Longform

Ill Fly Away

Page 3 of 6

Adams had known him since he was a kid. He doesn't know why she singled him out. "Maybe it was just that I was one of the kids who opened the door and closed it at night, swept the floors. We grew up there." So in 1967 he came to Skyland to coach a little tennis, a little chess and pool, a little three-on-three hoops. Wells had participated in the rec center's activities as a child, but he brought no special experience to coaching any of them.

The Flyers had been started by Robert Smith, who ran (and still runs) a nonprofit organization that provides rehabilitation services to the disabled community. Smith created the Red Shield Track Club in conjunction with the Salvation Army, intending to send a team of black kids to run in the yearly Junior Olympics at the University of Colorado. For the first week it was just for boys, but by the end of that summer, there were hundreds of boys and girls in the program. Smith and his coaches would run an old Hope Center school bus up and down 32nd Avenue (now MLK Boulevard) to pick up and drop off the kids. In 1968 Smith changed the name of the club to the Denver Flyers; in 1974 the Flyers merged with an all-white club in Thornton and were renamed the Colorado Flyers.

Before too long, Smith asked Wells to coach boys' track. And while at first he didn't seem destined for coaching greatness, Wells was a perfectionist. He began to study the training philosophies of East German and Russian track coaches. "At that particular time, they were the most successful. East Germany had a small population base, but they were successful," Wells recalls. He studied neurophysiology, anything to give his runners an edge. He also wanted to dispel the notion that black athletes were noble savages endowed with immense natural athletic ability, so he put them through a rigorous and analytical system. By 1975, Smith had talked him into coaching girls full-time.

"He's a student," says Smith. "It's the same way with tennis, same way with chess. He loves studying stuff. And he's a competitor. He was a natural for it without himself knowing it. You could see that he was going to be committed."

Wells puts his young runners through a battery of tests when they first arrive, and about six months later decides which event gives them the best chance at success. The girls don't change events. If Wells says a girl is running the 400 meters, she doesn't tell him she'd rather do the long jump. She runs the 400 meters or she goes home.

Most coaches try to get their runners in good shape first and foremost. Wells wants his charges to run faster, and he accomplishes that either by increasing the length of a runner's stride or the frequency with which she takes strides. Then he works on strength.

A bulked-up body gives a runner more power, but also more weight and, hence, more inertia to overcome, so Wells trains the central nervous system with a muscular shock therapy that is designed to strengthen muscles without adding muscle mass. Everyone has heard of people who, in times of great stress, are able to achieve feats of strength that would otherwise be physically impossible; the classic example is being able to lift a car to free someone trapped underneath. Wells's goal of getting his runners into a "neural groove" -- a function of increased neural activity from the brain to the muscles -- is like teaching the body how to lift the car even when there's no one trapped beneath.

When Flyers lift weights, they strive to lift 95 to 100 percent of their maximum lift capacity once or twice, maybe three times, maxing out quickly. "We're lifting on the edge," he admits. "It's a little more dangerous, but it gets the strength you want."

Dawn Riley embodies this danger. At 26, Riley is, along with Burkett, a former Flyer and college graduate who has returned to Colorado to train with Wells and take a shot at the Olympics. She has already qualified for the trials in her event, the 100-meter hurdles. She estimates that fifty others have also qualified. At the trials in Sacramento, the top three runners will go to Sydney. The rest will go home. To Riley, the numbers are irrelevant. "I have no doubt in my mind I'll be in the top three. It's imperative. I've worked too hard."

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T.R. Witcher