Adam Bleakney competes in the Men's 5000m - T54 heats on day 2 of the London 2012 Paralympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 31, 2012.
When he was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois majoring in English literature and competing in wheelchair track, Adam Bleakney had no intention of pursuing a coaching career.
“I honestly had no interest in it at all,” he recalled.
Bleakney did, however, show an interest in the science behind the training techniques employed by his legendary Illinois coach, Marty Morse, with an eye toward improving as an athlete. Morse would lend him books and articles, which Bleakney would read and they would then sit and discuss.
“Marty was an incredible teacher,” Bleakney said. “In essence, there was an apprenticeship and a second degree in coaching and understanding kinesiology under Marty, which I apply today.”
That’s because 15 years ago in 2005, after Morse retired, Bleakney took over an Illinois wheelchair track program that was established in 1948 and today remains the gold standard of the collegiate ranks. Illinois has produced numerous world champions, world record holders, major marathon winners and Paralympic and Olympic gold medalists.
“We are the first collegiate program offering opportunities for student-athletes who have physical disability,” Bleakney said. “I’m just a shadow and an echo of all the incredible things this program has done. I feel incredibly fortunate to be a part of the legacy.”
The humble Bleakney, now 45, is more than a mere shadow or echo of the program. He was a four-time Paralympian and 2004 silver medalist at Athens in the 800-meter. After he received his bachelor’s there, Bleakney went on to earn a master’s degree in journalism at Illinois.
Bleakney has trained with such renowned Illinois alumni as Jean Driscoll and Scott Hollenbeck. He has coached the likes of Jessica Galli, Amanda McGrory, Anjali Forber-Pratt, Chelsea McClammer, Tatyana McFadden, Josh George, Susannah Scaroni, Ray Martin, Alexa Halko, Daniel Romanchuk and Gyu Dae Kim.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have a critical mass of very talented athletes,” said Bleakney, “all training together each day.”
Did he feel pressure initially when he took over from Morse? Not really, Bleakney said.
“It was very much focused on the day to day and addressing what opportunities existed for the athletes,” said Bleakney, adding that he just concentrated on getting the best out of his athletes.
“It really is a blend of personal experience and also having been fortunate to be exposed to a lot of different high-performing and successful athletes in this sport — coaches, too,” said Bleakney of his coaching style. “The other real key point is that there’s a continual drive to learn and to stay educated.
“I really do enjoy helping people and being of some service in helping them reach their goals. To me, that’s the fundamental essence of coaching, is being of service.”
Technology has changed the sport over the years, but Bleakney’s approach to training his athletes remains constant.
“The core of our training design is not much changed from where we were at. Some of the fundamental pillars of our training program are not changed,” Bleakney said. “The core essence of what we train for is speed. The fastest athlete will be the one who wins.”
Which is not to say that Bleakney’s workouts haven’t evolved over time.
“We’ve evolved and changed and modified and gotten sharper and more defined and (have) better understood how the athletes respond,” Bleakney said. “As the athletes change, so too does what you need to do to elicit change and adaptation.”
Bleakney said athletes’ recent access to wearable sensors has been a breakthrough in wheelchair racing. That technology, he added, had previously been restricted to laboratory settings.
“You can measure and collect an incredible amount of useful data that then can be used to inform your training,” Bleakney said.
Illinois, under Bleakney, remains atop a collegiate scene that has few wheelchair track programs.
“That’s our goal, is to be a leader in the movement and be on the leading edge of performance, development and all those points — education and outreach and innovation,” he said.
As more states mandate sports programs for disabled athletes, Bleakney sees the need for more college programs to provide a conduit between high schools and the national teams.
“I will say that’s a significant opportunity for growth within the United States,” Bleakney said. “I do hope that there are additional opportunities on college campuses across the country for wheelchair track athletes.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided the latest challenge to Bleakney and his Illinois program.
“It has made things very unique,” Bleakney said. “We’ve (ridden) the wave of the different restrictions starting back in March when we were in full lockdown. I think the biggest challenge has been the lack of competitions for the athletes, and some athletes have not competed for over a year.”
Bleakney is trying to have his athletes see the silver lining in this situation.
“There are some athletes that I’ve seen (make) some great breakthroughs, just because of this,” Bleakney said. “They’ll come out the other side much improved and stronger.”