At the Olympic and Paralympic Games, U.S. medalists have the opportunity to reward their coaches with a medal of their own: the Order of the Ikkos. And it is supposed to represent the countless hours a coach provides to guide the athlete to the medal stand.
Truth be told, nothing can truly symbolize what the coach-athlete relationship can mean.
In celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday, TeamUSA.org collected some stories from athletes who wanted to give thanks to their coaches for all they have done for them in their careers.
NASTIA LIUKIN, Olympic gold medalist gymnast
There are very few athletes who can follow in their parents’ athletic footsteps, and even fewer can be coached by their parents to the elite level. In the case of Nastia Liukin, it was even more intense. Her father, Valeri, is one of the most decorated gymnasts from the Soviet Union, having won four Olympic medals (two gold) and just barely losing the all-around title in the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games. Twenty years later, in Beijing, he was back at the Games but this time, coaching his daughter on the mat. Nastia did not disappoint, winning the all-around gold.
People often ask Nastia what it is like to train with her father, and it is an answer that cannot be explained in a sound bite. But Nastia will say the most important trait her father had in terms of coaching her is the belief he has in her.
“He was always the one who said, ‘You can do this,’” Nastia said. “I remember this very vividly, especially after I had my (ankle) injury the year before the Olympics. He sat me down and calculated the scores and was very strategic. He showed me it really was possible to win the all-around gold medal.
“He knows me as a person but as a competitor, and he’s always been realistic. There were times when things weren’t going so well, but he always knew exactly what I needed to do. So when he sat me down at the beginning of 2008, he showed me he believed in me. Without his support, I don’t think it would have happened. I’m thankful to him for that.”
Nastia won’t be able to share Thanksgiving this year with her father since he will be in Mexico, but she will spend the holiday with her mother. All three of them plan to go skiing over the Christmas holiday, and Nastia said she is thankful she will be able to strap on some skis this trip. Two years ago, she didn’t hit the slopes because she feared getting injured while she was training for the 2012 Games.
This year, however, she doesn’t have to worry. She just wrapped up the Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions, which performed in about 40 cities nationwide. The last tour stop was in New York, where Liukin will be spending a lot of time in the near future as she starts her life as a college student at New York University in January.
JESSICA LONG, Paralympic gold medalist swimmer
After training in the Baltimore area for eight years with coach Andrew Barranco and winning nine Paralympic swimming medals, Jessica Long knew she needed to make a change. She headed out to Colorado to swim at the U.S. Olympic Training Center to work with Dave Denniston, the Paralympic swimming resident coach in Colorado Springs and a Paralympic swimmer in 2008.
It was about two years before the London 2012 Paralympic Games, and Long had never lived away from home before. And she knew that Denniston was nervous about working with her.
“I can be a hard person to coach,” Long said with a laugh. “And he would push me to my limits, but one thing I really like about Dave is that even if I had a bad day in the pool, we always talk after practice. He really communicates with me.”
Long said that she would be in the pool even on holidays and recalled how Denniston would try to spice up practices even when the swimmers’ minds were elsewhere. On Easter, for example, he hid their practice sets inside eggs.
Long achieved many of her goals in London with Denniston guiding her along the pool deck. She came home with five gold medals, two silvers and one bronze. One of her proudest moments from the Games was after she won the 100 free, marking her third consecutive title in the S8 class in the Paralympic Games.
“I won the 100 free and set a world record and I was in tears and he started crying, too,” Long said.
“It was just a very special moment.”
STEVEN HOLCOMB, Olympic gold medalist bobsledder
The Olympic champion is thankful for a lot in his life, much of it on the track, but he is especially grateful that he is able to be sharing his story of thankfulness. Holcomb, who outwardly is humorous and friendly, dealt with a lot of depression in his life. The depression stemmed from the fact that he had been going blind and feared putting his teammates in harm’s way.
Had it not been for his longtime coach and fellow Olympian, Brian Shimer, Holcomb is not sure he would be here today. In fact, Holcomb revealed this past weekend that he once attempted suicide by swallowing 73 sleeping pills. The story is published in his forthcoming book, But Now I See: My Journey from Blindness to Olympic Glory.
It was Shimer who helped Holcomb connect with an ophthalmologist named Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler, who corrected Holcomb’s corneal disease keratoconus, in 2008. At the 2011 Olympic and Paralympic Assembly in Colorado Springs, Holcomb credited Wachler for not only saving his career but his life. But Holcomb also credited Shimer because he was the one who stayed at his side even when the going was rough.
“Brian Shimer has been my coach since the beginning,” Holcomb wrote in an email to TeamUSA.org. “We’ve been through so much together – the ups, the downs, the triumphs and the heartbreaks. I’m thankful not just for him being such a great coach, behind me every step of my journey to the top, but for being there for me as a friend off the track as well. He’s an incredible man, with a big heart, and would do anything and everything to help a friend.”
Shimer, a five-time U.S. Olympian and a bronze medalist in the four-man bobsled event in the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games, was named the USOC’s Coach of the Year after Holcomb and his “Night Train” crew struck gold in Vancouver.
The fact that Shimer and Holcomb are still working together as a team is even more rewarding, especially considering the pain Holcomb endured.
“It’s a mindset you don’t understand unless you’ve been there,” Holcomb told TeamUSA.org. “Even looking back, it’s like, ‘Wow,’ I remember being there, and it made sense then. But obviously, I’m glad it didn’t work out the way I planned.”
JAMIE GRAY, Olympic gold medalist shooter
An athlete tries to be prepared for anything, but when something goes awry, especially at the biggest competition of your life, it is hard for anyone not to worry.
Jamie Gray, who spends countless hours shooting at precise targets at the range at the U.S. Army base in Fort Benning, Ga., encountered just that in London. Her first sighter shot in air rifle was a zero, so the first thing she checked was her sight, which she put on crooked.
“No biggie,” she thought. “This is an easy fix.”
That is, of course, if you have the proper Allen wrench. She couldn’t find one, so she sent her coach, U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program rifle coach Maj. Dave Johnson, off on a search. She began to panic as precious minutes began ticking off the clock. About seven minutes later, Johnson returned.
“I was freaking out because I had wasted so much time,” Gray said. “He told me to take a minute to just get my head back into the game and take good shots. I took this advice and ended up fifth in the match.”
Later, when Gray was competing the 50 meter, three-position rifle, she was shooting incredibly well and started getting nervous because she was almost too good.
“I shot good prone and great standing,” she said. “Before I got onto the line for kneeling I went back to speak with my coach. He told me to focus on taking good shots and being smart in the wind. He told me I trained for this match and said, ‘You got this.’ I went onto the line and ended up shooting an Olympic record.”
In addition to Johnson, who headed Team USA’s shooting team in London, Gray also works with a local coach with the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit in Fort Benning named Tom Tamas. Gray, and her husband, Sgt. Hank Gray, are especially close with Tamas.
“Not only is he a coach, but he and his family are our family away from home,” said Gray, who hails from Lebanon, Pa., but has been training at the base.
The families often spend Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays together.
Back in April, at the Olympic test event, Tamas made the trek to London to watch Gray compete.
“I had one of the worst matches I have had in years,” Gray said. “I came off the line and was so incredibly frustrated. He told me I was better than that and not to bang my head against the wall until we go home and do some testing to see what was going on.”
When they returned home, her coach tested her gun, and there was indeed a problem with it.
“Without my coach,” Gray said, “I would have been beating my head against the wall and not focusing on what I really needed to for the lead up to the Olympics.”
This time of year, Gray is reminded of how fortunate she is to have two coaches on her side.
“I am so thankful that I have two coaches that are very close to my family and I can count on any time of the year,” she said. “I believe having a good relationship with my coaches is a valuable resource and one of the many reasons I have been able to have a successful career.”
LEX GILLETTE, three-time Paralympic track and field medalist
On the surface, it might seem Lex Gillette would have been disappointed after claiming a third silver medal in the long jump in the Paralympic Games. After all, he was hoping to come home from London this past summer with that elusive gold.
But considering how much Gillette had to overcome in the months leading up to London, he said he is thankful for that silver.
Back in June, a couple of weeks before the national championships, Gillette suffered a high-degree strain in his quadriceps. For a track and field athlete who specializes in the long jump and the 100 meters and was considered to be one of the top contenders at the Paralympic Games, Gillette did not take news of the injury well.
“I remember I was sitting in the airport and I was really down,” Gillette said. “But my coach (Craig Poole) sat me down when we got back to Chula Vista (Calif.) and got me on an action plan. I was really worried with the Games being just two months away, but he was an athlete and he had been through injuries and he told me motivating stories about his career.
“That got me in position to do what I needed to do in London.”
Not only did he compete in five events in London, but he took home a silver medal.
“Obviously, I wanted to win the gold, but to have gone through that injury and to persevere and win a silver, I was happy,” Gillette said. “My coach was happy. Everybody was excited.”
Gillette is no stranger to overcoming obstacles, having lost his sight at 8 due to recurrent retina detachments. And this latest hurdle, the quadriceps strain, proved just to be another bump in an otherwise smooth road for Gillette.
Gillette said he will take a few minutes this holiday to savor what he has achieved and will celebrate Thanksgiving with family in Raleigh, N.C. But on Friday, he is heading back to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista to prepare for the indoor track and field season.
KELSEY CAMPBELL, Olympic wrestler
The 2012 Olympian said she would be the first to admit that she was “light years” away from making a national team, let alone an Olympic team, when she first met Terry Steiner.
“I knew so little and honestly, I think heart and attitude were the only things I had in my favor,” Campbell told TeamUSA.org. “So, it's not as if this highly young and talented superstar fell in his mist. Not even close.”
In fact, it’s not as if wrestling had been Campbell’s lifelong dream. She joined the wrestling team as a high school senior after a couple of guys challenged her to “try to last two weeks.” At the time, she didn’t realize women’s wrestling existed, much less the opportunity to compete as a woman wrestler in the Olympic Games. Another coach, named Tracy Greiff, noticed Campbell and suggested that she go to Arizona State, where she became the school’s first female wrestler.
Later, she became a resident athlete at the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Training Center in Colorado Springs, where Terry Steiner has been USA Wrestling’s National Women’s Coach since 2002. A former Iowa wrestler, Steiner helped build the women’s program, which first competed in the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004. Team USA’s women have won at least one wrestling medal in each Games since, including a bronze medal by Clarissa Chun in London this past summer.
When Campbell first arrived in Colorado, she said she wasn’t given any special attention. But, she said, when she asked for help, Steiner was there for her.
“When I said, ‘What do I need to do to get to this level?’ he gave me a plan,” Campbell said. “He didn’t babysit me. He offered his wisdom, and left the rest to me. Terry will give you everything he has. He never stepped on the mat for me. But he did guide me so that I could step on the mat and see some success.
“Over time, I realized, as I think most of the women in the program in Colorado Springs do, that he is much more than a coach. He’s our example. He sets our standard. He believes us into becoming national and world champions. There were a lot of people like that for me. Terry is one that stands out from the rest.
“I just can’t see myself achieving what I have in such a short time without Terry Steiner being somewhere in the timeline.”
Amy Rosewater is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.