As Michael Shelley crossed the finish line to win gold in the Commonwealth Games marathon last week, his coach Dick Telford was watching from his Canberra home, knowing he’d once again put the pieces of the sporting puzzle together at the perfect time.
Telford is no stranger to success; in Victoria he won two best and fairest titles and two premierships in the second-tier Victorian Football Association competition.
While studying for his PhD in sports science, he spent three years as coaching co-ordinator for the Victorian cricket team in the late 1970s, winning the Sheffield Shield twice.
He even invented the cereal Sustain – although he's more of a toast and tea man after he's done his daily run up Red Hill.
It was at the Australian Institute of Sport where Telford really built on his coaching knowledge, as the Institute’s first sports scientist. But aside from a few years where he “had a go at professional coaching”, it’s always been a part-time pursuit for the master.
“Things have gone pretty well in my running coaching on a part-time basis with sports science. It's a little bit easier when you're a part-time coach because you can always fall back on what you're doing," he said noting the pressures on full-time coaches to always succeed.
Telford learned a lot from his years as Robert de Castella’s physiologist, and his success as a middle and long distance running coach is undisputed.
He convinced Michael Shelley to switch from middle to long distance running when he lost his AIS scholarship after battling injury, and is generally willing to train anyone dedicated to running.
“I must admit it does help understanding what physiology is all about, it's what I've studied all my life,” he said of his scientific approach to training.
He coached Lisa Ondieki (nee Martin) to two Commonwealth Games gold medals and a silver medal at the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988 – still Australia’s only Olympic marathon medal – and one of his “greatest coaching thrills” was Andrew Lloyd winning gold in the 5000m at the 1990 Commonwealth Games.
“Andrew wasn't supposed to be selected originally, he wasn't considered good enough, then he comes in and wins the gold medal – he won it by basically a nipple.”
Now based at the University of Canberra Research Institute for Sport and Exercise, Telford leads the John Landy Talent Squad, where he shares knowledge and training techniques with other coaches and their athletes, much as he did at the AIS.
He has around 25 runners in his stable, from juniors to mothers to Shelley, who he trains remotely, as well as another Queenslander, Melanie Panayiotou, who finished eighth in the women’s marathon in Glasgow, having only started training under Telford just over a year ago.
“She's a vet surgeon who three years ago just wanted to make the top 10 in the Noosa fun run,” Telford said. “The week I went up there to be with her [before the Commonwealth Games], she assisted the birth of a giraffe and she was more excited about that than running I think.”
Telford spent two weeks in Queensland with his elite runners, then skyped them in the Commonwealth Games village each night to discuss their preparation, which he tailors to suit each individual's physiology, and tinkers with to the smallest detail so they're confident at the start line they’ve done everything possible.
“People seem to think that just because a Kenyan has run five minutes faster … that the game's all over,” he said. “Sure two or three might have run 2 hours 6 minutes ... which is phenomenal – but they don't do it all the time.
“What I concentrate on with my runners is that we do their best effort when the time counts.”
When Panayiotou and Shelley both finished with a personal best time, and one gold medal Telford was proudly watching with his running group at home.
“It would have been great to see them after the race, but I'll see them when they come back," he said
And at 69, Telford isn't about to stop creating champions.
"I'm getting geriatric now, but unfortunately there's so much still to learn; you keep on learning, but you get more things right than wrong as you get older."
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