One of the most successful female track and field athletes of all time, Debbie Ferguson-McKenzie is a five time Olympian with medals of every colour.
Representing her home country, the Bahamas, Debbie has taken part in every Games since Atlanta 1996, with Rio 2016 still on the cards. Specialising in the 100m and 200m, Debbie began her career at the University of Georgia (USA) and went on to achieve a personal best of 10.91 for the 100m and a Bahaman National record breaking 22.19 for the 200m. Throughout her career, Debbie has collected medals from the Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games, World Championships and the Pan American Games, (an astonishing 52 medals in total!), establishing herself as a true legend of the sport.
In 2014, Debbie sought a new challenge becoming an Assistant Coach at the University of Houston Track & Field team, working alongside fellow Olympic legends Carl Lewis and Leory Burell.
The FCN had the honour of chatting to Debbie as she prepared for another day inspiring athletes in the Houston sunshine.
What has been your most memorable moment throughout your fantastic career as a 5 time Olympian?
Well, I have a medal at every level of competition, the NCAA?s, World and Olympics just to name a few. But honestly, I think my most memorable moment or moments throughout my career has to be being able to be a role model and an inspiration for kids, athletes and adults. Not only in the Bahamas but in my opinion all over the world. I think when you can inspire someone like I have and you can see the individuals going from not believing in themselves to the accomplishment of major goals, which to me are priceless. Helping one another to overcome hurdles and obstacles I think that’s the real accomplishment for me.
Can you describe to us the emotions you experienced being part of an Olympic final?
My experiences have varied. In the beginning I was naive and young and I was thinking oh my goodness, what am I doing here! Of course over my career time line, I have matured as an athlete and by the latter stages of my career I was thinking oh man I live for this! It is an athlete’s greatest accomplishment to be at the Olympics and in an Olympic final, so that’s what athletes have to learn to thrive on. Just like when you train your body physically, you have to train your mind mentally to harness that positivity from everything that is going on around you and put it into that competition. It’s almost like being in Hollywood; you have a script, the scene/race has already been rehearsed. I’ve trained, sacrificed and worked hard, so now it’s time to portray that in front of the World. I have learned how to master that moment and try to harness that feeling and remembering that it?s not all just for me, but also for my Country. That’s what the Olympics are about; it’s about pride and Country. So everything comes together and you have to make the most out of the opportunity it’s the Olympic Games! It’s a fantastic feeling.
Most people don’t see this part, but there were days when I was throwing up, there were days when I couldn’t walk after a session, days when I felt like quitting and there were days when I’d say why am I doing this, I don’t want to do this anymore! But nobody sees that part, so when you make a final and you’re like wow…at least before the gun goes off, I can say I am number 8 or top 8 in the World! That to me, if you think of how many people are in this World, is fantastic, it’s awesome!
Did you feel a lot of pressure being in an Olympic Final? Particularly when you were in the final of the 4 x 100m relay in Sydney 2000 on the last leg of the Bahama?s team?
Yes! Honestly there was so much pressure! I remembered chewing off my nails before the final of the relay! [right before the relay] I was in my first Olympic relay Final, (in 1996 I made the Semi for 100M). I remembered that Marion Jones had won that 100m final by a mile!? I got 8th place which is viewed as last, and we all know that most fans/individuals embrace winners. I was excited and so nervous at the same time. I was in my first relay final.
So for the relay final, I was like oh my gosh! I am really nervous because Marion had just beaten me by a mile in the 100m and I’m going to have to run against her again?.? In fact, I remembered thinking if I don’t run well or don’t do well I couldn’t return to my home town!? because they are going to talk so bad about me! So I mustard up the courage to allow that pressure to make me and not to break me. I think that pressure and that positive burden on my shoulders made me think Ok Debbie, you can walk away from this crying about it or just go and do the best you can. I think I remembered that positive thinking perked me up for the challenge and I was ready. I thought you know what let?s go Debbie, let?s just go do the best you can, you’ve trained hard to prepare, let’s work on getting that stick around. And that was the last thing I remembered saying to myself. After that, I promise you, I don’t remember the race! It’s been such a long time since, but I can remember almost going in slow motion, almost like I stood outside my body watching myself performing, competing, just running and I was like wow! I call that running in the zone and I’ve been craving for that ever since. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you miss it but that was an awesome out of body experience!
What are your secrets to having such a long and successful career as an athlete?
I don’t know about any secrets, but I think if I could put it in a nutshell; I’m an athlete of routine, routine of being disciplined, hard working and dedicated. Doing the small things that most athletes don’t want to do, tapering down, ice baths, all kinds of stuff; If coach says do 6, don’t try to do 4! Your goal is to do 8. Those are things that made me a better athlete. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I try to take care of my body, rest etc. The small little things that we sometimes take for granted and I think those are the things that helped me, along with the passion and love for the sport. I love what I do, that runs deep. I think all of that has helped me to have a longer career.
Did you ever have a female coach?
Yes I did. My first coach at elementary school was a female coach and my fourth coach was also a female coach when I was a professional athlete.
Did you find that having a female coach meant that you could relate to them better and have a better coach-athlete relationship? Or did it not make a difference?
For me it didn’t make a difference. I was blessed because my female coaches where very disciplined and very strict. Being a lady as a coach doesn’t give you an excuse! But yes they understood what I was going through with certain things; I could talk to them about it all. But guess what, she was a tough cookie! I appreciate that now more so than ever.
How have you found the transition from athlete to coach? Are you ever tempted to join in with sessions or show your athletes what you are capable of?
For the transition itself, from an athlete to a coach, for me was very easy. In every aspect whether pro, volunteering at a college level etc, I’ve always taken every opportunity to learn. So for me transition into coaching is quite natural and it’s an easy progression. I try not to get tempted to join in sessions with my athletes, sometimes you think it, I’m only human, but I don’t get caught up in emotions. I think more so being able to demonstrate to the athlete that this is how it needs to be done and I’m always striving for perfection. So for that part, yes I take pride in assisting them to be the best athlete they can be and also be the best student-athlete they can be (in the classroom and on the track). I want them to be the best all around person, not just to be a track super star athlete, but to be a great person to be around.
Do you ever have any of the boys wanting to race with you?
I hear it all the time! They always say hey coach you ready to run?! A lot of the athletes end up googling me and they would say oh my goodness, coach I didn’t know you were that good! I reply with what are you talking about, it was just hard work! I try to teach them that I trained hard and that was the result/outcome. I’ve known athletes who I’ve had major talents but who didn’t use that talent and didn’t get the recognition they deserved. I try to teach the athlete that there is more to it than talent and as a person who has been in it and who has experienced it; I want them now to do better than I did.
How did the opportunity to be the Assistant Coach at the University of Houston come about?
There was an opening at The University of Houston, so I had an interview and I was contacted. After going through the interviews I was then able to be hired as one of the coaches and I’m loving it! It’s been a blessing and loving every moment of it.
Thanks to Coach Burrell and the staff for welcoming me here. It’s a very professional environment. The irony is that at one time I used to look up to Coach Burrell and Coach Lewis as well as the rest of the coaches as they were older than me and now they are my colleagues! I find that so interesting and so amazingly humbling, I’m so honoured.
Is there a lot of extra work such as paper work etc as well as the actual coaching?
Yes, it’s a lot of work. You sometimes have different schedules, some students have classes here and there so you have to accommodate the best way you know how. You have a bigger group but then you have one or two where the schedule doesn’t fit. As a coach, you also have recruiting, you have paper work and practice logs, travelling and the list goes on and on. It’s like being a teacher; it’s a very important task that you do because teachers educate kids for the future and likewise for coaches. Yes people see more of the athletic side, but for me it’s a whole body experience. There’s a lot of work that’s involved but we love what we do and we do it with pride and joy.
Congratulations on your first American Athletic Conference Champion, Bria Carter who recently won the 60m dash at the Indoor Championships. Can you tell us about how you have worked with her and what lessons from your own career have you taught her?
I think one of the biggest things that I’ve tried to teach Bria is about trust. Sometimes being a new coach coming in and having the old one leaving is difficult because they’ve had that bond with that coach. You have to build that trust; like we talked about the coach-athlete relationship and so that’s was one of the biggest things for her, to be able to trust me as a coach. It’s almost like I’m being a parent; I would never want anything harmful or detrimental to happen to my child and it?s the same thing for my athletes, I want the best for my athlete. The most important thing is trust and that relationship.
I teach them it’s more of a mind set. Track & field is 80% mental, I know we laugh about it, but it actually really is. Yes you work hard physically, but some people who work hard physically because they are not mentally strong, throw that hard work out the door. So I’m trying to teach them the mind set of being tough, being disciplined, being dedicated, being hard working and never quitting. It?s the same thing for track that you do with life; be a champion on the track but also a champion at life. And so far I’m very proud. She’s a fast learner and we still have a long way to go, but so far so good!
Now that you’re a coach that has had an athlete in a Championship final and having been in many Championship finals yourself, which is more nerve racking?
I think the one that has been more nerve racking for me would be being the coach and having an athlete in the final. I have learned over the years, and reaching a championship final I knew what I have done to prepare for it. So I could use that confidence to go into a final; I learned how to channel that and put that into my race. Now, as a coach, I don’t know what my athletes are thinking at times! I don’t know what his or her thoughts are; I don’t know what they are saying to themselves. Are they saying oh my god I’m so nervous or are they saying man I’m ready let’s go! Even though you teach them how to accept that challenge, to channel that energy and to focus, you just never know! So because I don’t have any control over that, I think that part for me is so nerve recking. Sometimes I’m like I can’t watch! I can’t watch!!
Is being the only female coach in the group of staff at U of H something you are conscious of?
Personally for me, I get on with it and it’s not an issue. The staff are very professional and being in a professional environment that’s exciting for me. I’m getting the chance to be a coach! I love the environment and as I said no issue with being a female coach at all. I’m just a coach, so I love that.
What are your ambitions as a coach for the future?
Ultimately, just trying to assist wherever I can and learning as much as I can from being with my staff Coach Burrell and Carl Lewis etc. I have to be ambitious One of these days I could have a Head Coaching job and be the head coach of my programme. I think there is nothing wrong with being ambitious about that and ultimately that would be a goal of mine to actually experience that.
Having already competed in 5 Olympic Games, your last one being in London 2012, are you tempted to go for your 6th Olympics and compete in Rio 2016?
It’s one of those things that is always in the back of your head. I know what I’m capable of doing. I think it’s a hard question to be able to answer right now. In my opinion I’ve always believed there is nothing I cannot do and right now if I want to go to Rio, there nothing stopping me. I don’t make excuses. Yes I do have a heavy work load being a coach, but honestly, I love the challenge. If that challenge comes and present itself, that will be one I will accept. I would move through it the way I have with my running career and now in my coaching career. So I’m just trying to get through this year first, trying to do an exceptional job being at The University of Houston. I figured I’ll just cross that bridge if and when I get there.
Are you keeping up with the training then?
I’m actually doing quite well, for the youngsters out there that know what it is to run well, I won?t tell them what time I ran in a 300m, ?because they would be like whoa! But yes I am, I’m as fit as a fiddle!