Michael Clarke, the Calabar High School head coach, has a Midas touch when it comes to relays. His 1992 Jamaica College team still holds the Gibson-McCook Relay class 1 4x200 record. Under his care, Calabar has sprinted to meet records in the class 1, 3 and 4 4x100 metre relays and in the 4x400. With the 41st staging of the Gibson-McCook Relays approaching, Clarke gave an insight into his winning methods.
In the 1974 book, Herb McKenley: Olympic Star by Jimmy Carnegie and Errol Townsend, the legendary athlete and coach said, “Cohesion and perfect understanding between the four members of a sprint relay team are very important. e rst leg requires an athlete with an explosive start, the second calls for a ghter, the third a curve specialist and the fourth a big occasion man. All must have good speed but they must be able to pass the baton with pinpoint accuracy 100 times out of 100, Even blindfolded.”
Clarke concurs but places the emphasis on speed. “I tend to agree wholeheartedly except for the emphasis that he did not place on speed”, he explains. “In the 4x1, 4x2, 4x4, the emphasis on speed cannot be overemphasized”, he stresses. “ e other qualities can be achieved through practice and coaching”, Clarke teaches.
Team chemistry is high on Clarke’s relay selection agenda. “Chemistry– how well do they communicate, whether verbally or visually or otherwise and the kind of team players that they present themselves as well as occasion persons”, he proposes. Longer coaching sessions are required to achieve high levels of cohesion. “Regardless of the speed which you may have”, he warns, “if there isn’t a chemistry, you’re setting yourself up for disaster or under performance.”
Whether he is coaching Calabar, his Akan Track Club or on duty for Jamaica at the World or Olympic level, he looks for certain characteristics from his relay charges. “ e lead o person is someone who also must be level headed so that he or she doesn’t pick start and the anchor leg person must be a big occasion person, preferably being level headed, big occasion” he believes. Contrary to conventional wisdom, he says, “he doesn’t necessarily have to be the fastest person as some teams do philosophize that the anchor leg must be the fastest person or the backstretch.”
His advice about second leg runners is pointed. “Well, for me”, he considers, “the backstretch person must have a significant quality of great speed endurance because he or she runs the longest portion of her relay.”
He uses practice to find an optimal match between the speed of the incoming and outgoing runners. “I believe in taking a little bit of a risk element to the passing of the baton in the exchange zone, extended markers”, he indicates, “which give the athlete sufficient time to accelerate from as well as reduce the deceleration to acceleration, deceleration from the incoming and acceleration from the outgoing.”
From what he sees from primary and preparatory school teams at the Gibson-McCook Relays, he deduces that coaching has played a beneficial role. “So, you have better trained coaches and they’re doing the right thing by exposing them to the rudiments of relay passing”, says the former GC Foster College lecturer. This, he says, helps the youngsters to make a smoother transition to high school relay running.
Setting up the 4x400
In the 4x400, Clarke builds his line-up around the middle two legs. “I don’t start from the lead-o or anchor person”, he says with authority. “The second and third leg”, he lectures, “depending on what kind of a threat your opponents present, the second and third leg must be an individual who is a fighter who is aggressive but in control, a never say die person because in that point in time, if you mess up on the second leg or the third leg regardless of how good the anchor leg person is, it can mess up your whole thing.”
“The first leg person, steady, steady headed, probably your third fastest person”, he outlines, “and it all again depends on what kind of athletes your opponents have.” Notably, he watches his main opponents all season. “You’ve seen what they have, what kind of temperament, emotional maturity that they do have or do present”, Clarke advises, “and then you match according to the same qualities for your people.” Clarke nevertheless values the first stint of the 4x400 highly. “If your lead-off runner gives you a bad pass in that he’s behind”, coach Clarke worries, “that messes up the race plan and level headedness of the second leg runner.”
Though Calabar has 4 of the 10 Gibson-McCook Relays, the class three record – 41.83 seconds by Tyreke Wilson, Christopher Wilson, Brandon Heath and Dejour Russell – as one of the two most memorable. “41.83, 41.83 is phenomenal”, he marvels. “I mean who would think that in our lifetime we would see a set of class 3 boys running under 42 seconds”, he continues. The 58-year-old coach says, “I remember when 41 high was the record in class 2.”
His other crown jewel is the class 1 record of 39.32 seconds by Edward Clarke, Michael O’Hara, Julanie Walker and Sean Selvin who later ran 39.08 at Boys and Girls Championships in 2015. He notes that those Calabar times aren’t only the best by high schools anywhere in the world. “Some countries”, he says proudly, “this is close to their national record.”
Clarke’s 1991 Jamaica College 4x400 team is still the fastest high school of all time at 3 minutes 06.56 seconds, with his 2014 Calabar Gibson-McCook quartet coming next at 3.07.00. He hints that Gibson-McCook fans might see a run at those records on February 26, 2017. With half of the 2016 World Under 20 bronze medal in school at Calabar this season in the form of Taylor, the 2015 World Youth champion, and Anthony Carpenter, the coach quietly says, “Hope to break it this year.”
HUBERT LAWRENCE has been attending the Gibson-McCook Relays for more than 30 years.