Three years ago, in the call room underneath the Bird’s Nest, just before the women’s 4×100, that American relay team learned — to their dismay — that Team USA staffers had failed to pick up their bib numbers for the race.
The bibs would have to be written out, by hand, right then and there, as if this was a high school meet instead of the 2008 Olympic Games.
A few minutes later, out on the track, he U.S. women would go on to drop the baton. While that wasn’t the reason — of course not — it proved a “significant distraction,” one of the athletes would later explain in USA Track & Field’s Project 30 report, a distraction so “embarrassing” that in the telling of it months later she was still “on the verge of tears.”
Something clearly had to change.
It has, and in the wake of the U.S. team’s performance this past summer at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea — winners of 25 medals — full credit is due.
First and foremost, to the athletes, of course. They’re the ones out on the track and on the field.
And while the coaches and shoe companies and other sponsors can justifiably take credit, there’s now a fully functioning team behind the team — led by Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, USATF’s chief of sport performance.
It’s because of episodes such as the “bib debacle” — the exact phrasing that’s used in Project 30 — that Fitzgerald Mosley was hired.
It’s precisely that sort of stuff she has corrected.
Her purview is the kind of stuff that people tend not to think about a great deal until it matters, and then it matters a lot.
Because it has to work, and work exactly right. It’s detail work, and pressure work.
She — and her team — are really, really good at it, and as the track and field community gathers this week in St. Louis for the annual USATF convention, they deserve full recognition.
Fitzgerald Mosley came to work for USATF in the summer of 2009. She had been president and chief executive of Women In Cable Telecommunications, the oldest and largest group serving women professionals in the industry, for the eight years before that, managing an organization of nearly 8,000 members.
She gets both the big-picture stuff and the details, too. Critically, she also knows her way around the nuanced world of Olympic sport, business and politics; she was director of the U.S. Olympic Training Centers from 1997-2000. She is the 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meter hurdles.
It is not too much to say that no single person behind the scenes at USATF has — or will have — a bigger impact in the way the track and field team performs than Fitzgerald Mosley.
You saw it in Daegu, and you’ll see it same next summer in London. The team won 25 medals in Daegu and but for the truly unexpected that elusive 30 might actually have happened — and could well in 2012:
The Americans got all four men in the final 12 in Daegu in shot put, an event the U.S. has dominated; none got a medal. The U.S., traditionally strong in the 400-meter men’s hurdles, got no medals despite two finalists. The Americans got no medals in pole vaulting, men’s or women’s, another typical strength.
That’s of course what you see. What you don’t is just as important, if not more so.
For instance, when Fitzgerald Mosley took over in 2009, she naturally reviewed the books, and noticed that “upwards of $100,000,” which could gone toward athlete support, hadn’t.
Now there’s a defined four-tier system in place that spells out who’s eligible for what funds. More than 80 percent of the athletes winning medals are in that system. “I thought we needed to make this as easy as possible,” she said.
At the world championships two summers ago, the ratio of medical staff — doctors, trainers, therapists, chiropractors — to athletes was 20:1. This summer it was 10:1. “We heard the athletes,” Fitzgerald Mosley said. “They said, ‘It’s not enough medical.’ ”
She added of the 2011 medical team, “We’ll have the same medical staff coming back for the Olympics. It’s just that important … That’s what the [athletes] told us they want. They want as much consistency as possible.”
And innovation where appropriate.
For instance, Randy Wilber, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s senior sports physiologist,
brought — for the first time — 16 special cooling vests to Korea to help beat the crazy heat. The vests then got used a total of 33 times by 88 athletes. Where did they make special sense? In, for instance, the decathlon — where Trey Hardee and Ashton Eaton went 1-2.
To avoid a repeat of the 2008 bib episode, no one — but no one — gets out onto the track anymore without passing by Sharrieffa Barksdale, who is more or less the track team’s “team mom.”
Mind you, these are professional athletes, some of them huge stars, and you wouldn’t think they would necessarily respond to an environment in which there’s a team-wide talent show and, if you win a medal, there’s sparkling cider and your hotel room door gets all dressed up with streamers. It’s kind of like being back on a youth soccer team. But they eat it up. And you know why?
Because they’re all a long way from home. And Sharrieffa Barksdale is empowered to make them feel like they’re all in it together, as a team, making memories that will last a lifetime.
On the way to the team bus, she checks and double-checks your gear, to make sure you have everything — there are known offenders, and she knows full well who’s likely to forget his or jersey or socks — and then she sends everyone out to the track with a poem. For real.
Barksdale, too, is a 1984 Olympian and, as well, Fitzgerald Mosley’s former teammate at Tennessee. Barksdale, who lives now in Lexington, Ky., left the sport, then came back and brings a sense of been there-done that and an unreserved sense of joy.
She said, “I I really enjoy motivating the athletes, I think I bring a lot to the table,” adding, “When they leave me, my motto is, ‘Winners train. Losers complain.’ Which one are you?”
In Daegu, the Americans were big winners. There’s a reason why.
Fitzgerald Mosley is typically quick to deflect credit onto others. She typically says she is simply grateful for the opportunity to be part of the team.
Benita, here’s one day where you deserve some credit yourself.
“You think about 2008 and that women’s relay, about showing up at the starting line and not having your number,” she said. “It’s because some manager forgot to pick up the package?
“We can’t afford that. I remember almost crying,” she said, an Olympian herself, just thinking about what that must have been like for the four women in that relay.
“We are going to get it down now to a science. We are going to dot every i and cross every t.”