“Just forcing myself to be steady at the wheel has been tough,” said Valmon, 47. “Every so often, you want to deviate off the road, take a deep breath and just stop worrying about it. But the second you stop, you get reminded that it’s always around.”
Valmon, a former 400-meter runner and two-time Olympic gold medalist, will be in Portland, Ore., Thursday for the opening event of the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials. He will then head to Eugene for more than a week of races and events that will determine the makeup of Team USA. He’s in the unique position of leading a large contingent of athletes into the biggest track meet on the planet, while his own team back home teeters on the brink of extinction.
If he and his Maryland associates can’t reach a $940,000 fundraising level by June 30, the men’s track program will be eliminated. As of this week, about $835,000 had been raised, and men’s track appeared to be the most likely of the targeted Terps sports to receive a temporary reprieve. The June 30 deadline is just the first goal; a total of $1.88 million must be raised by the end of the year in order for the men’s program to continue next spring.
While fundraising has taken up the majority of his time in recent months, Valmon is focused this week on the task of turning around the USA Track and Field men’s program.
The USATF brass, including new CEO Max Siegel, has set a 30-medal goal for its men’s and women’s teams at the London Olympics, a mark the United States hasn’t hit since the Barcelona games in 1992. The Beijing games four years ago were considered an overwhelming disappointment, as the Americans brought home 23 medals — just seven of which were gold, the fewest for the United States since 1976.
“I try not to look at medal count,” Valmon said, “but I have an idea of what expectations will be like.”
Following 2008, USATF convened a special committee chaired by Carl Lewis, which produced a blistering report about the state of U.S. track and field. Among the charges: “chaos reigned” around the relays, there was a “culture of mistrust” among coaches and athletes, and “coaches should act and be treated” professionally.
Valmon was tabbed as a solution who could address many of the ills. He’s the first Olympic gold medalist to coach the men’s delegation. He was part of the winning 4x400 relay teams at the 1988 and ’92 Olympics and has the required expertise, USATF officials hope, to ensure Team USA’s relay teams fare better in London, after dropped batons eliminated both men’s and women’s teams in Beijing.
“He’s been there, done all of it,” USATF President Stephanie Hightower said. “He knows what it takes to the get to the podium. Our athletes instantly respect whatever comes out of his mouth.”
Valmon says his own experiences as an Olympian influence the ways he’ll approach coaching this summer. Being Team USA coach is not a position that entails teaching technique, as most athletes will bring their personal coaches to London.
“You’re really not as much in the trenches, teaching Tyson Gay how to take a stick or teaching left-handed Justin Gatlin how to grab with his right hand,” Valmon said. “We’re more of facilitators.”
His biggest responsibility will be making sure every question has an answer. Valmon has had more preparation than past U.S. track coaches. He served as an assistant coach at the 2009 world championships in Berlin and was head coach at the 2011 world indoor championships in Doha, Qatar. He’s also made other trips on behalf of Team USA to South Korea and London to meet athletes and plot logistics.
“I looked at Beijing, and I looked at some of the mishaps,” Valmon said. “I thought the only way those things could be avoided was preparation, and that means you have to start in advance. All the little things you don't usually think about, you have to be ready for all of it.”
Valmon, who resides in Rockville with his wife, two-time Olympian Meredith Rainey Valmon, will be far away from College Park when he learns whether the Terps’ men program receives its temporary reprieve. This college track season was not an easy one. Valmon had to coach his athletes, keep them motivated, setting aside time to handle Team USA business and all the while call up anyone who might be willing to write a check.
“You can just see the commitment he has to the program and to the student-athletes,” said Cheryl Harrison, Maryland’s senior associate director of athletics. “He believes we can do this, and he’s working hard to get it done.”
Valmon’s own future beyond the London Games is uncertain. If the Maryland men’s program is eliminated, he could remain in College Park and coach only the women. He says he’ll weigh his options later in the summer.
“What I’ve done is promised everyone I won’t merge these two worlds together,” he said. ”When I’m in London, I’m there doing Team USA work, not Maryland track. Then I’ll come back and try to make some smart decisions.”