East Noble graduate Amy Yoder Begley knows she took the “round-about” route to reaching the Olympic Games.
The distance runner won two NCAA championships at Arkansas before she graduated in 2001 and was coached by her husband, Andrew Begley, for the first six years of her professional career before moving to Oregon to train with the Nike Oregon Project.
She first qualified for the Olympics in the 10,000 meters in 2008 and was the U.S. outdoor champion in the same event in 2009 and 2010. She finished sixth at the 2009 World Championships.
“So once I retired, my goal was to help people navigate the post-collegiate system and get there faster than I did by not making some of the mistakes that I made,” said Yoder Begley, who now coaches a team of about 18 elite middle- and long-distance runners at the Atlanta Track Club. “But also, no matter what you tell them, they have to figure it out themselves. So it's kind of been one of my goals to help people figure it out and find the best place for them.”
Former track prodigy Mary Cain told the New York Times she had faced constant pressure to lose weight while she was training with Alberto Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project. The extreme dieting, paired with intense training, caused her body to break down. She broke five bones, her performance on the track suffered, and she left the team in 2016, when she was just 20.
Soon after, Yoder Begley came forward to say she had a similar experience with the Nike Oregon Project several years before Cain, with similar costs. She said Salazar regularly criticized her appearance, put her on extremely restrictive diets and tried to isolate her from others on the team, accusations backed by then-teammate Kara Goucher.
Although Yoder Begley set many of her personal records during this period, she also suffered an Achilles injury in 2010. Salazar took her off the team in 2011, and Nike cut her funding in 2012, essentially ending her professional career.
In 2014, she was hired to lead the elite team for the Atlanta Track Club and, after hearing her discuss how much they worked as a team in her job interview, decided to bring in her husband as well.
“We're not trying to fit all the athletes into the same box. We don't have a certain mileage that 800 meters should run. We don't have a certain mileage that a 10K'er or marathoner should run,” Yoder Begley said when discussing their coaching philosophy. “We meet the athletes where they are when they come to us, and we slowly move them up, figure out what their body can handle. We want to make sure they have long careers. We think long term.”
Yoder Begley, the sister of Carroll girls cross country coach Phil Yoder, who has guided his team to the last two state titles, said it's important to remember coaching is just one job. Coaches shouldn't double as nutritionists, sports psychologists or doctors and should instead reach out to experts in those areas if an athlete needs additional help.
“Sometimes, you have to push them to reach for more, and sometimes you have to guide them in a direction,” Yoder Begley said of her athletes. “But you have to do it in a respectful way.”
Yoder Begley said even she occasionally has trouble avoiding potentially destructive comments, because even an innocuous-seeming comment about how they look in their uniform or “bad eating habits” could send an athlete spiraling.
“When you're in the emotion of it sometimes, you can tend to fall back into what you know and what you've experienced,” Yoder Begley said. “Even for me sometimes I have to think back and, did I say that right? With the right tone and the right words? How did I want to be spoken to? What did I not like? What didn't help me, and what did? Sometimes I have to take a step back and remember how you felt in the moment.”
Yoder Begley discusses the challenges of coaching elite athletes during a pandemic.