In honor of the passing of Joe Newton, we thought that we would repost this fine piece on how Joe Newton helped Seb Coe, as he prepared for the stressful 1984 Olympic Games. A story with lots of reminders about keeping athletes grounded and relaxed before big events, we thank Jeff Benjamin once again for this fine piece.
Updated September 7, 2016. This piece we are pulling from our archives in honor of Joe Newton retiring from coaching. Joe Newton has had a huge influence in our sports. We hope you enjoy this piece from Jeff Benjamin.
1983 was not a kind year for Britain’s Sebastian Coe. Considered the world’s greatest middle distance runner for over 4 years, The 1980 Olympic Silver medalist at 800 meters and Gold medalist at 1500 meters was having a very inconsistent year. Along with his poor performances, the 800 meter world record-holder (1:41.73) and mile world record holder (3:47.33) was experiencing chronic fatigue, glandular fever, and muscle aches, unlike anything he ever experienced before. Even his father and lifelong coach, Peter Coe, whose revolutionary training methods had driven his son to the top of the sport, couldn’t comprehend what was happening either.
As Coe said in the film “Born to Run, “The Olympics (in Los Angeles) in ’84 seemed as far away as anything I ever saw.”
By the end of 1983, Coe had been found to have toxoplasmosis, a debilitating condition which left him in an almost sedentary state, with medications whose side effects included vomiting. Hospitalized, losing weight and still feeling very fatigued, one thing was able to come out of this time which would become a great positive enforcer for him. Accompanying his father to the United States, where he was invited to give a series of lectures, Coe got to know a person who would become a key cornerstone in his comeback to the top–York High School Coach Joe Newton.
One of America’s greatest High School Cross-Country and Track Coaches, Newton’s Illinois York High School teams have won over 28 State Cross-Country Championships. Known also as a great master motivator, Newton’s program has produced many high schoolers who have also become successful in their lives as well. “The Long Green Line” of York has followed from Newton for more than 50 years. This friendship would prove critical.
By January Coe was attempting his comeback, following the basic principles of training that his father had laid out for him over the course of more than 14 years. But this time he had to be ready at certain times to show the British Olympic selectors that he could compete again in BOTH the 800 and the 1500 meters. During this time, his British rivals, former mile world record-holder Steve Ovett, and 1983 World 1500 meter champion Steve Cram looked to be progressing along very well, along with the up and coming British middle distance star Peter Elliot, who defeated Coe in a slow 1500 meter race billed as a quasi-Olympic trial. While all of them had opened up 1984 with very solid performances, “I was just running with a group of kids with Haringey (his local running club)”.
As Spring progressed, Coe was starting to feel a bit like himself again, consistently incorporating his father’s blend of speedwork, fartlek and endurance running, along with his weight training sessions as well. He had also run a 1:43 800 race in Oslo. But the performances of his rivals, and his inconsistent ones due to his training preparation, compounded also by some brutal articles in some British newspapers and tabloids expressing his demise only added to the pressure. The reaction to his selection to the 800 meter team by the British selectors was mild compared to his selection for the 1500 meters. Many in the British press, and even fans on the street, felt he was not deserving to go again, despite being the Olympic Gold medalist. After all, some reasoned, no one had ever defended their 1500 meter title successfully before. Add to that the heat and humidity of Los Angeles, along with having to run 7 races over 9 days to compete in both events would seem impossible for him, although Steve Ovett was selected for both as well.
It was at this point that Coe realized he had to get out of England. As he writes in his autobiography, “Running My Life”:
“Firstly, this was no longer about coaching or day-to-day contact with my father or (Haringey Coach) John Hovell or my training group. I instinctively knew the only way I was going to do this was on my own. I didn’t want to spend anymore time discussing it or thinking about it. I had to get out of England. And that was a tough call I had to talk to the guy who had steered my career for fourteen years and tell him that I didn’t actually want him around”.
That guy, his father/Coach Peter, totally understood and supported his son. According to Coe’s autobiography, “He looked at me and said, “Yeah. I get it. You know what you have to do so you go and do it.” They both agreed on setting up a training plan and agreed to keep in touch. The one question was where would Seb go? Chicago, he said, to stay for almost a month with Joe Newton prior to the Olympic Games. “It was a chance to sort my training out, acclimate to the hours of America, and stay with Joe.” Needless to say, Coach Newton was beside himself. “Seb called me and of course I said yes!!”, Newton recalls today, 30 years later. “Anything my wife Joan and I can do for him, we did.” It also helped that both athlete and Coach were enormous Jazz fans too, as we’ll see later!
To the younger crowd of the 21st century which is immersed in the twitter, facebook social media world, it will sound uncanny that Coe stayed with Coach Newton for almost a month in July and trained anonymously in plain sight. “Today it would be all over twitter, but I was there in complete anonymity,” Coe said recently. “We would go the York high school track when it was empty, and Joe would supervise the workouts for me.”
Sometimes select members of the York team would watch Coe train from time to time but, according to Coe, “while they were encouraged to come down, I did all my training on my own.” It also helped that the Newton family home bordered along a local golf course, where Coe did his distance and recovery runs. “Running in the middle of the golf course, when there were no golfers around, was very helpful to me” he said. One workout which impressed Newton was Coe’s 100 meter stride accelerations. ” He put a cone at 70 meters and he would run fast to the cone and then accelerate once he hit the cone over the last 30 meters,” said Newton.”It was awe-inspiring.”
Coe also benefitted from the medical insight and treatment of Doctor John Durkin, whose brother Mike competed for the U.S. in the 1500 in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Durkin’s constant monitoring of Coe’s feet and supports he needed were instrumental as well.These routines, plus Newton’s never-ending optimistic, encouraging energy definitely laid a foundation psychologically for Coe.
But Coe’s key workout, which showed he was on his way, was a workout he had not completed in the same times since 1981. “I did a session of 20 X 200 meters, all in 25 to 26 seconds with only a 35-40 second recovery jog in between. That showed me I was ready,” said Coe.
As for his weight training regimen, which was considered very revolutionary at the time, Coe kept up with it, even during his peak phase. “Many runners make mistakes when they tend to get off their weight training when racing,” he said. “But then the strength falls off. I was still doing lots of quality reps as well as short sessions of muscle stimuli.” These also included sit-ups as well as countless knee bends. Newton and Coe remember quite well when they arrived in the York High School weightroom, the school football team was working out. “The football kids were a little cynical about this thin (around 128 lbs) runner coming in to join them,” Coe recalled. Newton recalled that all that came to an abrupt end when “Seb outlifted the football players, including their top wide receiver, who was the strongest guy on the team!”
Not all of it was work, though. Coe, Newton, and 1984 U.S. Olympic 1500 trials winner Jim Spivey remember a fun time they had one night at a bar/resturaunt called “The Iron Skillet”. “My friend, Reverend Miller, played trumpet in a Jazz band, so we brought Seb out there one night,” said Newton. It was fun had by everyone. “There was a lot of singing and dancing by us,” said Newton. With everything going on, it was also a great night of relief for Coe as well.
“That night at the Iron Skillet kept me straight on my sanity,” he said. Even Spivey recalled that, “when we were dancing around, Seb jokingly said we had to make sure there were no British photographers around or they’d have a field day with us.” Coe was also impressed by Spivey that night as well. “He drove 4 1/2 hours to be with us that night, and then drove 4 1/2 hours home. I never forgot that.”
As the LA games approached, Coe was rested and ready, though no one outside of his circle knew it. What the athletics world was learning though was not good news for the other Brit middle distance men. Peter Elliot, who was getting around 2500 pounds per race appearance at this time, had over-raced up to the Games, and cracked a bone in his foot. Cram, suffering from an ankle injury probably due to over-racing as well, ran a 3:39 1500 trial race and then had to be convinced by British running legend Brendan Foster to board the plane to LA.
But the greatest downfall was that of Steve Ovett, Coe’s greatest rival. According to his Late Coach Harry Wilson in a 1990 interview, “Steve was in the best shape of his life. He had trained perfectly in San Diego with no over-racing. We knew he had 7 races over 9 days like Coe and we wanted to be ready for it. But then he got that respiratory bug in LA.” Peter Coe was present in LA as well, purposely limiting his time so Coe could focus on his own, but nevertheless leaving him notes and messages of encouragement.
In the 800 meters final, Coe once again finished 2nd, getting the silver behind a powerful performance by Brazilian Joachim Cruz. Ovett, who was hospitalized in and out through those agonizing 9 days, made it to the final but finished last. Not aware of his compatriot’s situation, Coe put his arm around Ovett and said, ” We’re to old to be playing with such fire.” Despite the Silver, Coe was very contented by the performance and seemed to be running stronger in the heats everyday now culminating with the 1500 final.
“I felt like this was mine, and no one was going to take it away from me,” Coe said in “Born to Run.” The race, which also included Brits Ovett and Cram, started out conservative, with Coe up front for a short period. But then the pace went quick as American Mile Record Holder (3:47.69) Steve Scott took the lead with 2 laps to go and really took off. Although he raced to a 1500 Silver medal at the 1983 World Championships losing to Cram, Scott and his coach Len Miller felt frustrated with the very slow tactical race it had turned into which led to a kickers race and they did not want that to happen again. Relying on a long sprint for home, “I wanted to make this a true milers race,” said Scott. Scott took the field through the 800 in 1:56.8, with Coe and Spaniard Jose Abascal behind him.
Coming into 500 meters to go Abascal surged passed the tiring Scott (who would finish last) with Coe, Ovett and Cram right behind him, in what for a moment was a great procession of Britain’s finest milers, but only for a moment. At the bell, Ovett dropped out walking inside the infield knowing sadly his quest was over as he was overcome with chest pains. It was now Abascal, Coe and Cram, with Kenyan Joseph Chesire and Jim Spivey way back in 4th and 5th.
Around 250 meters to go, Cram launched into a kick, only to be countered by Coe who then accelerated past Abascal into first. Coe then switched into another gear at 200, followed by another powerful shift in gears on the final straightaway, looking poised and in perfect form, as Cram gritted his teeth and tried to catch him, but it was not to be. Coe crossed the line in one of the greatest comebacks in sports history, holding his right finger up in the air in an Olympic record of 3:32.53, almost six meters ahead of Cram. Abascal valiantly held off the fast-charging Chesire for the Bronze, while the young Jim Spivey cemented himself as America’s next great miler with a solid 5th place.
Coe’s joy of victory almost instantly turned into anger. “Who says I’m finished?!” he pointed and screamed at the British Press Box. He then concluded with “Now Believe!” and then took his victory lap his anger quickly returning to joy. There was probably no one happier than Joe Newton. “Seb called me after he raced. It was such a great phone call. We celebrated here like it was a holiday!”
As the years have gone on, Sebastian Coe (Now Lord Coe) has continued to go on to great achievements. Multiple world-record holder, the only athlete to successfully defend the 1500 meters title, Coe has played a huge part in both sport and government, having served on many Athletics committees, including the IAAF, during and after his career, as well as being elected to serve in Parliament. But the pinnacle has to be his grand leadership in securing London as the host of the 2012 Olympic Games, a selection which surprised many who thought it would go to Paris or New York City.
The London Games were a great success, and it seems that once again, his competitors have still not learned one thing- Never underestimate Sebastian Coe. Just ask Coach Newton. “All those people were writing him off in ’84 and he just shut them up,” said Newton. “He has such perserverance and dedication that I’ve never seen in anyone before or since. I am proud to call him my friend, he is like a son to me.”
Postscript– I am very thankful for the help given to me in writing this article. My thanks to Rod Dixon and Craig Virgin, who helped me and encouraged me to contact Lord Coe’s office for this interview. The support from Larry Eder was immense as well. My thanks to Jim Spivey for giving his time for a subject he, like I, loved to talk about. To Ms. Susie Black and Ms. Sara Hersheson from Lord Coe’s office, who helped arrange this interview for someone who must be in constant demand these days. I am aware that their jobs are not easy, and I appreciate all you did for me!
To Lord Coe, whose 10 minute interview stretched to 15 minutes, but felt to me like his old World Record 1:41.73 800, the time going way too fast
as he shared his sharp memories with me as well as his love and devotion to not only the Sport and it’s history, but also to Joe Newton.
Finally to Joe Newton, who I have the privilege of calling my friend from the first day we met at Al Berkowsky’s Running School running camp back in 1991 to this day. It is most certainly treasured!