Charlie Walsh's response to "Memories of Green" interview with Robbie McEwen
Charlie Walsh, Head Cycling Coach of both track & road cycling at the Australian Institute of Sport from 1987 to 2001, and past contributing writer for Bicycling Australia magazine, wrote to us with a response to the interview with Robbie McEwen we published in two parts across the July / August 2012, and September / October issues in 2012. Here is that response...
Robbie McEwen Was Told “He Would Not Make It”
For many years I have heard of Robbie expressing his discontent with our assessment back in 1993 that he would not make it. It is fair to say one does not necessarily always get it right but what we have to consider is that assessments are done on the information we have at that time and the athlete presents this picture of information to us. A coach will provide a viewpoint to an athlete which represents the picture the athlete has actually presented to the coach. Coaches must be honest with an athlete so the athlete has the opportunity to do something about it. The athlete has the option of whether they can acknowledge and appreciate the communication and get on with it or at the other end of the spectrum they can resent the view given to them and hold a grudge. Then there is something in between the two. Either way at least having been given the information the athlete can do something about it.
The picture Robbie McEwen presented to us at the National/AIS Track Endurance Program in the very short time he was with us was one where he would not satisfy the international competition demands and therefore would not make it with us. What we do know is that following his experience he did something about it in pursuing his road career. Whilst he can freely express his views it is important that what he conveys is in fact a fair picture and he accepts his responsibility for his role in presenting the picture.
A recollection of his short time with us follows:
Peter Day was the Queensland coach at this time.
Peter contacted us at the AIS Track Cycling Program and discussed the option of sending McEwen to work with us for a period of a few months with the understanding of funding his participation with us. The impression I had was he doubted McEwen would make it as a track endurance cyclist but he was interested to give him an opportunity and also see what his road prospects were. I also understood there was some question as to his training history and the exposure would be good for him.
Not everybody is able to be a track endurance cyclist just as everybody cannot be a mountain climber or a road sprinter. The track endurance area requires very specific fuel delivery for extended high intensity periods and also for repeat efforts. We had a good look at McEwen for the track endurance area and he was not competitive against the high performance standard of our group. Consequently he was not seen as a talented prospect for track endurance cycling.
Following further discussions and the given the support of Peter Day we took McEwen to Mexico where the emphasis is on road cycling. Peter wanted to give him more exposure to cyclists who were high quality road training cyclists. The conditions in Mexico are challenging and at times he struggled to keep up with the group. Whilst we know that for a variety of reasons riders at times will struggle, it is the attitude they show us which we see is a measure of their commitment. This is part of the picture they present to us and they should accept their responsibility and take accountability for this.
Shayne Bannan who was responsible for our track endurance road cycling endeavours was with the team in Mexico. Shayne oversaw it all and we discussed Robbie at length. We concluded from what Robbie had shown us he had no track endurance possibilities. Further he was not competitive along the road against this group of track endurance cyclists we had in Mexico. What he showed to us, was that unless he changed his attitude, trained better & improved then we could not see he had future. It is what a person shows to others is what develops the perception of them in the other persons eyes. What I did not see at the time was a road cyclist who was or became exceptionally smart in the bunch, knowing precisely where he had to be in the bunch and was extremely capable of winning the sprints. History clearly says he later became the best we have ever seen in his strategic cycling and capacity to win the sprint finish.
At a later time Peter Day told me that following Robbie’s exposure, Robbie had been challenged, he improved becoming a hard trainer. McEwen's long-time mentor and one-time coach, Bob Panter, is sure his former charge's experiences in Mexico helped turn him into the road-sprint champion he is today “He took that as motivation, I believe that time was the best thing that could have happened to him, that time in Mexico" says Bob.
One thing I do know is that when top level athletes are told about a deficiency they do something about it. To his credit Robbie did something about it.
Perhaps rather than express his disappointment about his time with us and not accept his role in what he showed us, Robbie could do better to reflect on the opportunity, the support, in the training and faith Peter Day and others provided to him.
A magnificent example of an athlete who respects what has been done for them is Anna Meares.
I have had only a passing acquaintance with Anna but reflect on the recent 2012 World Track Championships in Melbourne where Anna Meares by her actions, paid tribute to her early coach Ken Tucker who is an outstanding coach, particularly with young cyclists. Ken challenged and provided Anna with tools to be able to go on and become the best in the World. Ken’s name will not be up in the lights but I am sure he knows Anna respects him and will hold dearly her memories of what Ken did for her. It is so often the case where the people who very early in the career of an athlete, develop them and provide them with opportunity, but are not recognised for their significant contribution.
Progress – the facts
Your interviewee questioned McEwen to the effect that “I had delayed the success Australian Cycling has achieved”. It is not clear what is meant by this statement and why it was asked therefore I can only make an assumption from McEwen’s response. The response by McEwen does not reflect the true evolvement of Australia’s International competitiveness. The facts follow:
The evolvement of a highly successful program in sport does not happen overnight. Structures & systems have to be set in place and then modified as the evolvement takes place. This process never stopped. It just takes time. In the late 1980’s I sent a proposal to Australian Cycling suggesting they consider combining the track endurance program and the road program. The road program was not getting results as it needed better support and the track endurance program had limited numbers of endurance cyclist and needed to be better.
The rationality was that if we did this it would provide: