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Olympian Coaches Next Generation In Nanjing

NANJING, China -- 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 (Indianapolis, Indiana) 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."

--Contributed from report by Brandon Penny, U.S. Olympic Committee

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