started out with team sports. In team sports what captivated me was the magic that happens when a group of fair to middling athletes is put together and they make an amazing, unbeatable team. That magic when people put themselves in a position to be great. That’s the fascination for me. Nothing else really mattered to me, I just wanted to see that happen.
So these guys (speaking about his race walking group) have been really good about being good performers. With an individual sport it’s a little bit different. You don’t have that team aspect, but we’ve been able to build some of it into our group. We have a bit of an international team. We’ve always been open to anybody.
What drives me is the performance question. What’s possible and how good could we actually get? And we’re not even close yet. I can see off into the distance…
Other things I like about coaching. Running around the world and playing games is not that hard to take. Considering all the other things I could be doing, it’s quite a bit of fun.
AC: Do you have any specific advice for new coaches?
Gerry: Find some good mentors. You never know where they are going to come from. You can’t be assigned a mentor, you find the mentor. A mentor comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. The thing is, you know them when you’ve found them. They may not even know that they are your mentor. Pay attention to them; watch what they do. That’s probably one of the major things.
The other thing is to not be afraid of educating yourself. You cannot learn enough, so keep at it. Your knowledge doesn’t need to come from an athletics based source. Some of my best coaching information has come from other walks of life where performance is an important part of the process. I’ve taken as much from business performance as athletic performance.
AC: Any specific books about performance that you like in particular?
Gerry: It’s not about the individual book, but what you see in it. It can come from just about anywhere.
I would recommend the work of Amos Tversky & Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman summarizes his work in Think Fast and Slow. He also won the Nobel Prize for Economics by proving that the concept of rational market cannot exist. What their working on is the brain and thinking, but that drives everything else that we do. It’s probably the biggest barrier for performance. You mine that area and you can achieve amazing results.
AC: Are there any lessons you wish you’d have learned earlier in your career?
Gerry: Patience. Where I leaned most of that was working eight years with Special Olympics. That’s where I really learned how to be patient. Working with those athletes, you can’t rush that process. You have to let it take it’s time and be there when the time is right to the performance.
AC: What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of coaching?
Gerry: The most difficult parts that I find with coaching is working with athletes whose time has come. That is really hard. That is probably the hardest thing I have to do. The sit down and discussion with the athlete. ”I think you’ve reached your peak and your life’s not going in the direction that is going to give you any additional performance gains. You can hang around if you want, but it’s kind of over. The dream is done and it’s time to move on.” That’s the hardest part.
You develop a relationship with the athlete and become pretty close. I’ve only had to have that conversation a couple times, but it doesn’t get any easier.
AC: Do you have a specific coaching highlight that sticks in your mind?
Gerry: That’s interesting because what you thought was a highlight six months ago is now just normal. Because there’s been another highlight that usurped it. We’re still on that ride where we are continuing to do better and better. The highlights keep getting better.
I guess I know that I’d be finished the day when I look back and say ”Yeah, that was the peak.” The I can sit back, enjoy my highlights and pet my cat.
AC: What does receiving this award and being acknowledged by your peers mean to you?
Gerry: It means a lot of work in the future trying to live up to this. It raises the bar for me. I am not exactly sure but I think I may be the only recipient who has not had an athlete win an Olympic or World Championships medal. Eventually, I’ve got to that because they said I’m capable.
It puts me into a group of people I didn’t think I belonged with. It might take awhile to get comfortable with that. It does open a lot of doors. There are people now that will listen to us who wouldn’t pay attention before. I think that’s going to be a good thing for performance overall. I do think we have some things to offer. We’ve learned some things doing the way we do them that others may not have put together like we are. It maybe gives us a chance to spread this around a bit, and I wouldn’t mind doing that