Unless we’re missing something, Ryan Wilson is the first hurdler to win a world medal and coach a world champion at the same time. After his charge Nia Ali won world indoor gold, SPIKES had to find out the full story behind their remarkable partnership.
Preparing to fail
“Quite frankly, I told her, ‘you do realise that this may fail miserably?’”
That’s how Ryan Wilson began his partnership with Nia Ali back in December 2012; the LA-based sprint hurdlers had been training partners the season before.
“That’s why we had a close relationship. I knew how she worked at practice, I knew the sort of things she liked and didn’t like,” Wilson tells SPIKES.
“We talked for a long time about it, and I had to talk to my coach about it. It was a long process before we both pulled the trigger.”
Wilson had been coaching at youth level since 2010, something he describes as “an interesting challenge”.
“The middle school I coached at didn’t have a track, so we just had to get creative,” he says. “They had a grass field, or we’d go into the neighbourhood, or use the stairs at school.”
By 2012, his old coaches at the University of Southern California had been in touch, and Wilson was “super-happy” to run the hurdles programme at his alma mater.
It wasn’t long before Ali got wind of her pal’s new gig, coaching at collegiate level.
“She said to me, ‘well, you’re a coach now, why don’t you coach me?’,” recalls Wilson. “I was like, 'whoa, that’s new territory...'”
The American Dream
At the start of Wilson’s elite coaching career, despite his obvious pedigree (Wilson’s PB 13.02 ranks him 18th in the world all-time for the 110m hurdles), he had reached the age of 32 without making a US team for a major champs.
At the 2012 Olympic trials in Tracktown, both Wilson and Ali were the last-placed finishers in their respective finals.
By the 2013 US Championships (which doubles as trials for the world championships) in Des Moines, Iowa, they were a team.
Logistically, it was a nightmare. “I’m literally coaching Nia and warming up for my first round at the same time,” says Wilson.
“All my competitors are around. All the coaches that I know and know me, coaches I respect – and my coach – AND her competitors, are around.
“I’m literally warming up for my first round as she’s getting ready to go out for her semi-final.”
Later that day, Ali produced the race of her life to finish third, with an astonishing 12.48 PB to qualify for the Moscow 2013 World Championships.
“That women’s race was maybe the best race ever. It was the fastest US final ever. I was just so incredibly proud of her making the team, considering what went down in that race,” he says.
(L-R) Nia Ali, Queen Harrison, Brianna Rollins, Lolo Jones and Kellie Wells react to the fastest US 100m hurdles final ever.
The day after, Wilson beat a field of equal depth to win the US title and book his plane ticket to Russia.
“I love to compete. I love to win, and it was like multiple wins. That was one of the best weekends of my life.”
Ali didn’t make the final in Moscow, but Wilson took a world silver medal behind US team-mate David Oliver.
“I have a lot of gratitude for Nia, for the way she worked with me all through worlds and stuff like that, to allow me to achieve my goals.”
Ali, champion of the world
Nothing’s ever certain in athletics, especially in the hurdles, but arguably, the great Olympic champion Sally Pearson was an overwhelming favourite to win 60mH gold at the Sopot 2014 World Indoor Championships.
Ryan Wilson and Nia Ali didn’t share that view.
“We really felt like we had a shot at winning. Sally Pearson is one of the best ever, but we really felt like we had a legitimate chance – and a good chance – to win and be world champion.”
“Don’t give her the win; make her beat you,” Wilson told Ali ahead of the race. Pearson couldn’t, and Ali took gold.
“Nia went out and did it. And I got pretty excited. I think I got more excited by Nia winning than I got for myself, for my second place finish [in Moscow].
“While I was elated to medal at worlds, I was fulfilling some of my potential. It’s a sense of satisfaction. But when you’re coaching an athlete, it’s the satisfaction mixed in with a little more unbridled joy.”
“Nia is also a good friend of mine, so there’s a lot of emotions tied into it. I’m very proud and very happy for my friend.”
It’s all a far cry from the disclaimers of failure he felt honour-bound to make at the start of their relationship. In the year-end rankings for the 100m hurdles, Ali rose from 28th in 2012 to third under Wilson’s tutelage.
“It’s gone incredibly well,” he says. “She dropped a quarter of a second off her PR last year; she made the hardest team to make in US history. And now she’s world champion.”
In addition to Ali, Wilson also coaches Reggie Wyatt, NCAA champion over the 400m hurdles.
Reggie Wyatt trains in the sand, under the watchful gaze (and camera lens) of his creative coach.
Wilson talks extensively, not on the technical aspect of hurdles coaching, but the human aspect of the athlete-coach relationship.
“I don’t just go out and coach my folks the way my coach coaches me. Everyone’s body has its own strengths and weaknesses, so I really have to develop a language, and a very solid relationship with my athletes,” he says.
“It’s just like any relationship with a loved one, I guess. The partnership is so deep it really is like being married in a sense. Communication and trust are very important.
“I’ve been fortunate enough that two incredible athletes have trusted me to help them achieve their goals. They’re winners already. The way their minds work – is elite already.
“I have to work hard to develop working lines of communication. What I understand, the way I understand it – isn’t always going to work for them. I have to constantly check-in with them mentally: to make sure the cues I’m giving them and the language that I’m using, is something that they can grasp.
“If it isn’t, then I have to change. I can’t force them to change. That makes too much work for the athlete.”
“It works out because they really trust me, and we have a great rapport. They work hard, and they have an understanding about what I’m doing with them in conjunction with my running.”
“I think they kind of like that I’m running also. It makes me sort of a pseudo training partner for them. We don’t train together, but the fact that I’m running and competing also… I don’t know if any athletes have ever been able to root for their coach before.”
As well as the inevitable timetable clashes at track meets, Wilson’s day-to-day schedule is pretty hectic. He travels straight from practice to coaching; has responsibilities as a father-of-two, and must also try and quench his thirsty creative appetite.
“I’ve got two kids at home, two kids on the track, and then I have my kid – my career,” he says with a laugh. “”It’s new territory, but I have a lot of fun doing it.”