Larceny, wisdom at the track

Harry Groves was one of the United States Olympic Track and Field coaches for the 1992 Olympic team which competed in Barcelona, Spain.  CDT/Nabil K. Mark  August 6, 2008
Harry Groves was one of the United States Olympic Track and Field coaches for the 1992 Olympic team which competed in Barcelona, Spain. CDT/Nabil K. Mark August 6, 2008

He was through with the 1992 Summer Olympics.

Andrew Valmon, believing he would not make the final U.S. 1,600-meter relay team, had packed to leave Barcelona early. Discouraged, he stopped to sign out of the Olympic Village.

That’s when Harry Groves, an assistant Olympic track coach, intervened. With a sympathetic shoulder? A stirring pep talk?

No, larceny did the trick.

Behind Valmon’s back, Groves stole one of his bags. The sprinter wound up staying overnight, reconsidering, getting on the relay team after all, and winning a gold medal.

“I stashed it so he couldn’t find it,” said Groves, 78, a State College resident and former Penn State track and field and cross-country coach. “I wasn’t going to let him go home. To this day, he thanks me.”

Besides guile, Groves brought a deep reservoir of wisdom to the job of guiding elite, sometimes temperamental athletes striving for glory with the world watching. In his illustrious 53-year career, including 38 years at Penn State, he coached 14 Olympians.

“To be an Olympic coach takes a heap of living,” he said.

Groves knew from experience, for example, that agents, personal coaches and family members can distract Olympians and potentially sabotage their performances. He even wrote to athletes’ parents, explaining they could best support their loved ones by keeping their distance. Some didn’t heed his advice.

“One of the worst (cases) was a young girl, 1,500-meter runner, really good, national class,” Groves said. “She got all kinds of awards for her ability as a runner. Then her parents showed up and did nothing but run around Barcelona as tourists, with her with them. And she never made it through the trial rounds.”

For the Games, Groves directed all the distance runners except marathoners. He had consulted with their coaches after the U.S. Olympic trials, saying he would do whatever they wanted for their athletes.

But when problems arose, Groves and the other Olympic coaches relied on their own judgment.

“We had one young lady,” Groves said. “She just blew up completely. So I called her husband, and we flew him over to try to salvage her, but it didn’t work. She just got nervous and jumpy and couldn’t handle the whole thing.”

Egos also sometimes tested coaches.

Carl Lewis and Dennis Mitchell both wanted to anchor the 400-meter relay squad. Neither would yield. During practices, they bickered constantly, driving other teams from the track.

“Dennis wanted to anchor it because it meant his sponsors would give him more money. It’s that simple,” Groves said. “Carl didn’t need the money at that point. It was just a matter of pride.”

Finally, two days before the event, enough was enough. Groves said he urged head coach Mel Rosen “to make the call.”

Groves recalled Rosen’s next move: “He goes down and lines them up and says, ‘Carl, you’re going to anchor. Dennis, you’re going to run the third leg. You’re the best turner in the world. And if you guys don’t want to do it, get on the damn plane and get the hell out of here. We’ll substitute for you.’ Boy, they just reversed: ‘No, no, we’ll run.’

“Anyway, it turned out we not only won it, we broke the world record. And those guys who had been fighting like cats and dogs were hugging each other all over the place.”

Determining the 1,600-meter relay choices provoked squabbles as well. But then Quincy Watts, the 400 champion, stepped forward and volunteered to “run any number of rounds in any leg you want me to run.”

“Now, with a statement like that, was morale ever high,” Groves said. “That shut up all the crying and complaining.”

But Groves found himself at a loss for words after the 400-meter intermediate hurdles.

Hours before the event, he ran into American hurdler Kevin Young. Young declared he would finish in about 46 seconds and shatter the world record. Groves razzed him for his audacity.

When Young returned, after blazing to a 46.78 finish, gold medal and new record, Groves could only lift the sole of his shoe. “See that?” he said to Young before offering his congratulations. “Stuck in my mouth.”

Another gesture provided one of Groves’ favorite moments of the Games.

In the 1991 World Championships, the British had crushed the U.S. in the 1,600-meter relay — as they loved to remind the Americans. After the U.S. gained golden revenge at the Olympics, Groves and the U.S. relay coach went to an Olympic Village bar to celebrate.

“We walked in, and the whole British staff was there,” Groves said. “And they stood and applauded, which was the greatest sportsmanship. They were hardcore. They were needling us all the time. They all came over and shook (the relay coach’s) hand. You don’t get that kind of stuff often.”

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620.