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Lewis: US needs professional track coaches

Source: www.wcsn.com

21 May 2007
By Dave Ungrady

The Franklin Field infield during the final day of the recent Penn Relays in Philadelphia glimmered with the starry glow of the track and field elite.

A fenced-off area near the end of the first turn restricted access to athletes from 10 countries who took part in a series of USA vs. the World relay races. American world champions Lauryn Williams, Allyson Felix and Shawn Crawford were among those receiving massages, mingling with other athletes and recovering comfortably from their performances.

Strewn throughout the rest of the infield were reminders of past track and field glories. Olympic decathlon champions Bruce Jenner and Rafer Johnson, standing casually side-by-side, formed a temporary monument honoring multi-event heroism. And at around 3 p.m., legend Carl Lewis established a position close to the first turn. His presence caused a stir of continuous interest, and suddenly he was inundated with well-wishers and autograph seekers.

It was a rare public sighting of Lewis, who for the last decade has been an inconspicuous icon in the world of track and field.

"I just really felt no reason to be involved," Lewis said during a spontaneous and exclusive 10-minute interview. "There was nothing I could do because of the bureaucracy. The reason I came back is working with the youth."

Lewis resurfaced last winter at the U.S. indoor championships as an official and a greeter for the 4x200-meter youth relay event sponsored by The Hershey Company, a sponsor of USA Track and Field.

In late February, Hershey's announced Lewis' involvement with them, USATF and Athletics Canada to promote Hershey's FastTrack to Sports, which teaches the basics of track and field to adults and children. Lewis will help develop an instructional video for the program. Also, Lewis this year will serve as a spokesman for Hershey's Track and Field Games, a series of youth-oriented track meets throughout North America.

Lewis said a call from Ivan Cropper, the director of marketing at USATF, prompted his public return to track and field. Cropper worked with Lewis on promotional programs at General Motors when Cropper was the company's Olympics marketing manager.

"He said, 'I'd like you to get involved with the track and field games,'" Lewis said. "And I said, 'I'd like to talk to Hershey's about a fitness program.' They asked me to do something, I asked back, they came through, so I'm coming through."

Cropper said bringing Lewis back into the track and field fold is part of an overall plan to better connect with some of the sport's former greats.

"One of the tenants of our strategy at USATF was to try and improve our relationships with some of the legends of our sport," said Cropper, who joined USATF six years ago. "Carl sits on the top of that list. We're able to do it in a way that he's involved in the sport and can provide insight. He can be more effective now. When he was a competitor, he had to focus on winning all the time."

Cropper said he hopes to expand Lewis' role with USATF beyond grass-roots promotions. "Carl Lewis is a brand, and that brand has value," he said. "Carl is one of the greatest icons of our sport. Any opportunity we can work with him, with USATF directly or with some of our sponsors, we'll see if we can make some of that stick."

Lewis' ventures extend to athletic management with the recent formation of Carl Lewis Elite Athletics. His first and only client is Dwight Phillips, gold medalist in the long jump at the 2004 Summer Olympics, but he is considering other high-profile track and field athletes. Lewis hopes to implant into the mentality of his clients the ideals and principles he practiced during his career.

"The main thing is trying to get people to get it, explain to them how you do it," he said. "You come to a meet like this, and how do you market yourself? How do you behave? How do you earn respect from the fans? When I went to compete, I gave 100 percent. I came early to promote, and I stayed late. In interviews, how do you project yourself? Do what you mean and mean what you say. Everyone needs mentors. The agents are not there for the athletes."

Throughout his career on the track, Lewis earned a reputation for comfortably speaking his mind. Some of his concerns involved limited athlete rights and the dangers of drug use in track and field.

Lewis feels strongly that the U.S. coaching structure needs to move away from a volunteer system. Administrative volunteers pick U.S. staff coaches, who are professional coaches with other teams but mostly volunteers during their work with U.S. teams.

"They need to hire professional coaches and make it a full time job," he said. "Hire them just like you hire an NFL coach or an NBA coach. They hire the assistants. And if they're not successful, you fire them. There's no accountability. When you have a volunteer system which is based on the buddy system, there's no accountability."

Before we talked, Lewis greeted a female friend who hugged him after they chatted for a couple of minutes and then offered, "be good."

"And careful," Lewis replied as she walked away.

Lewis was not careful in April 2003 when he was arrested on a charge of driving under the influence of alcohol in Los Angeles. A breath test revealed a blood alcohol level of 0.08, the minimum intoxication level under California law. Lewis pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor speeding charge and received a sentence of three years probation and a $500 fine.

Asked about the incident, Lewis said, "I was .08. I had two beers and a couple hours later, I went home. I learned that even though you realize you may feel absolutely nothing, and you realize that if you go into lunch and have one drink, and you drive in less than an hour, you're probably over the limit. You just have to know that."

While away from the sport, Lewis continued an entertainment career that began while he was a competitor. He has appeared in nearly one dozen feature films, including four released since 2006. Some roles include a police officer in the 1987 movie Dirty Laundry and a reporter in the 2006 movie Material Girls.

Lewis is now helping produce a feature film about Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in the sprints and the long jump at the 1936 Olympics. Owens and Lewis are considered among the top track and field athletes of the 20th century.

Will he play the role of Owens in the movie? "They've cast Owens, but you never know," he said.

Following a decade of no involvement, Lewis now hopes to have a high profile role helping develop track and field in the United States. "When I retired, it was time for me to retire," he said.

Did he miss the sport? "No. That's not a negative thing. I moved on. The best way to describe it was like high school. I loved it, but I sure as heck didn't want to go back."

Lewis is now back in a front and center role in track and field. That spotlight has diminished compared to his competitive days. But as he proved in Philadelphia, his legend is still luminescent.

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