It could be reasonably said that behind every great athlete stands a great coach. Michael Jordan had Phil Jackson, for instance, and Troy Aikman had Jimmy Johnson — as opposed to Chan Gailey — whose bidding he was happily doing when the Dallas Cowboys were winning successive Super Bowls. Conversely, Brett Favre has appeared to be just an average quarterback without Mike Holmgren pushing him. And how many times does the camera flash to Brad Gilbert anxiously sitting in the stands when Andre Agassi is in a big match? Or Bela Karolyi exhorting his gymnasts to go for Olympic gold?
Not every accomplished athlete, however, seems to have a coach. Think of the famous speedsters Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson: Why do we never see their coaches? Does a sprinter even need one? Running is an elementary activity, one that most of us have mastered by the first grade. Ask any world-class runner, though, and he’ll explain to you that he wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without a coach. He’ll tell you that running, far from being simply the movement of one foot in front of the other, is as technical and as exacting as throwing a perfect slider. “There are something like ninety distinct actions a runner has to remember in the hundred-meter dash,” says Dan Pfaff, the assistant men’s track and field coach at the University of Texas at Austin.
That observation is not news in Houston, the most storied track city in the country’s greatest track state. World-class runners flock there from around the world — many aspiring to be like Lewis, who made his name in the Bayou City — and these days they do so to train under either Victor Lopez, the women’s head track and field coach at Rice University, or Leroy Burrell, the head coach of the men’s and women’s track and field programs at the University of Houston. In 21 years at Rice the 56-year-old Lopez, a native of Puerto Rico, has earned a reputation as one of the most influential and innovative coaches anywhere; the 32-year-old Burrell, who grew up in Pennsylvania, was a star himself, known to everyone as the fastest human in the world before he signed on at U of H a year and a half ago. The two men share an almost religious devotion to their sport, which is far less appreciated in this country than it is elsewhere, and they share an Olympic past. Each has been to the Games multiple times: the former as a coach, the latter as a competitor.
Track people are a cultured group; to earn a living, American professionals tour extensively in Europe and Asia, where most of the big events are held. Thus, when I had dinner with Burrell at a Houston sushi bar last October, he ordered our meal in Japanese, demonstrating a wider vocabulary than even our chef. A far cry, I thought, from the unworldly eighteen-year-old who left his suburban Philadelphia home in 1985 to attend U of H and run track for Tom Tellez, the coach who put Lewis — his former student — on the road to greatness. “It was tough to adjust when I got here,” Burrell told me. “The first time someone slapped some guacamole on my plate, I said, ‘What the heck is that?’”
For people who equate the sprinter’s body with Lewis’ long-limbed, lithe figure, it’s hard to imagine short, stout Burrell logging a world-record time in the 100 meters. But the fact is that Lewis is the exception and not the rule; top sprinters more often have Burrell’s compact frame, though he’s a little rounder now than when he was in training. Heavily recruited out of high school, Burrell made all-American in his first season as a Cougar. But the following year, during the long jump preliminaries at the Southwest Conference outdoor championships, he landed awkwardly, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. “The success I had as a freshman was unprecedented,” he says. “I broke all of Carl’s freshman records. Coming back was really hard.”
It took him almost two years of rehabilitation in the weight room and swimming pool to regain his form. Though he was unable to compete in the 1988 Olympics, he went on to become the world’s top-ranked sprinter in 1990 and 1991, winning 19 of the 22 races he entered. For a while, he and Lewis were playing catch with the record in the 100-meter dash, track’s glory race. In 1991 Burrell set the record with a time of 9.90 seconds, narrowly beating out Lewis, who ran a 9.92. Later that year, in Tokyo, Burrell bettered his record by running a 9.88, but he was beaten out by Lewis’ 9.86 in the same race. Finally, on July 6, 1994, Burrell regained the title by running a 9.85 in Lausanne, Switzerland — still the fifth-fastest time ever recorded. In the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992, Lewis and Burrell joined forces on the 4 x 100 relay team, setting a world record and bringing home a gold medal.
In the years following that triumph, Burrell, fighting nagging injuries, began to realize that his heart wasn’t in the sport as much as it once was. He went overseas for the 1997 season but didn’t enjoy it. “I was homesick for my wife and two kids,” he says. “In warm-ups I’d already be thinking about getting to the plane after the race to get home.” But leaving a life he’d known for so long wasn’t easy. After getting accepted to law school, he deferred a year to train for the 2000 Olympics, then had second thoughts. “Two years ago, while I was training, I thought about it and said to myself, ‘Well, you applied to law school, so you must have been thinking about getting out of track. You’re trying to find a way to quit, so why don’t you just get out of it now on your own terms?’”
Coincidentally, Tellez was about to retire from U of H. Although Burrell had no