John Adams: 63-Year-Old Track Coach Inspires Olympic Hopefuls
By Merlisa Lawrence Corbett
James Andre, a college football player, is unashamed to admit that a man nearly three times his age left him gasping for breath and wondering, “How does he do it?”
Andre, a running back at Webber International University, remembers the day John Adams, a 63-year-old track coach, asked him to go for a run around Polk State College in Winter Haven.
“I’ll do a mile with you,” Andre remembers Adams saying. They ran a mile. “How about another one?” Andre agreed. Then Adams told Andre to continue working out while he made a quick trip home.
Andre thought Adams had driven to the college. However, Adams ran two miles to his home. He completed whatever errand and then ran two miles back. He wanted continue running.
“I tell people, don’t let this grey (hair) fool you,” says Adams.
Andre recalls being stunned and thinking, “That dude… he got it.”
Adams has been running most of his life. Whether a street in his hometown of New Rochelle, NY, a military base in Vietnam, a track in New Mexico or roadside in Winter Haven, running has put Adams on a lifelong path of self awareness.
A firm believer in running as a return on hard work invested, Adams enjoys persuading young athletes, like Andre, to push themselves beyond what they believed possible.
Adams coaches All Saints Academy’s high school track team and trains Olympic hopefuls. No matter how grand their goals, Adams believes inner strength is the energy needed to fuel an athlete’s success.
“I’ve been running most of, if not all of my life,” says Adams. “I really started developing a love for running in primary school, particularly the fifth and sixth grade.’
After high school, he was drafted to serve in Vietnam. “The plan was to train and hopefully make the Olympic trials. Unfortunately, I got a draft notice. My draft number was 11… I figured this isn’t going to work. I’m not going into the army,” he says. “So I talked it over with an associate and decided to join the Air Force. I ended up going to Vietnam anyway.”
In Vietnam he ran on and near the military base. “It was all low key, nothing serious. I ran basically, because for me, it was a release and I enjoyed it,” Adams says.
It was his high school coach who first recognized Adams’ passion for running. “He showed me that I had the talent and skills, most of what I was missing was in my mind.”
After Adams left the Air Force in 1977 he enrolled at John Jay College, which had no track team. That didn’t stop him. He approached the athletic director about starting a team.
“He agreed that if I could get enough people to signup, he’d consider it. Unfortunately for him, I put the sheet out and about 25 people signed up. Fifteen came out and about seven of us stuck with it.”
He started a club team, which competed against running groups. He then transferred to Hunter College, where he continued to run. After college, Adams took a job as a track and field coach for the Parks and Recreation Department for the City of New York. He later was promoted to director of running programs for the parks department.
It was in New York where Adams was invited to compete at the Olympic trials. Twice Adams participated at the trials—1984, 1988—and failed to make the team. Still, he considered it an honor to be invited.
One of Adams’ goals is to get athletes to tap into what he calls their “God given talents.” He also wants them to learn to enjoy the process regardless of recognition.
Connor Oberhofer, a senior at All Saints, joined the track team last year, Adams’ first season at the school.
“He pushed us really hard,” says Oberhofer. “He knew we weren’t world-class athletes, but he wanted us to be the best athletes we could be.”
Oberhofer, who lives in Lakeland, says Adams encouraged him to run for himself, even when away from practice. “I run around Lake Hollingsworth a lot now.”
A former basketball player, Oberhofer runs 1600-meter and 800-meter events. He believes Adams’ training techniques have helped him improve as a cross-country runner, too.
Adams also works with a handful of Olympic hopefuls who wish to represent their home countries. Andre hopes to compete for Haiti, a country that hasn’t had an athlete win a medal since 1928.
“If he continues to work hard he’ll be representing his country in the Olympics,” Adams says of Andre.
Focus, discipline and self-confidence, are the three pillars Adams believes are necessary for successful runners. “Follow that up with commitment and understanding of the discipline within the sport. In other words, if you’re a sprinter, understand sprinting. If you’re a thrower, understand throwing and so on… Because God has given them the physical ability and talent to be the best… but they’ve got to work at it.”