By RON FANFAIR
He started coaching almost by accident.
Just a few years after a stress fracture injury dashed Jamaican-born Anthony McCleary’s hopes of representing Canada in the 1988 Olympics, the promising 400-metre runner was unexpectedly launched into coaching when the Oshawa Legions coach suddenly quit in 1993.
“It sort of fell into my lap,” recalls McCleary, who was named Athletics Canada 2009 Coach of the Year last November.
He has overseen the development of several athletes in the past 16 years, but his most successful and prized possession is 100-metre hurdler Priscilla Lopes-Schliep who won a bronze medal at the 2008 Seoul Olympics and a silver medal at last year’s World Outdoor Championships in Berlin, Germany.
The coach and the athlete met in 1999 when the then 16-year-old 100-metre runner turned to him for help.
“I turned her down initially,” remembers McCleary who, along with former Canadian sprinter Desai Williams, now runs the Elite Edge Club. “I was coaching a girl by the name of Vernee Samuel who was beating Priscilla and she figured that if she could not beat the girl, then she might as well link up with her coach and see what he was doing to make her get the edge. That was how bad she wanted to do well.
“Priscilla was persistent and she came back to me for help and, as they say, the rest is history. The important thing was that she had the support of her family and that has played a huge role in her success. She was also willing to learn and work hard to get to the top of her sport.”
It was Lopes-Schliep who also approached her coach with the idea to attempt the short hurdles.
“It was a whole new experience for me just like it was for her,” he said. “The closest I had been to the event was my association with Mark McCoy who I trained with. I had to learn the sport and Priscilla did the same in what has been a long process that has enabled her to reach the point that she’s at.”
McCleary predicts that Lopes-Schliep can run faster and eclipse her personal outdoor best 12.49 secs. established at the Memorial Van Damme meet in Brussels last September.
Ajax resident and national champion Perdita Felicien holds the Canadian record of 12.46 secs.
“The game plan is to get to the 2012 Olympics in London in real good shape and get the gold medal,” he said. “Along the way, we will do things that will help her reach that goal and that includes improving her time. Priscilla is very coachable and she listens, so that makes my job easy.”
McCleary feels the impromptu drug test Lopes-Schliep was summed to10 minutes before the final in Berlin last summer diminished her chance of securing a gold medal. Her name had apparently come up at random after the semi-finals earlier in the day.
“She did not have enough time to warm up before the final and that definitely affected her,” said the coach who runs a heating and air conditioning firm when he’s not coaching his athletes at York University or in Florida during the winter, or accompanying Lopes-Schliep to international meets. “Anyhow, it’s the hurdles and anything can go wrong because the girls are moving at maximum speed.”
The coach’s stable also includes 400-metre hurdler Adam Kunkel and sprinter Toya Olupona who is Canada’s top ranked 60-metre runner.
McCleary’s passion for track and field began in Jamaica where he ran in high school before coming to Canada in 1980 at age 13. He singles out former Jamaican world champion and 1976 Montreal Olympics 200-metre gold medalist Don Quarrie as his idol.
“He’s my hero without a doubt,” says McCleary who met Quarrie for the first time in California in 1996. “He was graceful and very quick and most of the young athletes looked up to him when I was a kid.”
McCleary, a father of three, is preparing Lopes-Schliep for her first major competition in 2010, the 13th world indoor championships in Doha, Qatar March 12-14.