|Wednesday, 18 July 2012 12:46|
Competitive fires burn in top track coach
By Judy Monchuk
Romanian-born Les Gramantik spent a year in a refugee camp before coming to Canada after deciding he wasn’t willing to devote any more of his life to the army or the rigid East Bloc system.
Weeks after arriving, Gramanitk was coaching track and field. He’s never looked back, coaching more than 55 Canadian champions over the past 30 years, including leading the track and field team at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Later this summer, he heads to London for his sixth Olympic Games as personal coach for heptathlete and hurdler Jessica Zelinka and Paralympic amputee sprinter Earle Connor.
At 62, Gramanitk continues to take athletes to world competitions with his sights focused on the podium. He cannot comprehend training for less, to ease off in his expectations. He jokes that his hyper competitive streak is a testosterone thing.
“I don’t want to lose to anybody. I love to play tennis, but I don’t care if Roger Federer shows up. I’d hate to lose to him.” He pauses. “Ok, maybe I’d be more forgiving if it was Federer.”
Gramantik was a pole-vaulter before moving into coaching and readily admits the aggressive mindset is a holdover from an athletic youth spent in a system focused on defeating capitalist athletes. The only child of a single mother, Gramantik spent his hours outside school from age 11 to 19 working with his coach, a man he describes as a powerful father figure who inspired him with negative challenges.
“He was stern, harsh,” says Gramantik with obvious affection. “I loved his sarcasm, his meanness.” It was a style of coaching Gramantik brought to athletes in Israel and Canada. “In my early years I just tortured them. They loved it.’’ He pauses. “But things have changed.”
So has Gramantik. He has softened his way of dealing with athletes and describes his style now as more complex, more rounded. “I’m much better now. I’m more and more realizing that I’m not challenging athletes, I’m challenging people to be better.”
Connor has worked with Gramantik since 1999 and is seeking his third gold medal after winning two at the Beijing Paralympics in 2008 before walking away from elite sport. Last fall, he decided to defend his titles in London and credits his coach with preparing him for this latest challenge, noting that Gramantik is willing to continually change perspective and incorporate new insights, both physical and psychological, to his coaching methods.
“Those dynamics are what makes a coach a champion,” says Connor.
“I wouldn’t still be running at 35 if he didn’t inspire me,” he says, citing Gramantik’s time as a refugee as an example of true sacrifice. “Compared to that, I’m running down a straight line.”