Expat nurtures the Filipino dream for a first Olympic gold

Every Filipino athlete has dreamed of giving the country its first gold medal in the Olympics,  a dream that was almost realized by boxer Mansueto Velasco had he not been robbed of the top honors in the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Fortunately for us, though, there are still some who believe that one day, a Filipino athlete can clinch the coveted honor.

And former Procter and Gamble CEO and US national junior athletics team coach James Michael Lafferty is one of them.

The American expatriate believes that Filipino athletes,  in  particular Fillipino runners have the talent and the skills when it comes to track and field events, and he believes that young Filipino athletes, given the proper funding, training and diet program, and equipment, could compete and be at par with the world’s best.

“Filipinos are amazing runners. I’ve been joining races all over the Philippines, from Laoag to General Santos City, and I saw a lot of youth runners who have the potential to become world class athletes,” said Lafferty, who trains a mixed group of Filipino runners near his home in Ayala Alabang Village.

Lafferty,  a graduate from the University of Cincinnati with a degree in Sports Physiology and Psychology and was in London for the 2012 Olympic Games to guide the Nigerian runners,  explained that Filipinos have the same desire, spirit and the perseverance to achieve.

“I want to see in my lifetime when Filipino kids would someday watch on TV a Filipino athlete among those standing on the medal podium and see the Philippine flag go up. Then they will say to themselves, I want to do that. And it will start the boom. That’s all we need, we need one to start the fire.”

Lafferty said that the Philippines have already started a boom in running and marathon competitions, and all we need to do, he said, is to take advantage of it.

“Manila has more marathons than any city in the world. The running boom has taken off and it is good for the country. Good that people look into fitness and a lot of people go out and run. They go to The Fort and started to jog,” said Lafferty.

The youthful coach, who also trained runners from Germany and France, however, said that the country is still lacking grassroots development programs for young runners to start early.

“The question is, really, is there a grassroots system that can find that kid and give them shoes, put them in the right program and get them join a running club? We should be getting started on those programs or that kid ends up working young and the talent is wasted.”

The St. Xavier in Cincinnati alum added that the Kenyans,  although they are at a different level, used running as their way out of poverty. “Just like basketball in the US with inner city kids. Any rich Kenyan is a runner. So the whole country runs. If you have the whole country pushing and motivating you like that, you become better.”

He noted that a good training program and proper funding are the keys to building a world champion, especially nowadays that sports, particularly the Olympic Games, has become a big business with corporate sponsors investing huge amount of resources to transform one person into a superstar athlete that becomes the face of their brand.

“I’m a former Olympic coach, there’s some advanced techniques that anybody can do, called speed work, more manageable with a group because it’s too difficult (if you’re doing it by yourself) and it’s basically a high intensity training where we do different distances.”

“Phelps’ budget was $7M a year. When I went to the 2012 London Games with Team Nigeria there was this picture in the paper that says: ‘Meet Team Ennis’ where she has 15 people helping her including a doctor, therapist, sprint coach, strength coach, dietician and sports psychologist.”

Phelps went on to win four gold ands two silver medals in the London Games, while Ennis gave Great Britain the gold in heptathlon.

Lafferty said if most of the Filipino athletes, like long jumper Marestella Torres, were given the same attention like Phelps and Enis, the Philippines would have already clinched that elusive Olympic gold medal.

“In my own opinion, Torres is the best long jumper in the world. But she’s is fighting on her own with P20,000 a month, 10 percent of one coach, no dietician and no strength coach, that’s the reason why she couldn’t win a gold. She has the potential to win gold in the Olympics,” added Lafferty, who’s been helping out Torres by giving her a new pair of shoes and advice on diet and strength conditioning.

“You can’t ask her (Torres) to compete with no proper coaching, diet and conditioning against a full time athlete,  say,  under a Nike sponsorship, and doesn’t have to worry about money and has all kinds of support. In long jump, the difference of winning a medal is always a few centimeters.”

And Lafferty, who also worked with long distance runners Eduardo Buenavista and Julius Sarmona, is still hoping that he would complete his project of housing all Filipino Olympic athletes that could someday deliver that gold.

“I’m working on a project, but it is not yet into fruition, and that is to house all the Olympic athletes. I want to try and build an environment where everybody is training and working together.”