Interview with Emily McMahon & Dick Brown
by Alison Wade

Emily McMahon competes in the 800m prelims at the 2003 USA Junior Track & Field Championships.
(Photo: New York Road Runners)

Emily McMahon
As a two-time Oregon 4A State Champion in the 800m and valedictorian of her high school class, Emily McMahon could have had her choice of college scholarships. Instead, she decided to become a "guinea pig" in the Eugene Health and Performance Foundation's new initiative, which gives her the opportunity to train under legendary coach Dick Brown. Now a freshman at the University of Oregon, McMahon is not on the school's track team. Instead, she trains alone, or with the post-collegiate runners also coached by Brown. McMahon graduated from Mountain View High School in Bend, Oregon, in 2003 with an 800m personal best of 2:11.61. We caught up with her to find out more about the program.

FW: Our understanding is that you opted to forego NCAA competition and go with this alternate setup, is that correct?
Emily McMahon:

FW: What exactly is this program that you're part of, what is the arrangement, and so on?
...It's basically a developmental program and the long-term goal is the Olympics. The basis behind it is that most people who compete for colleges — because it's so demanding and so non-stop with back-to-back cross country and indoor and outdoor track — you get really burnt out. By the time four years is up, it's hard for people to recover from it. With this program, it's a lot slower paced and it's not as intense. I'm just doing track, and I won't necessarily compete every single weekend. When I do compete, I'll just be focusing on one event, as opposed to at the college level, where athletes often have to run two or maybe even three events for their team in one track meet. So that's kind of the premise behind it... In running, the Olympic athletes from other countries are so much younger than American athletes, so the object behind this is to start out young and hopefully get more experience in.

FW: So under this program, you're on a full scholarship to the University of Oregon, but you don't run for them?
Right. In the program the scholarship comes from the foundation and the athlete runs for them in open competitions. But this year my parents felt that because this is such a new program it might be better for them to assume all the expense. That way I could maintain my eligibility in case I changed my mind and wanted to compete for a college.

FW: And you're being coached by Dick Brown?
Yeah... He's awesome. Another thing that's really nice about this program, especially this year because I'm kind of the guinea pig in it, is that there's so much one-on-one attention that I've never gotten before and I never would get if I were running for a college team, just because the coach can't do that when he has a whole team to worry about. I've just learned so much from Dick and it's going really well.

FW: Have you committed to do this for four years, or can you change your mind at any point?
Well, as I said, this year, for me, is just a [trial] year. This year I'm taking out loans, just in case I decide that the program isn't working out, then I could still go run for a college and not be breaking the NCAA rules. This year is the test year and if I do decide to stay with it, it's an eight-year program. I'll be in school for six years, so the nice thing about that is that I'm only taking the minimum amount of credits every term, so it's a lot easier to not get so overwhelmed.

FW: So you'll take six years to get your undergraduate degree?
Right now [my major is] undeclared and I don't really know what I'm going to do. It might change, depending on what I decide to [major in]. I might finish [my undergraduate degree] before six years and then see what I want to do from there.

FW: Is it strange being at a college that has a track team and not being on the team?
Yeah, a little bit, and that was one of the things that I was kind of worried about at first, not being on a team, because I always have been and I've loved it... It's hard to explain to other people who ask me, because they don't understand why I'm not on the team, but other than that, I feel like what I'm doing is really going to be beneficial, so I feel like I've made the right decision.

FW: How did you find out about this, or how did you get recruited to the program?
Dick had been looking at a few girls in my class from all over Oregon... One of my coaches from cross country, Lisa Nye, was coached by Dick and she [mentioned] me to him. I talked to him a few times in the summer before my senior year. He still wanted me to go out and [check] out colleges. By the end of the year, I obviously had to decide what to do. I just felt that this was such an amazing opportunity that I needed to try it out.

FW: Was it a hard decision to make?
Yeah. It was hard, just because I didn't know if I would be able to run and do everything without a team, because I was so used to having fun with teammates and being really close with those people. But it hasn't been hard at all, so I definitely feel like I've made the right decision, it's exciting.

FW: Are you the only person in the program right now?
I'm the only one in the program this year, and then Dick is coaching [some other runners] as well, so I kind of do some stuff with them. Next year, hopefully, one or two more girls will join the program and it will continue to grow... Mostly I just run by myself right now, or some of my friends will come with me.

FW: What kind of training are you doing now and how has it changed since high school?
In the beginning of the (school) year, I did a lot of work on technique, and just changing things that I never knew were an issue. There were a lot of drills and some speed, and just slowly building up base. These last couple of months and until the end of January, it's just a lot of base-building and distance. I'm running every day, which I never did in high school. My high school was really low-mileage. I'm building up mileage, but I don't feel like it's a ridiculous amount that's going to injure me. I'm still working on drills, I've learned a lot about technique and how little things affect my whole running form — just moving my wrist or bringing my hips under me — things like that which I never would have thought of before.

FW: How much mileage are you doing?
I'm not exactly sure, because I'm not going by mileage, I'm just going by time, and I'm a really bad judge of distance... The most I'm running is an hour-and-a-half. A typical week would be like 90 minutes on Sunday, then 40 minutes on Monday, 55-60 minutes on Tuesday and then just rotate around. Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday would be hard days and then the other four would be easier.

FW: When you do a 'hard' day right now, it it faster than the other days?
They're just longer runs... Sometimes Dick will tell me to start out slower and then try to get to a certain pace by the end, but a lot of it is just getting used to running more miles. Hopefully, as my body adjusts to it, I'll start running faster... Then pretty soon, I'll start doing more hill work and work on strengthening and stuff.

FW: On a daily basis, how much time are you spending training?
It's not really a set schedule. Today was a longer day — I met with Dick and then ran and did some drills... Today's practice was [about two hours], but some days I won't even meet with Dick, he'll just tell me to go run a certain amount...

FW: Are you doing any strength training right now, like lifting weights?
Not consistently, but I have on and off throughout the [school year]. I never did that in high school, so that's a change for me too. I'm working on arm strength and legs, obviously.

FW: Do you have any races planned yet?
Not for sure, I don't know the exact dates yet, but my first couple meets are at U of O, and then I'll hopefully go down to Stanford for a meet, and up to Washington, and just around Oregon. My goal is that this summer I can go over to Europe and run in the Flanders Cup, and maybe the Junior Worlds, depending on how I do...

FW: Have you set any specific time goals for this year?
No. Definitely, obviously, to PR, but we haven't sat down and talked about it. I know that one of my goals is definitely to run under 2:10 and hopefully [well] under.

FW: Do you ever run the 1,500?
No, I never did in high school, but I will start to. I think that, with this program, I'll start running longer distances, unless I start running crazy fast in the 800 (laughs)... But I haven't run it since middle school... It's not my favorite race.

FW: Dick Brown has been quoted as saying you'll likely be a 5,000m runner...
Yeah, so I have to build up to that (laughs). Right now that's down the road about four years.

FW: How old were you when you started running?
I did track in sixth grade and eighth grade.

FW: Did you do other sports in high school?
Freshman year I played soccer, and I was really anti-distance running my freshman year and in middle school. Somehow, I just got converted to doing cross country and I ended up really liking it.

FW: Do you still surf and snowboard?
Yeah. That's one thing that I love about this program; Dick encourages me to do those things. If I were running for a college, I'm sure I wouldn't be allowed to do them. Over Christmas break, I went snowboarding at (Mount) Bachlor, because it's right by my house, and then we went to California and I went surfing down there, it was fun.

FW: You're not worried about injuring yourself?
No, because obviously I'm not going to do anything crazy that I think would possibly [injure me]. When I'm snowboarding, it strengthens me more than hurts me, because it's such a good workout.

FW: You mentioned Lisa Nye earlier. What was it like to have such a great role model for a coach?
It was really nice, because she would run our speed workouts with us and really helped to push us along. I became really good friends with her, so that was fun too. When I went back for Christmas break recently, I went for a couple of runs with her...

Dick Brown
Dick Brown is the president of the Eugene Health & Performance Foundation, an organization which aims to increase the number of Olympic medals won by U.S. women distance runners and to make the knowledge developed in this process available to other coaches and to the public. An exercise physiologist and world-famous coach, Brown has worked with Mary Decker Slaney, Suzy Favor Hamilton, Marla Runyan and Vicky Huber, among others. As the director of Athletics West from 1980 to 1984, Brown helped send 23 athletes to the 1984 Olympic Games.

FW: Emily already gave us an overview, but can you explain the premise behind this program?
Dick Brown:
The premise is that we don't do very well in the distance events — for women or men, but I'm mostly oriented towards the women — in World Championship or Olympic events. Out of 234 medal opportunities in the history of the Olympics and World Championships, American women have only won 10. Only three have won gold medals. For a country with the third largest population in the world and the number one ranking in gross national product, we waste our resources and we can and should do much better. The problem is that other countries develop their elite young distance runners and the US system uses them to score points in high school and college competition. In the 800 through the marathon in the World Championships and Olympics, what do you think the average age of a medalist is?

FW: Ooh, I don't know. It's going down all the time, because we've got Ethiopian teenagers winning races...
As of right now, it's 26. And I'm not saying a medal is the be-all and end-all, because if you're not enough without a medal, you'll never be enough of a person with the medal. But if you have the potential to strive for it, you should be provided that opportunity. So the average age is 26. The average age when those medal winners get to their first Olympics or World Championships is 23. Now here's the last question: What is the average age when an American woman gets to her first Olympics or World Championships?

FW: Mmm... I'd say late 20s.
Twenty-nine. Why does the rest of the world get there by 23 and we get there at 29? The reason is that it takes us four to five years to overcome the effects of the college system, where the athlete has to run three seasons, they are always working on their anaerobic system and they don't have a time to develop slowly. Plus, when they race, sometimes these people are racing two or three races in a meet. They're focusing on things like, 'What's the qualifying time for Pac-10?' when the rest of the world at the elite level are saying — when they're 18 — 'What does it take to get on the podium at the Olympics or Worlds?'

The solution, for me, is to prepare the young athletes properly and patiently, and allow time for maturation — physically, mentally and emotionally. To establish career and yearly goals, to have them understand that there has to be a balance between challenge and recovery. Also, to get them to run efficiently. So many of our kids don't even get training on technique. They're gifted and they just run, nobody tells them, 'Well you can run better if your technique is a little more efficient.' And then we give them time to build an aerobic base, learn the competitive strategies in low-key races and then integrate the competitions that are more challenging over time.

So that's basically the premise and what we look at as the solution. We have a board of directors that includes Doris Heritage, Brooks Johnson, Irv Ray, Steve Scott and Roscoe Divine (a sub-4:00 miler at the University of Oregon under Bill Bowerman). So the foundation has responsibilities to the athlete [which include] providing a college education, provide living expenses, professional coaching, training facilities and expenses, competitive opportunities and expenses, and we will commit to the athlete for eight years.

FW: Eight years? Emily had mentioned six...
We want them to complete their college education in six. We don't want them to complete it in four years, for several reasons. One, so they have time to integrate what they're learning, and number two, so they have time to train properly.

FW: Is there anyone sponsoring the program at the moment?
The foundation is raising money.

FW: Have the efforts been successful thus far?
So far, yes. We've raised enough money to keep moving ahead, but we need a pretty big chunk, coming up. What I'd like to do is get some sponsor who will say, 'Hey, I'm tired of buying race horses, I'd like to buy an Olympic team,' so I wouldn't have to raise money anymore. But we've been able to make it so far. What the board and I have decided to do with the education — and it's a win-win situation — is we will help the athlete get scholarships and other grants, and help them apply for student loans. Then there is no loan or no interest due until six months after they graduate. When they graduate and the loan comes due in six months, we will pay off that loan or we will have a guarantor who will guarantee they will pay off the loan. So it will cost [the athlete] no money for their college education.

FW: At what rate are you planning to add runners to the program?
No more than one or two a year for the next four or five years. And then, what we want to do is have a phase two of this program. I'm 66, I figure I can coach until I'm 82, if I stay fit and healthy like I am now. Then I'd like to have somebody that would come in, we'd mentor and they would take over. In about six or seven years, they would start getting their own athletes in here, and I'd just work with the ones that I brought in originally, and then, at 82, say, 'See you later.'

FW: We've seen maybe two articles which have mentioned this program. Why hasn't there been much publicity yet?
I haven't really sought any publicity. Just like in running, where you have to get the base foundation in first, I was trying to get a really good base and have it very, very solid. But what I want to do in the next month or so is have our web site fully developed, so then I can go to people in the media — and people like yourself who have web sites we could link to — like in an article in the New York Times or something say, 'If you're interested in learning more about it, here's the web site.' So we can direct them to that site. But I didn't want to shoot the media arrows until I had a web site.

FW: There have been so many different training programs cropping up around the country since 2000, but this is the only one which involves starting with the runners so young. Have you thought about starting with them even sooner, is that even an option?
No. That would involve interfering with their high school, it would mean doing like (Gymnastics coach Bela) Karolyi, bringing them to Eugene and training them, that's destructive.

FW: It's worked out for Alberto Salazar with Galen Rupp, but that was mostly luck.
Well Galen lives right in Portland. I told Alberto, 'You'd be foolish to encourage him to go to run at a college. He's working well with you now, why don't you just keep him there and go to Portland or something.' And I think that's what they're going to do.

FW: When you're recruiting runners, what qualities are you looking for? What makes you look at someone and think they have Olympic potential?
Well, the first thing they have to have is speed. Without speed, at the international level, you're just not going to make it. And I even believe that in the marathon. So they have to have 57-point 400 speed in high school. Then, they have to have — in my opinion — a body demographic that will allow them to progress... I want the person to be academically intelligent and have good grades and a good work ethic. That means meeting them and their family and their high school coach. And they have to have some success over a range of distances, I think. Emily has 56-point speed, she won the 800 in the state, she's a 4.0 student, but she also ran cross country and isn't scared of those types of distances. I also look for them to be undertrained, or trained by a pretty good coach when they were in high school. I don't want somebody who's going to be running 50 or 60 miles a week hard in high school and competing in a lot of different events...

FW: Is there anything, mentally, that you're looking for?
I don't want them to be anal. I want them to be able to smile and have a good sense of humor. I'm looking for people that don't have an eating problem, because too many of these kids do... Those are the things, in general, that I'm looking for... It's just what do they look like? How do they conduct themselves? When I was looking at Emily, she didn't even know I was looking, but one of my runners, Lisa Nye, said I should take a look at her. At the state meet her junior year, I just went to the clerk's circle and just sort of stood around while there, just to observe how she interacted with her parents, with her teammates, with he coach, and I think that tells you a lot.

FW: It seems like it's going to be hard to take on the system one runner at a time. Do you have any grand plans for changing the system/the NCAA, or is that too much?
Well, that's a very good question, and I'm going to get to a direct answer to that. But one of the things that the athletes have to have as their responsibility to the foundation is they have to do eight hours of community service monthly. What we are going to do, after they've been in the program for two years, is go to the local high schools and talk to the kids not only about training, but exercise and diet, the whole attitude of making physical activity and proper diet and proper rest a lifestyle. So we would like to make some inroads in that area with the schools and the kids and with their obesity problems.

As far as the running system, I have given talks twice to college coaches, saying that within the system, the way it exists now, if you get a blue-chip athlete, you can train them so that they will be an Olympian, and they will stay with the program and your recruiting will be better, and at the big meets you will score well, and you have to do these six or seven things. But it mostly falls on deaf ears, because they're thinking about, 'Hey, the more points I get, the better it is for the Athletic Director and the alumni and they're not going to complain as much.' So the coaches, I'm not criticizing them, I'm just saying the system is wrong, and it can be improved upon for the elite athlete.

What I would like to do is show by example that this can be done. And then, if they want to change, that's fine. But I'd like to be able, eventually, to say, 'This was a little bit different system. It works, we have plenty of talent in this country, [there's] no reason kids should be finished running at age 22 or 23.'

FW: Are there any coaches in the NCAA right now who you think are doing a good job of working within the system?
Oh, yeah. I think Mark Wetmore does a good job, I think Peter Tegen does a good job, Marty Stern did a good job, (Frank) Gagliano did a good job... Those are the people whose athletes seem to have gone on. Joe Vigil, obviously, when he was coaching [in the NCAA] did a great job, and he's doing a great job now. But he has his hands tied behind his back a little bit, too, because he's getting these athletes when they get out of school. And that's what I did for most of my career, and it took four or five years to get them back on track. Look at Deena (Drossin's) history. Look at Sarah Schwald. And, you know, the 10 medalists that we've had, you can't tell me one of them that had a normal college running experience, and then went into the world and maintained a good, steady progression and consistency...

FW: Can you tell us a little about the other runners you're coaching right now? There are just three others?
Well, I'm coaching one in New Zealand in the marathon, and she actually would be about 25th on our marathon list... Rebecca Moore. She's only done one marathon. She did Chicago and now she's going to try London, especially since they moved the (Olympic) qualifying standards back. Her first one was 2:42 and she's hoping to get 2:37... Then I do feel like I'm coaching Anne Sanguinetti, who's a training partner for Emily... She was a former teammate of Emily's, one year ahead of her in high school. I wanted Emily to have someone to train with who's her age.

FW: Is Anne at the University of Oregon?
She's going to school here... They wouldn't let her walk on. She might surprise some people in the 1,500, she may be able to get down into the high 4:20s... Then I'm coaching a young lady, Karen Church, who's actually 34 years old. I coached her many years ago, she got to the nationals and then got married and went through some trauma... Now she wants to try one more time to get to the Trials. And then I'm coaching Vicky Fleshner, who's pretty typical, decent college runner, made it to the nationals, [ran] 2:04.7 after her junior year. Then she had some years that she needed to adjust because she had a hypo-thyroid problem, and then her father died, you know those life changes that take the focus away. But she has a chance to get to the finals at the Trials, even make the team. And then I'm coaching a man, 34 years old, Jonathan Gill, I don't know if you've heard of him.

FW: Yes, I read the article in Outside magazine.
So we're hoping that he has a shot at getting to the Trials.

FW: Sort of off the topic, but how are things going with him?
Good. He's not drinking at all, which is the best thing. He had a little trouble making the adjustment to the outside of prison world, because the one thing we thought we had to look out for, we did. He established a relationship with a woman, which, 35 years old, that's natural, but it just took away so much of his focus. We said, 'Jon, when you got out, you said that you were going to not establish any long-term relationships and you have to make up your mind, because you can't do both.' ...So that's been resolved. But other than that, he's still living with Marlene (Wellborn) and I, and he's a very nice young man. His growth was stunted when he went to prison, like everybody else's, and then he was an alcoholic for five or six years and that stunts your growth, so he's a 35-year-old man with about a 25-year-old body and a 22-year-old mind.

FW: The articles we've seen have pegged him as someone who's shooting for the Olympic team. Do you still think that's a realistic goal?
Yes, I still think that's realistic.

FW: Will he be racing at all in the near future?
No. He won't race until probably the end of April. What we have to do is save up all of our ammunition, really get the gun loaded well, don't expend any of that ammunition, and see if we can do it, more or less, in a one shot type of thing.

FW: What did you see in him that made you decide to coach him?
Well, first of all, his uncle is Randy Huntington, who coached Mike Powell in the long jump and is a very, very good coach. He said, 'Dick, this guy has the genes to do it and has the ability to do it, but he's an alcoholic. Will you help?' That was the first thing. And then I saw him run when he was here for seven months and going in and out of drunken stupors. While he was under the influence of alcohol, he ran a 2:00 800 like he was jogging. And he has, you know, a good background in track in high school. He beat Todd Williams once, he was second or third to (Bob) Kennedy in some regional cross country meet. So he has the ability, it's just whether it's too late to bring it out or not. We've had little nagging injuries. You try to train like you have to and his body has some weak spots that we've been continually trying to build up and overcome.

FW: Back to Emily, she mentioned the Flanders Cup as what she's shooting for. Is that this year's goal?
What we're shooting for with Emily is a good race at the Junior Nationals, for which she is already qualified, and see if she can make the Junior U.S. Team. If she can do that, she can compete in Grosseto, Italy [in July]. If she can't do that, and she makes the qualifying standard, we'd like her to compete at the Trials. If she doesn't do that, then probably a week or two before the Trials, we'll have her go over to Belgium. And even after the Trials, if she makes them, we'll have her go to Belgium. They have a series of races called Flanders Cup. It's a nice little series, Belgium isn't very big, so you can get to all of the races with two or three hours of driving at the most. They have races that she can run in. They have the 800 where they have the best runners, and then they go back... If you can run under 2:07, you can run in this race, if you can run under 2:11, you can run this race. I just want her to see that a) they have competition in the summer when the U.S. doesn't have any and b) to get the experience of traveling over to Europe. If things work out I'd like her to see some of the Olympic Games in Athens.

(Interviews conducted January 7 and 9, 2004, Posted January 15, 2004)

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