When sprinting coach John Quinn reflects on his career in athletics, one highlight stands out above the rest.
Quinn was trackside with Cathy Freeman as she warmed-up before her gold medal-winning race at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, and had a front-row seat for the action.
“I would regard the women’s Olympic final at the Sydney Games as the most high-pressured event in Australian sporting history,” Quinn says. “The whole Olympics, almost, was hinging on Freeman delivering on that stage, on that night.”
“I was the team coach and was there warming her up, and when it was time to go to the event, I took her across, and she just turned to me as if she was going to the Little A’s final in Gympie [Queensland] and said, ‘See you at the finish’ as she went off to the race.”
Quinn was struck by Freeman’s nonchalance in that moment. He described her as having an “almost child-like innocence”. Freeman seemed obliviousness to her surroundings: the pressure-cooker-like atmosphere of the stadium, filled with frenzied fans and electric energy.
“In the biggest moment in sport, in her career, Cathy didn’t get flustered,” recalls Quinn. “She had the approach that it’ll be alright.” And of course, it was more than alright. Freeman delivered and became immortal.
A call from Cathy
Quinn was elated. He says his first instinct was to go down and meet Freeman after the race to congratulate her. “But then I thought, ‘Oh God, the last thing she needs is to see me. I’m the relay team coach’… everyone was so euphoric, I started walking back to the Olympic village.”
He was about 25 minutes into that walk, he recalls, when his phone rang. It was Freeman. The freshly crowned Olympic champion was calling to inquire about the team’s 4x400m relay practice the following day. She had forgotten the start time.
“I told her not to worry about coming,” Quinn recalls with a laugh, “that she’d earned the day off. But the next day, there she was.”
I share Quinn’s anecdote because it reveals two things about the coach. One, he’s worked with some of Australia’s very best sprinters and helped them achieve success on the world stage.
And two, these experiences have shaped his coaching philosophy. It’s a philosophy he’s now applying with a new generation of talented runners, including 400m superstar Bendere Oboya.
Bendere could be the best ever
In our latest feature, we look at the meteoric rise of Bendere Oboya, a future Olympian who has become virtually unbeatable on home soil.
When Quinn talks about his athlete’s potential on the track, it’s hard not to get excited. He witnessed Freeman at the peak of her powers, and yet he firmly believes Oboya has the potential to run even faster.
“I don’t think [Bendere’s] got anywhere near the training background that Freeman or [Jana] Pittman had. And yet she’s out there running times that are within the blink of an eye of both of them.”
“I believe that Bendere Oboya — barring some mishap or injury — will be the best athlete over 400 metres that we’ve ever had in this country.”
I spoke to Quinn about his career in athletics, the squad he’s working with in western Sydney, Oboya’s potential, and about his coaching philosophy.
Here are five things I learned from sprinting coach John Quinn, the man helping Bendere Oboya get ready for her Olympic debut in Tokyo.
1. Coach the person, not the athlete
Bendere Oboya started working with John Quinn after having a fallout with her former coach. It was an emotionally distressing time for Oboya, who told RunCreature she was considering quitting the sport.
At their very first meeting, Quinn made it clear to Oboya that her mental health would be a priority. He explained his approach was to focus on the person before the athlete.
“He basically said to me, ‘You have to take care of yourself; take care of the person you were before you became an athlete.’ And that was important to hear,” recalls Oboya of that initial conversation.
Yes, speed and high-performance would be the overarching goals of their partnership. But not at the expense of her happiness, or individuality.
“You have got to enjoy what you do before you worry about the intensities, or the skills required,” says Quinn. “Just enjoy it and have fun.”
Three levels of coaching
Quinn says he coaches athletes on three distinct levels: physical, mental and spiritual.
Stage one is about getting an athlete fit. While there are complex physiological systems that need to be understood, to optimise an athlete’s energy usage, improve power and efficiency, and aid recovery, Quinn says this is relatively easy to implement.
The mental stage is somewhat tougher. It relates to building-up an athlete’s confidence, and helping them cultivate the self-belief necessary to compete at a high level.
The final stage is (arguably) the hardest, and most abstract.
“I’m asking athletes to look within themselves for that infinitesimal thing that’s inside them. I’ve got to be able to find that; to touch the spirit and the soul of the athletes that I work with,” says Quinn.
“When I do that, and combine it with the mental strength and the physical capacities, I’ve got an unstoppable athlete. That’s what I’m trying to do with Bendere Oboya.”
2. Understand the data, but don’t make athletes over-think
Quinn is a coach, but also an exercise scientist. His analytical mind understands the data underpinning the racing strategies he is trying to develop for Oboya and other athletes.
But he also knows, drilling into the data is his job. When it comes to communicating pacing tactics and “race pattern” rationales to his athletes, it’s important to keep things simple.
Quinn is currently experimenting with Oboya’s racing, asking her to fly out of the blocks like a rocket and hang on.
This is being done, he says, with the intention of more accurately gauging her physical limitations, in order to design an optimal “race pattern” that she can use over the next few years.
“This is a different approach from what she’s done before… But it’s important to keep it simple. Bendere doesn’t need complex monologues of what to do,” he says. “Too much analysis leads to paralysis… having something as simple as target paces is all she needs.”
3. Racing is an artistic expression: give athletes creative license to put their personal stamp on a race
This lesson continues on nicely from the previous two. Quinn wants to guide his athlete towards an optimal strategy, but he doesn’t want to be too prescriptive or inflexible.
If the plan is too rigid, Oboya loses the capacity to draw on her instinct and showcase her individuality.
“I think athletics is an art form [and] an expression of yourself. I don’t want to put too many confines on Bendere, or say ‘You have to run this way’ almost like a robotic expression of the 400,” says Quinn.
“Bendere’s 400 is an expression of her ability, and her skill and her talent, and her art. So I have to let her express that.
“My job is to make sure she has the best canvas, the best brushes and the very best paints to work with.”
This is an eloquent perspective on the athlete-coach dynamic, and there was something about Quinn’s analogy that resonated with me.
As athletes, we look to our coaches for guidance, wisdom and support. They help us improve and give us the tools to perform at a higher level; but they can’t be out there in the race with us.
In big moments, we have to trust what we’ve learned, but fuse it with our individual instincts, desires and our personality. Running can often seem like a robotic endeavour. Quinn’s words remind us that it involves nuance, and skill, and sometimes, a bit of creativity and drama.
4. Cherish the experiential aspects of running
One of the things Oboya says she has enjoyed most about working with Quinn’s squad is the positive, inclusive atmosphere.
For Quinn, this is vital. Athlete’s can’t simply focus on competitions and meets; they need to enjoy and cherish the experiential aspect of the sport, such as training sessions and road trips with teammates.
His squad recently travelled to Canberra for the ACT Championships in February 2021. Quinn told me “the most important part [of the competition] is actually the trip down”.
“It’s where we stop and have a coffee and a laugh, the hotel we’re staying in after the meet, and just being together and enjoying the experience.”
“When you look back, sure, you remember the races and the best runs you’ve had, but you certainly remember the times when you’re surrounded with the people who are working with you and going through the experience with you.”
“I think it’s very important to develop the experiential part of sport, not just the moment in time when you’ve gotten to your point of excellent. It’s a very lonely existence to be doing that.”
I used to view running as an individual sport, and in theory, I suppose it is. But having teammates to train with, and travel to events with, and to keep you motivated, is invaluable. It makes the sport so much more fun, which also makes running and competing more sustainable.
5. Make sure athletes understand they are in control
When we spoke about the origin of his relationship with Oboya, Quinn was careful to correct me. He hadn’t recruited the rising star.
“I’ve never asked an athlete to coach them,” Quinn says. “I think the athlete has to want to make that move themselves.
“And when an athlete comes through the front door, I always make sure they understand the back door’s open if they want to go. ‘You’re not stuck, you’re not trapped here. You have to do what’s best for you.’”
Oboya tagged along with a friend and fellow athlete, Jordan Sarmento, to meet Quinn in late 2019. They were both searching for a new coach.
Quinn’s proposition to the pair was a six-week trial with his squad. If they liked it, they could stay. And if they didn’t see a future there, they could walk away with no ill-will or judgement.
“What’s important,” he recalls saying, “is that you make the decision that’s best for you based on what you know, rather than what you hope it’s going to be.”