NANJING, China – Who better to help develop an athlete into an Olympian than an Olympian?
Twenty-three athletes on the U.S. Youth Olympic Team are currently benefiting from that philosophy in Nanjing, China, where the U.S. coaching staff includes Olympians from four sports who have competed at eight Olympic Games collectively.
“If you attain the highest level in your sport, you have such a degree of expertise that I think not everybody has,” said Barbra Fontana, a 1996 Olympian who is co-coaching the men’s and women’s beach volleyball teams in Nanjing. “Having experienced it all firsthand and attaining those levels, I think there’s just such a base of knowledge that you can directly input into an athlete that I think is very helpful.”
Joining Fontana in giving back to their sports are: Jan Olesinski, a modern pentathlete who competed for Poland at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow; discus thrower Aretha Thurmond, who competed for Team USA at four Olympic Games (1996, 2004-2012); and Lily Yip, who played table tennis for the U.S. at the 1992 and 1996 Games.
Here’s a look at how two of the four went from competing at the top to helping the next generation of athletes reach the top:
From A Law Office To The Beach
Unlike the athletes she is coaching in Nanjing, Barbra Fontana was not playing beach volleyball in her mid-late teens with aspirations of going to the Olympic Games. Instead, Fontana “accidentally” became a beach volleyball player as an adult. After playing indoor volleyball for four years at Stanford University, she earned her law degree at Santa Clara University of Law, landed a job at a law firm and planned to dedicate the rest of her life to helping people through law. That plan quickly changed when a friend convinced her to enter a beach volleyball tournament in 1991.
She and her friend ended the season ranked sixth, so she spent the next two years practicing law and continuing the beach volleyball thing for fun. By the end of her third season, Fontana was having so much success on the sand that she left her job as a lawyer and planned to go back to it once her volleyball career ended.
One Olympic Games, more than a dozen partners and $1 million in career earnings later, Fontana finally retired in 2008. But she still didn’t go back to law.
“I always thought when I’m finished I’d go into law," Fontana said. "I took one year off to be with my two children, and then when I was going to start looking for a law job, a couple of the top pros approached me about coaching them. I thought, ‘Well this could be good, I’ll give this a try. It’ll work well with being a mother.’”
Fontana’s coaching career began with the teams of Jenny Kropp and Whitney Pavlik, and Jennifer Kessy and April Ross, who she helped to a silver medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
“Volleyball for me has been a gravitational pull,” she explained. “I never planned on being a professional volleyball player. I never planned on going to the Olympics. I planned on being a lawyer. And then I never planned on being a coach, but here I am four years in and I really enjoy it.”
In addition to working with Pavlik and other private clients, Fontana now works with USA Volleyball’s Elite Development Program and under-19 teams, which brought her to Nanjing, where she and fellow coach Jon Aharoni are encouraging their players to soak in as much of the experience as possible.
“We’re trying to encourage them to get out there and see all the Culture and Education Program booths and meet new people,” Fontana said. “For me, it’s about the journey of meeting people from all over the world and connecting with people in different ways, and not just living in your little bubble that you live in at home. I think that’s equally as important for them as the competition.”
Fontana knows the importance of getting the full Olympic experience firsthand, having competed in beach volleyball’s Olympic debut in 1996, where she finished fourth with partner Linda Hanley. Fontana calls the Atlanta Games one of the most “amazing memories” of her life, so it’s no wonder she has now dedicated her life to helping others step closer to their Olympic dream.
“One of the biggest things I love bout coaching is giving back,” she said. “I did it for so long and I have so much knowledge from the years of doing it that it’s really nice to be able to share that. If I can help athletes attain that level quicker and give them some insight to it so they can get to their maximum capacity, then that’s very fulfilling to me.”
Off The Field And Into The Office
Aretha Thurmond knows the importance of a good coach. After first taking up track and field in high school at the behest of a PE teacher, Thurmond made her college decision based off an encounter with a coach.
“One of the reasons I ended up at the University of Washington is when the coaches who recruited me asked, ‘How good do you want to be?’ and I explained to them that I wanted to go to the Olympics, the coach at Washington said, ‘I’ll help you do that,’” she recalls.
“He understood that it was a long shot. It’s always a long shot. To say it and for it to actually come true, it’s very rare. But I found a coach who believed in me and that’s who I wanted to train with.”
Today, Thurmond is who the 16 U.S. Youth Olympic track and field athletes are fortunate enough to train with. After competing on four Olympic teams and five world teams, Thurmond was well on her way to Rio and ranked in the top 10 in the world in 2013. But an offer from USA Track & Field to work as the assistant director of international teams led to her retirement that fall. Thurmond had always known that, whenever she did retire, she wanted to remain involved with the sport that had given her so much.
“The part that really won me was the offer,” Thurmond said. “It was the chance to work for the federation and still be around international teams. It’s an opportunity to mentor and help others where maybe I wasn’t quite as prepared. Each Games you learn something different, each competition you learn something different. It’s like, ‘Man if I could share this wisdom and knowledge with that next generation so they’re more prepared, it’s a win-win.’”
She recognized the job with USATF as an opportunity not only for herself, but one that would open doors for many other athletes as well. If she could successfully go straight from the field into the national office, maybe others would be able to as well.
Thurmond’s experience in Nanjing is unique as she gets to help out as a throws coach for Team USA’s discus, hammer and javelin throwers, while still serving as co-team leader with Associate Director of Youth Programs Arionne Allen.
“We talk daily as a team,” she said. “I think we talk daily one-on-one as well. Just to be able to sit down with the athletes and have training philosophy discussions I think has been huge for them, and it’s been rewarding for me to be able to share that information about the successes I had in my career and also the failures and learning moments.”
Thurmond, Allen and the rest of the U.S. track and field coaching staff are using the Youth Games as a chance to expose the athletes to the ins and outs of international competition - how qualifying rounds work, entering the call room and the stadium, preparing for finals, etc. But, more importantly, they're teaching them lessons off the track to carry with them for the rest of their lives.
"Athletes don't get many opportunities in these types of environments where you’re challenged," Thurmond said. "Things that you would have at home you might not have here on the road. It’s about adapting, and I think this gives young athletes an opportunity to understand how much adaptation you really need to do to perform at this level."
Imparting the life lessons she has picked up over her storied career - whether it be time management or the importance of accountability - is, after all, why Thurmond enjoys helping to develop the next generation.
"Whether this generation moves on to the next Olympics or not, I think we’ve created an opportunity here for athletes to have experiences that will hopefully be life-changing and help them make better decisions as they move into adulthood and really have to start making tough choices in life."