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An insight into the devotion behind the success of FTS

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The following article appeared in the Weekender section of the Newcastle Herald in February earlier this year. I only recently discovered it. I thought it was a fascinating insight into the fantastic dedication & devotion of Tony & Alison Fairweather to their track squad. If you want an understanding & appreciation what some coaches will do for their athletes, this article details the extraordinary support Tony & Alison have provided for their squad and in particular - Dallas Green.

Well worth a read.


Hewcastle Herald - Weekender Section
Date: 04/02/2012

A dedicated husband and wife coaching team is helping youngsters achieve their potential in athletics and life, writes ROSEMARIE MILSOM.

Beneath a putty-grey sky, rangy sprinters and hurdlers with chiselled carves are warming up for their events at the third annual Hunter Track Classic. It is 6pm and while cars queue in the drive-thru lanes of fast-food restaurants, a hot chip's throw away in the Glendale shopping centre, dinner is the last thing on the minds of these lycra-clad athletes.

Wearing serious expressions - many use headphones to block out distractions - they take turns practising between races when a thumping soundtrack fills the Hunter Sport Centre ("I get a feeling that I've never, never, never had before ...").

Newcastle's Commonwealth Games discus champion big Benn Harradine is here in a glitzy over-the-top outfit, as is three-time Commonwealth Games 400-metre gold medallist Tamsyn Manou (nee Lewis). And while the event has attracted 2500 onlookers, a kind of school carnival informality remains; athletes' backpacks are spread over the grass and those who aren't warming up are gossiping.

Maitland coach Tony Fairweather stands on the edge of the track, light blue eyes focused on his handful of charges including Adamstown flyer Pirrenee Steinert, who is hoping to quash Manou's attempt to win her third title, and 200-metre NSW champion Liam Gander, who casually saunters over an hour before his 100-metre event in baggy shorts and a loose singlet. A diamond earring and silver chain complete the ensemble.

The 24-year-old's cousin and fellow 100-metre competitor, Moree-born Dallas Green, is already running back and forth with increasing intensity. The hoodie-clad 18-year-old's impossibly long and toned legs are enveloped in black lycra to his ankles. "If he can break 11 seconds in this head wind, I'll be happy," offers Fairweather, who is intermittently approached by Steinert and squad member Laura Whaler for reassurance. "Just breathe," Fairweather advises in his low-key way.

Green has been recovering from a fracture in his right fibula, a result of a scuffle at school late last year. That injury then led to a torn hamstring. Fairweather has been taking a softly, softly approach with the teenager, whose running style he brazingly compares to that of charismatic Jamaican sprint freak Usain Bolt. The biennial World Junior Championships will be held in Spain in mid-July and both coach and athlete are working towards the event. It is all about planning so that Green will peak at the right time.

Fairweather first met Green in 2010 after Gander phoned him to say he wanted to bring "this young athlete", his cousin, down to the Glendale track. "I said, 'yeah, sure'," Fairweather recalls. "Dallas showed up and he was shy, a little bit worried. He probably weighed 60 kilograms (he is now 11 kilograms heavier thanks to carefully structured gym sessions). He was skinny and a little scared. We [Fairweather and his wife Alison] just returned from holidays and we watched him have a bit of a run."

The seasoned coach had an instinctive, butterflies-in the-stomach reaction. "I thought, 'My god, it's deja vu'. When Josh [Ross] ran I remember thinking, 'What are we going to do with this guy? He's so good'. Dallas reminded me of him; his stride, how he gets off the ground, he's a natural athlete."

Green, who was desperate to escape Moree and the cycle of boredom, petty crime and substance abuse that had gripped many of his family members and friends, was living in an Aboriginal hostel in Garden Suburb and attending school. But, like Ross, Fairweather's former controversial star athlete, he soon moved in to his new coach's Gillieston Heights home.

It was a brave step for Fairweather who had been devastated by Ross's rash decision to replace him in 2005 after a four-year partnership that culminated in the 100-metre sprint at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, and also included the Melbourne Commonwealth Games, two Stawell Gift wins and three national titles. Ross lived with the Fairweathers for three years so the end of their friendship cut deep.

Fairweather has no doubt he could have helped Ross reach the pinnacle of sprinting - 100 metres in under 10 seconds - which only one Australian runner, Patrick Johnson, has achieved. But that is all in the past, as painful and frustrating as it was, and now the laconic 50-year-old is focused on the future. "I believe Dallas has got more ability than Josh," he says. "In time to come, I think he'll be Australia's number one sprinter."

Those in elite sporting circles refer to it as "fast twitch"; the ability of the body's muscle fibres to fire rapidly and generate short bursts of strength and speed. Most of us have a 50/50 share of slow-twitch and fast-twitch fibres. Olympic sprinters have been shown to possess about 80 per cent fast-twitch fibres. ("Dallas is fast twitch," Alison Fairweather says. "He's a natural.")

Usain Bolt covers 100 metres in between 40 and 41 strides, while the average for other finalists is 47. The brash Jamaican has smashed records and challenged notions about how fast the human body can move by running 9.58 seconds in the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin, a time that wasn't supposed to be possible, at least according to the mathematicians, for another 50 years.

"Before Bolt's stunning performance in Berlin," wrote Guardian journalist Neil Duncanson, "the so-called experts had suggested the natural limit for the human body was anywhere between 9.60 and 9.62 seconds". Now, all bets are off.

But behind the mind-boggling statistics and physiological feats is the finely balanced science - and art - of training. All the speed in the world won't win sprint races if the body isn't prepared correctly. Injuries are a constant threat, then there are the mind games. Staying motivated through the disappointments and remaining focused on a long-term goal through the rigour of training requires strong support and effective guidance. There has to be a plan and athletes can't do it on their own.

In his early 20s, Tony Fairweather left rugby league behind after badly breaking the same collarbone twice. He'd been training with sprint coach Bobby Gulliver to improve his performance as a winger and, with his encouragement, decided to take up running. He won state and national championships, as well as professional races including the 400-metre Stawell Gift. He began coaching juniors at Branxton Little Athletics Club and from there developed a squad of about 60 kids at Maitland.

At 38, he competed in the 400-metre event at the Australian Masters and recorded his fastest time. Age may have wearied him somewhat since then, but it has not diminished his passion for the track. As well as coaching the Fairweather Track Squad in partnership with Alison, an accredited coach who works behind the scenes in administration, Fairweather is the sprint coach at Hunter Sports High School and has been involved in regional development camps here and interstate. He was a coach with the now defunct Jump Start to London program aimed at supporting indigenous athletes in the lead-up to this year's Olympic Games.

He has an eye for spotting talent and has had widespread success with his training programs for his tight-knit squad (see separate panel) who are easily spotted in their royal blue tops printed with FTS logo. His athletes describe him as tough, but fair. He knows how to have fun even though his role as coach is all-consuming.

"He's on the job 24/7," says 26-year-old London Olympic Games hopeful Pirrenee Steinert. "A few in the squad are having family issues at the moment and he's always there to support them. He doesn't just focus on what we do at the track or in the gym. He likes to make sure we're happy, that life is good."

Steinert regularly lunches with the Fairweathers "because I like spending time with them, not because I work with them". "I have never known anyone more passionate about athletics than Tony," she continues. "You couldn't get a more dedicated coach."

More than once, Fairweather expresses frustration about the lack of financial support available for athletes on the verge.

Essentially, for every Steve Hooker and Sally Pearson there are a large number of competitors who struggle to make ends meet. Steinert works part-time as a remedial massage therapist, but even that concerns Fairweather who worries that it tires her and distracts her from training. He regrets that funding isn't available to cover her rent, though a sponsorship deal with Heritage Suzuki Maitland covers the cost of running a car.

"Athletics Australia is only really interested in you once you've made it," he says. Adds Alison: "A lot of people leave athletics because there's not the financial support for them. You've got to be really hungry because you work so damn hard for every breakthrough. The level of athlete you have to be just to make the Australian team is pretty impressive. People just don't realise the struggle to get to that level in this country."

The Fairweathers, who are forced to use a wheelie bin with a tap attached as an ice bath for their athletes' recovery sessions, have estimated that a young sprinter such as Dallas Green needs about $20,000 a year to compete: that includes the cost of travel, medical treatment and running gear. At the moment he is surviving on Abstudy - he is enrolled at TAFE - and a small amount of funding from Athletics Australia because he is in one of its talent programs.

To secure Athletics Australia's support last year, he had to run 10.85 seconds over 100 metres. He did better than that at the 2011 National Junior Championships with a time of 10.83 seconds. He needs to lower that mark by about 0.2 of a second to qualify for Spain in July. (Any noticeable drop in his performance will affect his Athletics Australia funding).

It is hard to comprehend that the distinction between success and failure is measured in such minute increments, or as Green explains, "one little mistake". "If I move my eyes to see what someone else is doing, it's [the race] gone, I've lost my concentration."

"You have to have a clear mind," Fairweather adds.
"Once you start thinking, it's over."

Green is a polite, affable and sensitive teenager. Alison Fairweather has counselled him after victories because he "feels bad for some of the people he's beaten". "It's a very selfish sport," Green says. "I'm still learning how to deal with that."
The respect for his coach is evident - Fairweather is part father figure, part teacher, part adviser, part knockabout mate. (Green has met his own father twice, though the Fairweathers were heartened to learn that he visited the Hunter Sports Centre one day looking for his son. Unfortunately, Green was away at an event.)

"A lot of people leave athletics because there's not the financial support for them. You've got to be really hungry because you work so damn hard for every breakthrough."

"I went through a stage where I never turned up to training and Tone and Al were hassling and hassling," Green explains with a mischievous grin. "They'll do anything for you as long as you do the right thing."

"I think Dallas has seen now that he can make something special of his life," Alison says. "It's been in the last six to eight months that he's turned the corner and believed that he can do it. There's a difference in his attitude to his training and approach since then."

Green is upfront about where he would be if he wasn't under the tutelage of Fairweather, who has been known to bribe him before a race with the promise of a feed of his much-loved KFC. "I'd be a mess, I'd be on drugs," he says, matter-of-factly. "That's the routine in Moree. You fall into it."

If Fairweather is concerned about being burned again Josh Ross-style, he isn't showing it. When Ross replaced him with Emil Rizk, Fairweather felt sick for days. "It was the end of me," he remembers. "I was gutted."

A complicated figure, Ross was lured away from Newcastle in his prime. He had sponsorship deals with Nike and a car company, and was on track for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Fairweather felt a sub-10-second race was within reach.

After a couple of well-publicised meltdowns, coach changes and patchy performances, Ross hung up his spikes in 2009 after the Berlin world championships - though the 30-year-old is apparently launching a comeback in the hope of making the London Olympic Games (Weekender made several attempts to contact Ross for comment. In a 2008 interview, Ross had nothing but praise for his former coach.)

The pair still has the occasional chat, but Fairweather is concentrating on the diverse needs of his squad. One long-lasting result of the split is that Fairweather now asks his athletes to sign an agreement that guarantees he receives a percentage of their earnings if they cut him loose after years of preparation and go on to lucrative earnings.

"But Dallas isn't like Josh," Fairweather says. "He'd give away his last cent to anybody who needed it. There's not an ounce of greed in him. He didn't go home to see his family in the holidays so he stayed with us and we bought him all these presents so it felt like Christmas [the Fairweathers don't have their own children and Tony is estranged from his adult daughter]. He wrote on a card saying sorry that he couldn't afford to give us anything. He's a good kid, it made me quite sad."

He may not have had a gift to place under the Christmas tree, but what Green has given Fairweather is priceless: a second chance.

Postscript: Green pulled up halfway through the 100-metre sprint at the Hunter Track Classic because of a hamstring injury. "I think it's a bit 'neural'," Fairweather offers. "When he got to open stride he felt a twinge. I think the message was sent to his brain, 'oh no, not again'." His cousin, Liam Gander, ran third with a time of 10.67 seconds. Pirrenee Steinert ran second behind Tamsyn Manou.

  • Pirrenee Steinert: Delhi Commonwealth Games and world championship representative, national medallist.

  • Liam Gander: 2011 world championship 4 x 100 metre relay representative, ranked number four in Australia, Oceania champion.

  • Laura Whaler: 2011 world championship 4 x 100 metre relay representative and dual national medallist.

  • Keith Sheehy: World junior championship representative, natonal medallist.

  • Jacarna Bain-Fenton: National junior championship medallist.

  • Leigh Bennett: Nationally ranked 400 metre hurdler.

  • Tia O'Carroll: National junior medallist.

  • Dallas Green: Arafura Games and national junior gold medallist

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