For the second time in his career, Indiana State cross country and track and field coordinator John McNichols has led Team USA to a dominating performance in the Junior Pan American Track and Field Championships.
“These are events that I really look forward to,” McNichols, who also serves as the men’s head coach for cross country and track and field at Indiana State, said. “It is quite an honor to be selected by USA Track and Field to lead a team representing the United States at the Junior Pan American meet.”
Team USA finished with the second-highest medal total and second-highest number of golds ever as the squads won 26 golds, 21 silvers and 12 bronzes during the three days of competition to dominate the medal table at the 16th Pan American Junior Track and Field Championships which were held in July at Miramar, Fla.
Canada had 14 total medals for the second best tally, while Jamaica, the Bahamas, Brazil and Colombia each won three golds. Team USA’s gold haul was eight higher than all the other nations combined.
McNichols was also the head coach of the 1999 men’s team which was part of a record setting performance as Team USA won 61 medals (27 golds, 19 silver, and 15 bronze). He also served as the distance coach for the men’s team at the 2005 Junior Pan American Championships where Team USA recorded the third highest medal total with 57 medals (21 golds, 24 silver, and 12 bronze).
The veteran Indiana State coach said that there were several reasons why Team USA recorded such high medal counts.
“Certainly one of the biggest factors was that the competitions were held close to home,” McNichols said. “The family and friends of our athletes were able to attend the meet along with many of the personal coaches for these athletes. That support group was one key to our success.”
“Although the rest of the world is catching up to us, we still have a tremendous talent pool in track and field.”
The 1999 meet was held in Tampa, Fla., the 2005 meet in Windsor, Canada, just across the border from Detroit, Mich., and this year’s competition was held in Miramar, Fla.
Another reason is the number of talented athletes, coaches and outstanding collegiate programs in the United States.
“Although the rest of the world is catching up to us, we still have a tremendous talent pool in track and field,” McNichols said. “The Europeans are always good in the field events and the (Caribbean) islands are becoming very good at the sprints and hurdles. The United States still has the edge even though our medal count is dropping especially at the World Championships and in the Olympics.”
The rise in the quality of athletes from other nations can be credited in part to many of these nations sending their athletes to school in the United States where they are mentored by some of the best track and field coaches on the collegiate level.
“Indiana State and a number of other schools across the country benefit from having quality coaches who are dedicated to their specialty and to their sport,” McNichols said.
McNichols also noted that competition among Team USA members was another reason for the high medal count at this year’s Pan American Junior Championships.
“We had a poster listing the medal count for our men and women teams at the start of the buffet line at our team meals,” McNichols said. “Each had 22 medals going into the final day and the athletes knew we were close to breaking the record for total medals.”
McNichols found it interesting to listen to the athletes discuss where and how they could pick up more medals during the final day of competition in a bid to break the record.
“That showed they were ready to compete as individuals and as a team by supporting their teammates in their respective competitions,” McNichols said. “I was excited to see just how hard they were willing to work to win not only individual medals but also for team success.”
The meet was broken into two sessions (morning and evening) due to the heat and humidity of Florida in July. Many athletes arrived early for their competitions due to the bus schedule to the stadium. Staying cool before beginning their pre-meet workouts was important for each athlete especially when weather forced some events into the heat and humidity of the afternoon with the athletes staying in air conditioned locker rooms as long as possible.
“That heat and humidity will sap all your energy if you are not careful,” McNichols said. “The athletes did a great job of adjusting their schedules and staying out of the heat as much as possible.”
Not all of the athlete’s personal coaches could attend the Games but did send practice schedules that McNichols and his staff used to put the athletes through their workouts.
“We all worked to continue the training of the athletes before, during and after the competitions,” McNichols said. “There were a lot of early mornings and late evenings working with these athletes. We also discussed with each athlete what they would like us to do during their competitions. That included what splits to call out during the distance events.”
McNichols staff included Maurice Pierce of Hampton University (sprints and hurdles) and Iowa’s Scott Cappos (throws). Cliff McKenzie (Scottsdale Unified School District and the Arizona Elite Track Club) served as head manager. Penn State’s Beth Alford-Sullivan was the women’s head coach and coach of the distance runners. Her assistants included Easter Gabriel of Dallas Independent School District (sprints and hurdles) and Dana Boone of Oklahoma (jumps/combined). Monica Gary of Purdue served as the head women’s manager.
Preparation for the Pan American Games actually started during the 2011 USA Track and Field Junior Championships which were held in Eugene, Ore., at the end of June.
“Between myself and McKenzie we spoke to every athlete that was eligible to compete at the Games,” McNichols said. “I credit that personal touch with most of the top athletes agreeing to compete for Team USA at this competition.”
The top two finishers in each event at the USA Track and Field Junior Championships receive an invitation to compete for Team USA.
“We had a great response from these athletes,” McNichols said. “It was a lot of fun coaching them and watching them compete.”
McNichols was also selected for national staffs on several other occasions. He was an assistant coach for the North Team at the 1995 U.S. Olympic Festival in Colorado Springs, Colo., and served as an assistant coach for sprints and hurdles for Team USA at the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
McNichols has also served as a meet official at the 1984 Olympics Games (Los Angeles, Calif.), the 1987 Pan American Games (Indianapolis, Ind.), and the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials (Indianapolis, Ind.). He was the head marshal at the 1996 Olympic Games (Atlanta, Ga.) and served as the men’s commissioner at five U.S. Olympic Festivals.
The Pan American Junior Championships feature teams from North American, Central American, South American, and from Caribbean nations. An athlete must be 19-years-old or younger to be eligible for the junior championships.
Kevin Jenison is the media relations coordinator for athletics.