Olympians Grab Their Whistles
Katie O'Donnell, the most decorated player in Maryland history and arguable the most decorated field hockey player in the country, returns to College Park for the fall 2012 season as a student assistant coach.
Like young parents who suddenly find themselves telling their kids the same things their own parents told them, Olympic athletes who transition into coaching often hear their former coaches’ words suddenly coming out of their own mouths.
Without thinking, they find themselves repeating all their phrases and words of wisdom.
“I’ve been channeling my old coaches,” said Susan Francia, a two-time Olympic rowing gold medalist who began coaching juniors at the San Diego Rowing Club in September. “I hear myself and think, ‘Oh my gosh.’”
U.S. field hockey standout Katie O’Donnell, now an unpaid student assistant at the University of Maryland, hears herself and can’t believe it.
“It’s the little terms, like the simple, little things that stick with you that you find yourself saying, like ‘Oh, that’s so from that one person,’ ” said O'Donnell, who led Maryland to two national titles. “Yeah, that definitely happens to me a lot. I told myself that I’d never repeat them, but then here you are, just spitting out their information.”
Francia and O’Donnell are among several American athletes who competed at the London 2012 Olympic Games this summer and already have transitioned into coaching, either as a new full-time career or while they continue to compete and train with an eye on perhaps trying to make the Olympic team for Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Water polo’s Merrill Moses, a two-time Olympian (2008 and 2012) who earned a silver medal in Beijing, is now interim co-head coach at his alma mater, Pepperdine University; Tyler McGill, a 2011 Auburn University grad who won a gold medal in London as part of the 4x100 medley relay team, is a volunteer assistant coach for Auburn’s swim team; shot putter Ryan Whiting, who finished ninth in London, has returned to his position as a volunteer assistant track and field coach at Penn State; Jared Frayer, who coached at Harvard, Iowa and Wisconsin before becoming an assistant wrestling coach at Oklahoma last year, has returned to help coach the Sooners — for whom he wrestled from 1999-2002; and Kayla Harrison, who in London became the first American judoka ever to win a gold medal, is coaching at Jimmy Pedro’s Judo Center in Wakefield, Mass., and teaching at clinics across the United States.
For Francia, 29, the coach she finds herself parroting the most is Tom Terhaar, the U.S. coach who guided the women’s eight to gold medals in Beijing and London. Specifically, she said, she’s holding her high-school aged rowers “to a higher standard than they’re used to” and passing on Terhaar’s approach to workouts.
So far, she’s been enjoying the teaching, but has been surprised at everything that coaches do — things she never really paid attention to when she was rowing. She had no idea how much work was involved in the “behind the scenes” preparation: logistics, arranging travel and paperwork.
She said she was a bit lost after the 2008 Olympic Games, so she started browsing websites for rowing jobs before the London Games so she’d have a job and some direction afterward. She hasn’t retired from competing, but still isn’t committed to Rio.
“We shall see,” she says, chuckling. “Four years is a very long time.”
One thing she’s tried to convey to her young rowers is the joy she’s found in rowing.
“First of all, we want to have fun,” she said. “Have fun and enjoy the sport. And I say, ‘You know what’s fun? Winning.’”
At Pepperdine, Moses, 35, is co-coaching the Waves with Willo Rodriguez until U.S. national coach Terry Schroeder returns in January. After that, Moses will be an assistant coach and return to the national team with hopes of playing in Rio.
Moses, a goaltender who helped the Waves win the NCAA championship in 1997, had done some private coaching before, but never had worked at the collegiate level, and he’s getting a kick out of teaching a game “that’s in my blood.” Already he can see himself making a career out of coaching.
He admits, though, it’s a bit of a transition from being in the pool to standing alongside it.
“The only thing you have control of is preparing your team to the best of your abilities,” he said. “And when you’re just freshly off the 2012 Olympics and you’re in there, making a difference in the game and all of a sudden you have to be on the pool deck and can’t jump in the water, that’s the hard part.”
Because he’s been with the national team since 1997 and played in two Olympic Games, he knows the players respect what he can tell them.
Yet it’s no surprise that he said many of the coaching methods he uses and the things he says come from Schroeder, who coached him all four years at Pepperdine and for the past six years on the national team. He calls himself “one of the lucky ones” because he’s been able to play for Schroeder — a four-time Olympian and two-time silver medalist — for so long.
“I definitely notice myself saying all the stuff he’s taught me,” Moses said. “For sure, you’re going to impart to your kids what you’ve learned, and Terry’s been a great coach, a great mentor and a great teacher.”
At Maryland, O’Donnell — who was a three-time All-American for the Terps — is now working with her former coach, Missy Meharg, who has won seven NCAA field hockey championships in her 25 years at the school and nine national Coach of the Year awards.
So it’s a familiar environment for “Odie,” as some of the players still call her, but still a change. She had done some coaching on the club and high school level, but has had to distance herself from some of the older players on the team who knew her in her final season of 2010.
“I’m supposed to separate myself as a coach, so these girls that I was once going out with, I’m now telling them, ‘Hydrate; be smart,’ all those kinds of things,” she said, laughing. “Which has been a challenge, but I think I kind of set up that relationship as soon as I got back (from London).”
Keeping her head in the game as a coach — while giving her body a rest after the rigors of pre-Olympic training and competition — has been one aspect of the job that’s refreshing. She hasn’t yet retired as a player from the national team, but hopes to continue coaching over the next four years while she prepares to make the U.S. team for Rio. She’ll graduate this year and look for a coaching job.
“The thing I like about teaching and coaching is the fact you get to see improvement,” said O’Donnell, 23. “So I think one of my favorite things is taking a kid aside and teaching them something, or offering some advice and seeing them actually do it and have a positive outcome.”
Having been coached for so many years by Meharg, and now working with her, O’Donnell said she finds herself in many ways a Meharg disciple.
“I find myself doing things that she does, saying things that she does,” O’Donnell said. “And I don’t know if it’s because I’m right here with her now or because she had that impact on me when I was an athlete.
“But I do quote her a lot. And I really think if I wasn’t at Maryland I would still quote her a lot, because she’s probably one of the most influential hockey people in my life.”
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Doug Williams is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.