Reflecting On A ‘Legend’ : Charlie Walsh
Off the back of Australia’s Team Pursuit World Championship title last week in Cali, Colombia, Scott McGrory reflects on the AIS track coach who started it all – for better or for worse – Charlie Walsh.
While I watched the Aussie team Pursuit Team defend their title at the World Track Championship in Cali Colombia, it got me thinking of my old coach Charlie Walsh. The head of the Australian Track Team for some 20 years, 1980-2000.
Most people don’t know that Charlie is actually a nickname, given to him by his mother. His real name is David Barry Vivien Walsh. He retired after the Sydney Olympics, the Games where Brett Aitken and I saved him some embarrassment by picking up Australia’s only Cycling Gold in the second last event on the Track program.
Fast forward from 2000 to 2005 and I was spending more time back in Australia after living fulltime in Europe since the mid 1990’s. I was excited to be able to watch, with some regularity games of Footy (AFL) on TV. I was sitting there watching my Carlton Blues take on the Adelaide Crows and they showed an injured player being talked to by Charlie Walsh, as they walked the boundary. Charlie was brought into the Crows staff by coach Neil Craig, who had been our Physiologist through the 80’s and 90’s before taking the full time football-coaching role.
I almost sprayed my coffee across the lounge room when I heard the commentator (Gary Lyon) say “there’s the superstar cycling coach Charlie Walsh”. I thought to myself, “if only he knew…”
I had two stints with Charlie; my first was as a 17 year old kid from the Gold Coast leaving home to live in Adelaide for several years at the AIS. Following that I had 2 years riding with the South Australian Sports Institute so I had plenty of interaction with the AIS group during that period.
The second was for less than a month in the final lead-up to the Sydney Games. Well, it’s fair to say we didn’t see eye to eye on much, which lead to me being let go by the AIS. To a certain extent I must say that I didn’t help myself in that regard, but when I first arrived in Adelaide I hit the ground running and impressed Charlie. That first impression worked out okay until the year after the Seoul Olympics where I’d picked up a bronze in the Team Pursuit [Ed: Scott is the youngest Aussie to win an Olympic Cycling medal since Dean Woods in 1984].
The following year went sour when three days out from the World Championships I was cut from the team. I had just told Charlie that my road bike had been stolen from the track. He paused for a moment while he was changing a chain ring on a track bike, then continued, stating that without a rode bike I can’t train, or warm up, so I’m no use to the team. A hard one to take as a 19 year old after a 10 month build up. The next two days were spent at the pub drowning my sorrows and eating pizza. Then the team mechanic suggested I use Clayton Stevenson’s bike since he’d just finish competing. So I jumped on and did one ride before we had the team meeting the night before the TP, and it was announced that I was back in. We qualified 3rd but I wasn’t great, and Charlie replaced me for the Quarter Final. I begged him to put me back in for the Semi, which in that year the UCI had decided the fastest loser in the Semi would win the Bronze. He said no, my replacement went less than halfway and we lost the bronze by 0.3s. I wasn’t in a happy clappy frame of mind.
In hindsight had I been more mature I would have worked the system better. In my final three months in the AIS, and therefore the National Team, Charlie hadn’t spoken a single word to me. When I say not a single word I mean it, Not a good morning, hello, nothing. It goes without saying that I wasn’t really training or racing anywhere near my potential considering the negative environment I was in. And I do acknowledge my contribution to that, but he was still my coach and I’d expect more than that. Looking back, I feel as if I was being set up to fail.
I wasn’t alone, Simon Calder was in the same ‘cone of silence’ boat and we share that as some kind of strange bond to this day. The truth was that whether Charlie didn’t like you, thought you were soft, or simply didn’t think you had the physiology to be a world-beating Team Pursuiter, you didn’t get much from him. I remember him telling the group that he’d told his son to not bother continuing cycling because he didn’t have the engine to make it at the top level. Wouldn’t the Club and NRS scene be lonely if we all took on that advice!
So I guess you can say I believe communication wasn’t Charlie’s strong suit. Coaching by fear of dismissal worked in the old Eastern Bloc with thousands of riders to burn through, but not in western society. We pretty much lived in fear of getting the axe, that was clear after a new rider in the program asked Charlie why we were about to do a particular session. Charlie was gobsmacked that a rider would question him. I took it as the rider just wanting to know what system we were targeting. Well Charlie wouldn’t give an answer, but the rider questioning it was on the plane home within a week…
When many of us ex-‘Charlie’s Angels’ get together often the conversation turns to the now funny, but back then, ridiculous stories of the era. Recently the 4 x World Kilo Champion Shane Kelly sparked up and said “what about the M&M’s! Ah the old M&M’s!
To put the M&M’s story into perspective I need to first paint the picture of the intensity we lived in. Charlie’s training programs were infamous for their brutality. Truth be known, he bought the East German Team Pursuit training program from Heiko Salzswedal at the 1988 Olympics, translated it and from 1989 onwards we were doing extraordinary amounts of kilometers on the road, track and ergo’s. We were also very young, and there was a key element to the East German program that we didn’t have, it enabled them to sustain a brutal regime and some how get stronger, and stronger, if you know where I’m going…
Rest days were few and far between and a typical track training day in Germany at the velodrome in Büttgen went something like this:
Morning session: 6.30am wake up, 30min on the rollers, team stretching followed by plyometrics (jumping boxes), shower then breakfast, finally. Then to the track and 10 x 4km Team Pursuit efforts with the last 4 efforts to exhaustion, shower, lunch, and collapse on the bed for any rest possible.
Afternoon session: Often 10 x 2km TP efforts, or everyone’s favorite, 36 x 1 lap sprints. Sometimes we’d finish with a 30km road ride as a replacement for massage. The program was packed with back to back, double track days, throw in the occasional 150km roadie, and maybe 10 x 4km TP efforts in the morning and an 80km Criterium in the evening.
This would go on for around three months leading to a major championship.
Picture painted. Okay, the M&M’s. Charlie was somewhat addicted to Peanut M&M’s, and sometimes, only when we were really good, after a super hard day he’d gather us round and we’d each put out a hand. He’d then treat us to a single Peanut M&M. That’s right, just one. “Oh, thank you master, you are so kind master…” My problem was that I’d take offence and go out and buy a 500g packet for myself in spite of him. Then if our skin folds went up you’d be banned from getting a massage after training. That one bit me on the arse!
Another obsession Charlie had was measuring our skin folds to calculate our body fat, sometimes 3 times a week, and occasionally every day during tours. We were banned from drinking orange juice because it contained too many calories. Diet Coke was okay because it had only 1 calorie per 100ml. That was reversed pretty quickly once the Sports Scientist arrived at the AIS!
While I’m on the topic of nutrition, our best best Individual Pursuit rider was Mark Kingsland. He struggled with his skin folds so Charlie came down on him pretty hard. In a tour in Italy he was told before the first stage that he was too heavy and not allowed to take race food on the stage. The result was that went hunger flat just made the time cut. The next day, completely depleted from stage 1, he was dropped early and eliminated from the race. For the rest of the tour he sat in the team car. Maybe getting through the race any way possible would have been more beneficial…
The accommodation in Büttgen was upstairs from the track, and after training if Charlie caught you pulling on the hand rail to help drag your sorry arse upstairs, he instructed us to go back down and walk back up, unaided this time. Apparently it was a weakness of character.
Most of you won’t know this but Robbie McEwen had a stint in the AIS Track Program. And remember that Robbie was a late starter to cycling after coming across from BMX. With that in mind, he went to the annual altitude road camp in Mexico in January 1992. He had a knee problem that saw him miss a fair bit of training, so things hadn’t been going well went he set off on one of Charlie’s 260km days. It was a ‘no heart rate limit’ day, which is basically a last man standing smashfest. Anyway, Robbie was struggling and a long way behind on his own heading back towards their base in Toluca. When he approached the 200km point Shane Kelly (yes the minute man did some massive kms for a sprinter – to his disgust mind you) was getting picked up after doing his required double century for the day. At this point Charlie got out of the follow van to ride the final kilometers and told the driver not stay behind Robbie, claiming him to be soft, and not worthy claiming he doesn’t have what it takes to be good. On the next hill Charlie lined Robbie up and attacked past, Shane and the driver sailed past as well and stayed with Charlie. Quite some time after all of the other riders, including Charlie, Shane and the van, had arrived at the team hotel they started to wonder where Robbie was and thought maybe they should go and look for him. It turns out after being left out on the Mexican roads alone he had been cleaned up by a bus! That was the end of Robbie’s track ambitions, but fortunately not his life and thankfully he wasn’t ‘soft’ after all, 12 Tour de France stage victories, 12 Giro stage wins and 3 Green Jersey might, but only just, have proved Charlie wrong!
Too be fair Charlie was only interested in building Team Pursuiters, but when you look at the list of riders told they weren’t good enough to be elite cyclists – period – then it’s also safe to say his single mindedness was more a flaw in character rather than a attribute.
There are way too many stories to tell here. Perhaps a book is in order, but that’s for another time. Charlie did have good traits though. I can’t think of any right now, but Australia did enjoy success under his leadership. But then again if I look at his pet event the Team Pursuit, and focus the statistics, perhaps I give him more credit than he deserves.
In Charlie’s 20 year reign the stand-out success is the Olympic Team Pursuit Gold from 1984. The Eastern Bloc boycott, and to be fair, and the rotten luck of the US Team to have a rider pull his foot at the start of the final against the Aussies, had the planets align for an Australian victory. In the following 16 years Australia won a Bronze in 1988, Silver in 92 and 2 World Titles, 93 and 95.
In the 14 years since Charlie retired in 2000, Australia has won the Team Pursuit World Championship 8 times, the Athens Olympic Gold Medal, and Silver in London 2012. Predominantly under the leadership of Ian McKenzie (2001-2013), and this year Tim Decker.
Charlie Walsh was a very driven individual, his commitment to Australian Cycling certainly isn’t in question. After all, the blueprint of our High Performance Program that we have today, was largely drawn up by him.
But to listen to Gary Lyon say the words ‘Super Coach’? Well if only he knew…