Feature flashback: V.I.P. soccer program for players with physical and mental disabilities and special needs provides life-enriching pleasures

This feature appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in May 2004.

Everybody wins with V.I.P. soccer program

By Ed Odeven

We have witnessed these scenes too many times: Coaches screaming at a referee, questioning his/her intellect and demanding that they get thicker glasses or a hearing aid; fans taunting an opposing player who’s had a tough game; and parents berating a coach for not giving their kid enough playing time.

 

Many times, the joy of sports — watching or playing — is lost because people spoil the atmosphere. But remember this: We’re talking about games here. They are supposed to be fun.

 

And everyone deserves the chance to experience the pleasure of winning and being part of a team. Kudos to the American Youth Soccer Organization for recognizing this and establishing the V.I.P. (Very Important Player) Program 15 years ago.

 

The V.I.P. Program gives individuals 4 1/2 and older (there’s no age limit) with physical and mental disabilities and special needs a chance to play soccer and experience these life-enriching pleasures.

 

The local AYSO, which serves Flagstaff, Williams and the surrounding areas, began its V.I.P. Program last year with 14 students, ranging in age from 5 to 15. Lori Diver is the team’s coach. Dave Kelly, the organization’s former coach administrator, is the V.I.P. director.

 

“I thought with this program we ought to be getting more kids out to play who have never had a chance to do this,” Kelly was saying in a phone conversation Tuesday.

 

Reflecting on last year’s season, Kelly spoke volumes about the positive aspects of the program.

 

“I’ve coached soccer for a long time,” he says. “Of course, we all want to win, right? It’s not that way (with this group). They just want to play and have success. They root for each other no matter what team they are on.”

 

The V.I.P. games can’t be defined as sticking to by-the-book regulations. For instance, games generally last “around an hour,” Kelly points out. Score isn’t kept, either.

 

“It’s a dynamic type of thing,” Kelly says. “You can’t be real structured and worry about the laws of the game too much. It’s a very special thing. We play on a very small field, but for a lot of these kids it’s a huge field to them.”

 

Games are held at Marshall Elementary School on an under-8 field, which signifies that the size of the field (about 30 yards wide by 40 yards long) is the same as that used by the AYSO’s 6- and 7-year-olds. Corner flags are set up, as are center circles and lines — trademarks of any regulation field. (This year, the team also plans to play a mainstream U-12 girls club.)

 

“I really want the kids to really feel they are playing a sport just like anybody else is doing,” Kelly says.

 

“(First of all), we want them to have fun,” he continues. “That’s the big thing. And we want to give these kids, to the best of their ability, a chance to understand the game, learn about teamwork, playing fair and also to increase their self-esteem and become more physically fit.

 

“For a lot of these kids, the chance to meet and be comfortable around new people helps a lot.”

 

Last year, there were kids with Down Syndrome and autism on the team. Josiah Finney, who uses a wheelchair, played goal with the assistance of his father, who helped him turn aside shots. If parents have a blind child who wants to play, the team can arrange to get a ball that beeps, Kelly said.

 

Players from the AYSO’s mainstream teams volunteered to be buddies for the V.I.P. players last year, showing up at practices and rooting them on during their games. This really helped raise the kids’ self-esteem, Kelly observed. Among the regular volunteers last year were Lynnae Kelly, 14, and 15-year-olds Amanda Thornsley and Karen Driver.

 

Besides helping kids build self-esteem and enjoy the camaraderie of their teammates, the V.I.P. Program proved to be a hit for spectators. Or as Kelly puts it, “I think that the parents, the families and the friends that have come to watch, they have as much fun as the players are. You can’t but help it because the players are having so much fun.”

 

Before V.I.P. games are officially declared finished, every player will score at least once. They all get a chance to dribble the ball, undefended and blast it or tap it into the back of the net.

 

“We had one kid last year who couldn’t kick the ball very well,” Kelly recalls. “He would take what would seem like an eternity. Everyone would cheer for Chris. When he finally put it in, you’d have thought he won the World Cup with all the cheering from the sideline.”

 

For sure, more kids and their families and friends would like to experience moments like that this season.

 

“Everyone has success,” Kelly concludes. “It’s amazing. … Competition that is so evident on the mainstream teams is just not there. So they are able to root for each other in such an honest way that it’s just very unusual.”

 

The goal is to expand the V.I.P. Program to 30 players this season, which will begin on June 5. The cost is $15 per player. Volunteers and team buddies are also needed.

 

For more information, call Kelly at 527-0508 or visit flagsoccer.org and click on the V.I.P. Program link.

 

 

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Super Bowl column flashback: on NAU’s strong ties to the NFL coaching fraternity

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Feb. 6, 2005

NAU has strong ties to today’s Super Bowl

By Ed Odeven

Our fine city, a picturesque college town with two interstate freeways passing through it and dozens of tourist destinations in close proximity, is a place with a young, shifting population. You know your neighbors today, but tomorrow they might load up the U-Haul and say adios.

But you might be surprised to learn Flagstaff has another distinct characteristic: It’s a steppingstone for NFL-bound coaches.

Five ex-Lumberjack assistants will be working today at Super Bowl XXXIX: Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid, Eagle assistants Brad Childress (offensive coordinator), Tom Melvin (tight ends) and Marty Mornhinweg (senior assistant) and Dante Scarnecchia, the assistant head/offensive line coach of New England Patriots.

“(NAU) is just a place where a lot of good, young coaches go through,” Scarnecchia told a Daily Sun correspondent earlier this week in Jacksonville, Fla. “There are a number of places like that. Some might refer to them as steppingstones. As a result, a lot of names go through places like that.”

This was especially evident during the heyday of “Cheers” and “The Cosby Show.” As the NAU head coach from 1985-89, Larry Kentera proved to be an astute judge of coaching talent.

He hired Reid in 1986 (he moved on to Texas-El Paso the next year), Brad Childress the same year (he took a job at Utah in 1990), Melvin the same year (he went to California-Santa Barbara in 1988) and Mornhinweg in 1988 (he went to Southwest Missouri State in 1989, but after three seasons there and three more at Missouri he returned in 1994 for another one-year stint and then joined the Green Bay Packers in ’95).

Another ex-Kentera assistant, Bill Callahan, who was a Lumberjack in 1987-88, was the head coach of the Oakland Raiders when they went to Super Bowl XXXVII in 2003 against Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (And don’t forget about ex-Jacks assistant Mike Shanahan, who was here in 1977, who led the Denver Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl triumphs in 1997 and ’98 as John Elway capped off a great career.)

“Coach Kentera hired great coaches,” Childress said. “He was able to assemble (a staff of) guys who were motivated. Maybe it was the altitude.”

The Lumberjacks went 26-29 during Kentera’s five years at the helm, but wins and losses aren’t what Kentera’s ex-assistants now talk about when the topic is discussed.

“It’s a great school and it was a privilege to work with Larry Kentera,” said Reid, who still keeps in touch with his ex-boss. “There were a number of great coaches there.”

Even in those days, Reid, a former offensive lineman at BYU who played in three Holiday Bowls, was recognized as a bright mentor.

“Andy was a very good offensive line coach,” Childress said. “He was able to teach pass protection. We (played) in the Big Sky and we needed offense in that league. It was important to protect the quarterback, and he did a great job motivating the offensive line. The offensive line was not very good the year before Andy got here, and it congealed when he got here.

“You could tell he was committed to the coaching profession.”

No one should argue with that statement, especially in Philadelphia, where Eagles fans are rejoicing that their team made the Super Bowl – the team’s first since a 27-10 loss to the Raiders in the 1981 game — after three straight losses in the NFC Championship Game.

On the other sideline, Scarnecchia will be returning today to place that’s become quite familiar: the Super Bowl.

In fact, Scarnecchia is the answer to a super-tough trivia question: Who is the only coach to be with the Patriots for all five of their Super Bowl appearances?

After leaving Flagstaff following a one-year stint as an assistant, he returned to Southern Methodist University, where he worked in the mid-1970s, in ’80 for two years. And then he joined the Patriots’ coaching staff in 1982. Except for a two-year stint with the Indianapolis Colts (1989-90), Scarnecchia has been with the Patriots ever since.

And he’s had a remarkable career, reaching The Big Game while working for Raymond Berry (Super Bowl XX in 1986), Bill Parcells (Super Bowl XXXI in 1997) and Bill Belichick (Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002, XXXVIII in ’04 and XXXIX today).

So what does this year’s Super Bowl mean for Scarnecchia?

“Just to get here ain’t enough,” said Scarnecchia, who enjoyed swimming at Oak Creek Canyon when he lived amongst the cool pines. “When they shoot off confetti at the end of the game, if it’s not red, white and blue, it doesn’t count. Winning this game is all that matters, all that counts.”

But in a profession where it’s common to move every few years, a profession where stability is often not attained, Scarnecchia, 56, is a fortunate fellow.

“We’re very lucky, very blessed to be here this long,” said Scarnecchia, referring to his family, his wife Susan and their two children, Steve and Lisa. “It’s something you never think will happen, and it has happened. It’s home. Hopefully we will retire here.

“So many great coaches have never been to a Super Bowl, and to be a small part of New England’s Super Bowl, it’s very special.”

Lopez Lomong’s great escape

This article on future Olympian Lopez Lomong appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on May 26, 2006

SOLE SURVIVOR

Kidnapped by the Sudanese army as a child, Lopez Lomong escaped the life of a child soldier the best way he knew how — with his feet

By Ed Odeven

Lopez Lomong runs because he’s a good runner. In tough times, he ran as a means of survival.

As a 6-year-old in Sudan, Lomong, the second-oldest child of five, was attending a church service with his parents in their small African village. The, as quickly as he now runs an 800-meter race, his life completely changed.

Lomong was abducted by Sudanese soldiers. He didn’t know what happened to his parents.

Years later he found out.

“They told me that we were taken away and they (the soldiers) actually left them alone because they needed child soldiers like us,” said Lomong, an NAU freshman who competes in the 800 at the NCAA West Region Outdoor Track and Field Championships this weekend (qualifying is this afternoon, the final round is Saturday).

“I was taken with the other kids somewhere in Sudan,” he recalled.

But he didn’t become a child soldier in the civil war that has devastated his country.

“Me and two of my friends, we escaped from that camp and we ended up in Kenya,” he said.

How?

“Running … and running and running,” Lomong said.

***

Lomong, now 21, started living in a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, when he was 6.

He became one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, one of thousands who were displaced by the war in Sudan.

His family didn’t know of his whereabouts, and he didn’t know where his brothers, sisters and parents were or if they were alive.

When he was 16, Lomong arrived in the United States thanks to the efforts of Catholic Charities, an organization which has helped thousands of Lost Boys resettle in the United States.

Lomong settled in the small town of Tully, N.Y., which is located in the Syracuse metropolitan  area.

“I was a minor when I came,” Lomong said. “So (Catholic Services) actually helped me out to find foster parents.”

Robert and Barbara Rogers, who had one child already grown up, were eager to have another youngster in the family.

“They are awesome people,” Lopez said, flashing a smile.

“They were giving me everything and teaching me everything, like switching on the lights and all those things. I didn’t know how to do ’em. … All the time, they helped me out (and to) adapt to a new culture.”

The Rogers’ outpouring of love and devotion included their support of his athletic pursuits.

“They were going to all my track meets in high school,” he said.

So they saw Lopez earn nine varsity letters in cross country and track and field. They saw him set several school records in cross country. They saw Lopez, a three-time team captain, win a New York state crown in the mile. And they saw him lead Tully High School to state titles in the 4×400-meter and 4×800-meter relays.

He also exhibited his running talents on the national stage, placing 20th at a Footlocker Nationals competition.

“Lopez was a dominant figure in all his races during his high-school career in the small town in upstate N.Y. where he went to school,” recalled Dr. Jack Daniels, the head distance running coach at NAU’s Center for High Altitude Training who saw Lomong compete in high school when he was the cross country/track coach at SUNY-Cortland, a small school near Tully.

“What always set Lopez apart from many runners was his ‘go-for-broke’ attitude which is typical of the good distance runners in Africa. I have others tell me they just go as hard as they can hang on for the win, great; if not, they will try again next time.”

***

Since enrolling at NAU last fall, Lomong has had a successful freshman season as a student-athlete. He placed 19th at the NCAA Pre-National Championships race in Indiana last October.

He captured Big Sky Conference indoor titles in the 800 and 1,500 in February and replicated that feat two weeks ago at the Big Sky outdoor meet, crossing the finish line in 1 minute, 48.86 seconds and 3:48.64.

This, of course, put a smile on Robert and Barbara Rogers’ faces.

They routinely monitor Lomong’s track career via the Internet.

Said Lomong: “They are so happy about that and they are calling me (on the phone): ‘Keep going.’ ”

Lumberjacks head coach J.W. Hardy expresses the same optimism about Lomong’s racing, but does so in a more detailed manner.

“I don’t really think he fully understands what he’s capable of doing,” Hardy said, “and I think that’s really been the progression for him throughout the season. As the season has gone on, I think he’s getting a better understanding of what it takes to be a top-level athlete.

“(Distance running) coach (John) Hayes is doing a great job of bringing him along and getting him to understand what it really takes to be a force at the national level. I think he’s got amazing talent, and there’s so much more that he has to offer.

“We’ve just got to kind of wait and see how far his training will take him this season.”

Lomong is confident he’ll win the 800 Saturday.

His strategy?

“Run smart, relaxed,” he said. “I’ve got more speed than anyone else in the Big Sky Conference …. and a lot of endurance. (With) about 300 or 200 (meters) to go, it’s my race.”

To prepare for regionals, Hayes has guided Lomong through a series of challenging speed-related workouts, focused on lots of drills for 300s and 600s.

It’s paid off.

“I think it’s working really, really well. I’m ready,” he said.

And if there’s one thing Hardy has learned about Lomong in the past season, it’s that he’s not afraid of hard work.

“He cane in and had to battle through learning English, getting through learning another language, dealing with the academics and this and that in an American high school and then to be able to move on,” Hardy said. “…It’s been a joy to see him go out and improve, academically and athletically. I think there’s a lot left in Lopez. We’ve seen a lot in one year, but there’s so much more that we could see out of this young man out of the next three years.”

And, remember, this season’s not over yet.

Lomong has plenty of motivation for today’s 800, a race in which he’s seeded No. 3 (1:48.86; USC’s Duane Solomon is first in 1:47.74).

“If I make it to nationals, they’ll be there at nationals,” he said of the Rogerses, his American family.

***
Three years ago, Lomong was adjusting to his new life in the United States. He was struggling to learn American English. Before coming here, he had a limited knowledge of British English.

“It’s been kind of a challenge, studying. … Yeah, I came a long way,” he said.

Sudan. Kenya. Upstate New York. Flagstaff.

These are all destinations on Lomong’s life map. And throughout his unforgettable journeys from East Africa to the Western U.S., Lomong has grown into a bona fide running standout — “I think his ability is limitless in the 1,500,” said Hayes, citing his exceptional combination of speed and endurance — he never stopped thinking about his roots: his beloved parents.

Three years ago, Lopez learned his parents, Rita Namana Lomong and Lomong Lomong were alive. A U.S. organization had located them, he said.

“Some friends in Africa called me up and said, ‘You mom’s around here.’ I was like, ‘Wow, what a thrill,’ ” he said. “And I just called them and we talked. And she was crying. And I was crying. There was a lot of things going on, and trying to figure it out was very hard.”

His family now resides in Thika, Kenya, a small town near the nation’s capital city, Nairobi. His four siblings are there, too.

This has given him some peace of mind. But this much is clear: They are always on his mind.

In every race, Lomong demonstrates this.

“When I step on the track, I’m doing it for the school and also representing them back home,” Lomong said. “Every time I come to that lap, something flies through my (mind) and I can see their picture and I go and do work, you know.”

Lomong plans to visit Kenya in the summer of 2007, the first time he’ll see his family in 16 years.

He’ll run into their arms.

FLASHBACK – HORSE RACING TALES FROM 2001

These articles appeared in the Arizona Daily Star.

Feb. 2, 2001
Local horse track set to race again week
By Ed Odeven

Rillito Park was once at the forefront of the horse racing Industry, a burgeoning innovator in racing technology.

After opening in 1943, the track quickly emerged as a leader in quarter horse racing.

It became the first to devise and utilize the photo finish technology that is now standard in the Industry.

Nowadays, it’s an annual struggle for Rillito Park to stay afloat financially. The non-profit Pima County Horsemen’s Association, which operates Rillito Park on a shoestring budget, relies on a slew of volunteers to keep it going.

The 2001 edition of Rillito racing season begins tomorrow and runs through March. Racing will take place every Saturday and Sunday during that span.

Decades ago the racing season lasted for several months.  But the PCHA has shortened it due to limited funds, marketing director Jim Collins said.

“This place was jumping 20 years ago,” he recalls. “Now, we scrape together (funds) to survive.”

Many of the 200 to 300 horses expected to compete at Rillito also race throughout Arizona, including less-heralded horses from Turf Paradise in Phoenix.

Local jockey Joe Badilla Jr., the first to earn more than $3 million in a season, began his career racing at places like Rillito.

“I like to run there, it’s home,” Badilla said. “There are big crowds, but it’s not just enough money. Jockeys there make $100 to $200 a race; somewhere else it’s $400 to $500 per race.”

Collins and the PCHA strive to educate the public that a race track exists in Tucson.

“People who move here from the East and Midwest who went to many races back home don’t realize we have a race track in town,” Collins said.

While racing doesn’t last year-round in Tucson, the sport has a traditional following in smaller towns throughout the state.

After Rillito Park closes down in March, the racing circuit continues, stopping off in Duncan, Kingman, Safford and Sonoita in the spring, to Prescott Downs in the summer and in St Johns and Globe in the fall,

“It’s really a fun, little circuit in all these little towns,” Collins said. “I go to every one of them. I support ’em with my wallet.”

***
Feb. 4, 2001
Rillito’s opening day full of mirth, memories
By Ed Odeven

It was a splendid afternoon for racing.

With chilly winter temperatures nowhere in sight, an estimated 3,000 fans flocked to Rillito Park for the premier of the 2001 horse racing season in Tucson.

The buildup between races provided an animated mix of lively discussions, playful reminiscing and banter. Enthusiastic fans observed the horses trotting from the paddock to the track between races, jotted down notes and hollered out predictions after getting a close-up view of the various contestants and jockeys.

Old-timers conversed about their fond memories of past races. Fathers patiently dissected the nuances of how the parimutuel betting system works to their curious children.

Eyes darted to the left as horses jumped out of the gate to start each race.

While some folks cheered for the front- season racing schedule. Normally, Wippert competes in Montana in the summer and St. Johns and Globe in the fall.

According to Wippert, anxiety is a common theme among jockeys in a season-opening week.

“You have all these expectations. You hope to finish out front and don’t get hurt,” Wippert said. “After the first race you pretty much settle into it It’s like in baseball, after the first at-bat you’re all right”

Veteran trainer Santiago Lowe, who had three horses compete yesterday, said poor weather affects how he performs his job.

“It takes a lot of work, especially when it’s raining because the track gets deserted for three to four days,” Lowe said. “You have to go get a jockey and you don’t know where they’ve been for two, three or four days.”

Racing continues tomorrow and each Saturday and Sunday until March 11. Post time is 1 p.m. runners,

Floyd Campbell riding Cool Sage earned a plethora of claps and shouts after blitzing from worst to first in the second half of the afternoon’s sixth race.

Bobby Johnston, a veteran of a half-century in the racing business, is still thrilled to be part of opening day.

“Opening day is really a lot of fun,” said Johnston, who also runs a ranch in Crane, Texas. “There are good crowds every year.”

Although he has many fond memories of Rillito, a painful one sticks out in his mind. In February 1962, Johnston broke his neck after being thrown from his nerve-stricken horse.

“An automatic sprinkler came on and scared my 2-year-old horse,” said Johnston, a clerk of scales who runs a backup stopwatch for each race in case the electrical watches go kaput.

FLASHBACK: An interview with swimmer Ai Shibata, 2004 Olympic gold medalist

This article appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on July 9, 2005.

MAKING HISTORY

By Ed Odeven

Every day of your life is a page of your history, a wise man once said. Even so, some days are more significant than others. Some days are unforgettable. Some days are life-altering experiences.

Some days are, well, like Aug. 20, 2004.

That was the day Japanese swimmer Ai Shibata became a household name in Japan, the day she shocked millions by winning the 800-meter freestyle at the Athens Olympics, surging to first in the final 100 meters. In doing so, she became the first Japanese female to win a gold medal in a freestyle swimming event and ended the Americans’ run of five straight golds in the event.

“I didn’t even think about that, (didn’t) even dream about getting gold,” Shibata said through interpreter Osamu Gushi at NAU’s Wall Aquatic Center Friday. “For that reason, I was so happy. After the awards ceremony, when I got the gold, I was saying, ‘Oh, this is the gold medal. I won the gold medal!’

“And then, I was so happy that I couldn’t express it in words.”

Others had no trouble expressing what this astonishing accomplishment meant.

“Many Japanese media right after this race used … ‘Cinderella’ or ‘dream come true’ or ‘history has changed,'” in their articles and broadcasts, Swimming World correspondent Hideki Mochizuki said.

Shibata, now in the middle of a month-long training camp at NAU’s Center for High Altitude Training, has elevated her status on the national and international scene.

She’s no longer unknown to the masses.

“Until the (Japanese) Olympic Trials last year, she was an OK swimmer at the international level,” said Takao Tanaka, Shibata’s coach. “But after the hard training and also the first high-altitude training before the Olympic Trials she became a world-class swimmer.”

At the Japanese National Championships in April, the 23-year-old Shibata demonstrated this, finishing first in the 200, 400 and 800 freestyle races. In the process, she trimmed 5.36 seconds off her personal-best time in the 400 and a whopping 10.69 in the 800.

Going head-to-head against Sachiko Yamada, a marquee name on the Japanese swimming scene for years, in the 400, Shibata spoiled her compatriot’s chance of winning a seventh straight national title. A similar scene unfolded in the 800 as Shibata ended Yamada’s string of seven straight national titles in the event, completing the race in 8 minutes, 32.64 seconds; Yamada’s time was 8:35.09.

“Before, Sachiko Yamada would always be leagues ahead of everyone and I would just hope for second,” Shibata said in an April interview. “But I gained confidence after getting the gold medal (in Athens), so I’m no longer afraid to go all out in a race.”

Now, Shibata has high hopes for the FINA World Championships, which will be held July 17-31 in Montreal.

“The goal is to establish a Japanese record, because I have a gold medal, but I don’t have a Japanese record,” said Shibata, a grad student at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Kanoya.

This is Shibata’s third training camp in Flagstaff —she was here twice in 2004. Her workload has intensified this time, and Tanaka said he expects it will pay off when she competes in Montreal.

Weeks after her strong showing at nationals, Shibata told Japanese reporters: “I am stronger in the latter half of the race (now). … (But) coming in (with a) good pace in the first half is important.”

Clearly, Shibata has become more cognizant of what’ll make her a more successful swimmer now and in the future.

Boy, times have changed.

She’s no longer a talented, but unproven swimmer — she earned her first gold medal at nationals this year.

Flash back to her younger days. She was a swimmer who almost missed making the cut for Japan’s national high school championships.

“(Last year) Shibata was just determined to be selected for the national team,” Mochizuki recalled Friday, “just to be selected.”

“Coach Takao Tanaka said to her, ‘If you fail, your career in competitive swimming may end. You have to give me your determination on that.’

“Shibata said, ‘Yes.'”

Months later, Shibata swam a history-changing race, reaffirming what Bono crooned on U2’s “Zooropa” album:

“Some days are better than others.”

Norimasa Hirai’s secret to success: hard work

My April 2006 feature on future Japan swimming national team head coach Norimasa Hirai appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.

JAPANESE COACH SHOWS HARD WORK PAYS OFF

By Ed Odeven

Magic Johnson proved that great players don’t always make great coaches. Countless others have done the same on sandlots in the Midwest, football fields in central Florida and far-flung locales around the globe.

Norimasa Hirai, on the other hand, has shown a person can become an exceptional coach by putting their mind to it.

Hirai, Tokyo Swimming Center’s head coach who is a yearly visitor to NAU’s Center for High Altitude Training, went to the same pool in his homeland as a boy. He later attended Waseda University and competed on the university’s swim club.

One of Hirai’s unheralded teammates, who was two years his junior, made the 1984 Japanese Olympic Team. And it was during this time that Hirai realized he would never achieve notoriety as an athlete.

“When my junior went to the Olympics, I was very surprised and I said, ‘I want to do that, but I’m not good enough at swimming,'” Hirai recalled during an interview last week at NAU’s Wall Aquatic Center.

“But I think I can be a great coach and go to the Olympics that way.”

That he has. Hirai attended the 2000 Sydney Summer Games and the 2004 Athens Summer Games, guiding Kosuke Kitajima to world records, world championship victories and Olympic gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter men’s breaststroke races in Athens.

Hirai’s maturation as a coach can be tied to the mid-1980s.

“Soon after that (the 1984 Summer Games) there was a Japanese swimmer that got busted for smoking marijuana and I was very shocked and surprised,” Hirai said through interpreter Lee Bliss, an NAU student. “And I realized not only could I be a great teacher of swimming, but I could be a great teacher of being a good, rich human being and help swimmers to not only grow athletically but to grow mentally as human beings.”

For 20 years now, Hirai has followed this approach.

And, oh, he works long hours, too.

A typical work day lasts from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday is a day off, “but I’m still with the swimmers,” he said.

STRONG WORK ETHIC

After the second of two workouts at NAU on a recent evening, Kitajima and Sakiko Nakamura, 15, a rising talent in the women’s 200 and 400 individual medley, described what it’s like to train under Hirai.

“The most important thing is he has made me work harder, but the reason I will do it is because I know that he cares about me,” Nakamura said. “He’s a good person and he’s not mean. He’s just trying to help me.

“If someone’s not getting a technique or something, he’ll stop and say, ‘Do it this way,'”

Contrast that with this extreme approach:

Robert Whiting noted in his now-classic book on Japanese baseball, “You Gotta Have Wa,” that manager Tatsuro Hiroko once ran a 59-day offseason training camp (no days off) that consisted of nine hours of daily drills. Pitchers were subjected to 430 pitches a day — every day — and had swimming and akido drills, too. Hitters didn’t have it easy, either. They took 600 swings a day.

Indeed, Hirai, who has earned the venerable title of sensei (teacher or master) from his peers, can still oversee demanding practices, but that’s not his most visible trademark.

This is:

“He has the best heart of any coach and he’s the most personable of any coach,” Kitajima said without hesitation.

THE BLUEPRINT FOR SUCCESS

Some 4,500 swimmers call Tokyo Swimming Center their home pool. Of that large group, Hirai and his assistants work closely with 300 of them.

Each autumn, they select the best of the best for elite training. This is a group of 60, ranging in age from 10 to mid-20s, which Hirai coaches from October until the end of December.

In January, 15 of the 60 make the cut for more intense training. Then, in March, eight of the 15 earn the right to travel to NAU for a monthlong high-altitude training camp.

“Our model is to take swimmers at 10 years old and totally invest in them,” Hirai said. “We don’t scout older swimmers into the program. We are not going to go looking for the hottest 15-year-old later.”

Instead, Hirai and his staff pay attention to the younger swimmers at TSC and monitor their development as they grow up.

“I knew Kosuke when he was 6 years old,” Hirai said proudly, adding that he first met Nakamura when she was a baby.

“If we know the swimmers when they are very young, we can watch them how they handle the pressure.”

How is this measured?

Each swimmer has an equal chance to become part of the top group.

“We start out by giving all the young swimmers … full attention, an equal chance,” Hirai said. “Then we wait to see which students with the same chance and the same coaching will naturally become better.”

“(That way) we know we are choosing people who are naturally better, not people who are (just) getting more attention than others.”

Kitajima, 23, rose to the top under this system — Hirai and his staff determined he was ready to come to Flagstaff when he was 15. He has nothing but praise for his longtime mentor.

“(Hirai) studies videos and he has incredible software on his computer where he’ll put video of different swimmers together,” Kitajima said. “And he watches them frame by frame, millisecond by millisecond, and looks at dives and strokes and just studies physics and knows how to swim best.”

You can’t argue with that.

 

Catching up with … Javier Morales

Me
Javier Morales

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (May 7, 2016) — Though he’s been out of the newspaper business for many years now, Javier Morales maintains the curiosity of a newshound and a real appreciation for the facts and figures and personalities and history that are essential to the craft.

These days, Morales operates ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com, a website that gives him a chance to showcase his knowledge of and deep passion for sports in his hometown.

Morales, The Arizona Daily Star’s men’s basketball beat writer during the University of Arizona’s 1996-97 NCAA championship season,  focuses on coverage of the UofA’s sports teams and the Pac-12 Conference. But his website provides a broader mix of coverage, including high school sports.

In a recent interview, Morales offers detailed insights about his website and how he runs the operation, plus perspectives on former University of Arizona sports personalities such as Steve Kerr, Jason Terry, Lute Olson, Luke Walton and Chuck Cecil, newspaper mentors and former colleagues and his love of the written word, among other topics.

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Can you define the mission of ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com and why it was started?

The mission of the website is to provide a voice for youth sports at all levels in Tucson as well as professional insight into University of Arizona athletics with my knowledge going back almost 40 years.

With the afternoon newspaper, the Tucson Citizen, going under in both print and online, I believed it was imperative to provide as many opportunities for readers in Southern Arizona to learn more of what is developing around them in terms of athletics in the city. The more reports, the better, to allow the readers there in my hometown to become better educated of what’s going on.

What have been some of the website’s most popular articles to date? What have been, in your view, some of the key success stories of the site since it was launched? 

Some of the more popular articles are the all-region teams compiled by my brother Andy Morales from votes of local high school coaches for various sports. We have also learned that readers love the compiling of our top 10 badasses in the history of Arizona football along with articles that list what former Arizona athletes are now up to, such as where they are coaching and where they are working as broadcasters. A very popular article was our compilation of male and female athletes at Arizona who became married after meeting during their time as competitors at the university. We always try to provide stories that our off the beaten path in order to generate interest both in our Web site and what’s happening at Arizona. People also like read our segments on social media reactions with the posting of tweets from athletes or members of the media pertaining to a specific event.

What do you most enjoy about running this website? What has been the most frustrating aspect of the ongoing project?

What I enjoy most is the creative aspect. Not only do I write blogs but I work on coding and designing some of the elements of the site. I would like to see it grow to where we have a solid group of writers contributing. We have been fortunate to have some here and there but nobody other than my brother has continued for an extended period of time. That’s the most frustrating is that we know we can be that much more impactful in the community with more voices. I believe that will come in time. Because the site is not a money-making site, I must work a regular job full-time which takes me away from concentrating 100 percent on the development of the site to make it more attractive for writers to come on board. We also cannot offer salaries to writers without advertising dollars. In order to reach that level, I need to devote much more time on the project but have not been able to do that nearly as much as I want.

Would you say your writing style for the website is quite similar to when you covered University of Arizona sports teams, or have you developed a distinct style of writing for an online audience?

I believe my writing is less of a reporting style such as it was when I worked at The Arizona Daily Star. It is much more opinion based with more of a feature style to the stories because it is a blog. While we would like to break stories at the site, we are not bent on that because of the unavailability of working on the site at all hours. Most of my writing is based on analysis and from a historical perspective. My brother offers features and roundups of high school athletes that are welcomed by their parents and coaches. He does not write with a negative slant at all because that is not necessary at our site, especially with kids 17 years and younger. He prides himself about not writing who committed an error in a baseball game, for example, just about why a team was able to win. Parents and coaches respect that a great deal.

With the success of the Arizona Wildcats under Sean Miller, do you consider this a second golden era of Wildcats basketball? Do you think the Wildcats fan base and Tucson have the same affection for him as Lute Olson?

They do not have the same affection for Miller that they had with Olson but they respect the way he is able to bring talent to Tucson to carry on the tradition of turning out NBA-level players. Miller will not enter the same realm of Olson until he coaches the Wildcats to the Final Four. He has come so close three times now in the Elite Eight with two of the three losses (to UConn in 2011 and Wisconsin in 2014) coming down to the last play. Arizona is at a high level again because of Miller, reaching No. 1 for eight weeks two seasons ago during a 21-0 start, but it will not reach golden era status until it gets to a Final Four again in my opinion. That might be an unfair opinion but that’s what happens with Olson setting the bar so high with four Final Four appearances, twice making the national title game. That combined with his ability to develop quality character guys sets the standard by which Miller must live by. Miller has it in him to continue challenging himself to reach that level. He is certainly right on the cusp.

What’s a typical week during college football season and basketball season for the website’s writing, editing and publishing schedule? And how does it differ from the demands of a daily newspaper?

The typical week during the college football season is writing blogs about that game through Thursday and offering an “off the beaten path” feature on Fridays before the game. In that blog are notes about that game that includes information that is not the standard preview fare. They are opinion notes, rankings and historical observations pertaining to that week’s matchup. We get great feedback from that blog especially with the Wilbur the Wildcat drawings our professional artist named Michael Hanaoka provides.

Since there are so many basketball games during various weeks, we offer analysis after every game with a breakdown of stats instead of game stories. We run what’s called a “Productivity Report” that has gained some interest from readers. It ranks the player by their overall production factoring positive stats (scoring, rebounding, assists, etc.) against negative stats (turnovers, fouls, etc.) divided by minutes played. How all of this differs from the demands of a daily newspaper is the lack of strict deadlines, especially after late games. Because most of my pieces are analytical I avoid play-by-play, which people won’t read the next day. They want perspective and analysis of where Arizona is headed not about who scored a touchdown or who made a basket as a specific time.

Regarding your previously named website, WildAboutAZCats.com, was it simply a practical move to have a different name? Or is it a completely different website, because of the expanded focus to include high schools, too?

It was a practical move because of my brother’s work covering high school sports diligently. He came on board at the beginning of 2014 because Gannett pulled the plug on TucsonCitizen.com. Andy was popular offering that Web site what he is doing now for AllSportsTucson.com. When the Citizen site went under, I asked him if he still wanted to publish his material (stories and professional quality photos) at my site. When he joined me, we realized we needed a different name. We came up with All Sports Tucson because that appropriately describes what is written about at our site.

Because you are based in Nevada, are you able to get to a number of Wildcats football and basketball games to enhance your reporting? Or is your primary way of gathering info for news via mass media and team and Pac-12 sports information directors (SIDs)? Do you participate in the teleconference calls throughout the season?

I follow the region religiously through media reports and tracking social media. I watch as many games as possible. I also keep in contact with media who cover Arizona. A few times a year I also travel to Tucson and visit the campus. Whenever a sporting event occurs in Las Vegas, I am there, especially the Pac-12 tournament. I do not interact with SIDs as much as I would like although I know individuals who work at the Arizona schools who from time to time provide information. But I would say most of my information gathering is from watching a lot of the games and reading as much as possible.

When the Pac-10 became the Pac-12 in 2011 did you embrace the idea or find yourselves thinking the conference had gotten too big for its own good? And has your view changed since the change was made?

I embraced the change because that’s the way of college athletics and the conference can’t be left behind. We see that now from the Big 12 that has only 10 teams. The conference needs more teams to have a conference championship game in football to have a better opportunity to land a team in the college football playoffs. I actually think the Power 5 should be structured as its own entity playing for a national title with balanced schedules devised as we see in the NFL to make it a more even, fair playing field.

What sparked your interest in becoming a sports writer growing up in Tucson? And are there a few special memories and mentors that stand out above the rest?

What sparked my interest was following the Arizona athletic programs so closely from when I was in grade school. Back then, the Internet did not exist, neither did cable TV or ESPN. The main outlet for information was the newspaper. I remember looking forward to reading about the developments daily when I was old enough to comprehend what was going on. I remember clipping the front page of the Arizona Daily Star sports section the day after an Arizona football game and posting it on my wall like a poster. I am very appreciative of that experience because I realize things are a lot different now. I have always looked up to local sports journalists such as Jack Magruder, Bob Moran (rest his soul) and Greg Hansen. Their stories and style of writing interested me into becoming a sportswriter at a very young age.

Who are a few of your favorite sports scribes in the business today? Can you give a basic rundown on why you like/admire their work?

Some of my favorites are those I know personally such as Greg, Jack, Anthony Gimino (TucsonNewsNow), Steve Rivera (GOAZCATS.com) and Jon Wilner (San Jose Mercury News). I make it a point to read their work because I am so familiar with their talents as sportswriters. Greg is a veteran who knows his stuff and he does not hold back in many cases to let his opinion be know. Jack is a workhorse who is knowledgeable about his beat. Nothing gets past him. Anthony does so many things covering Arizona athletics and working annually on the Lindy’s college football annual. Steve has more than two decades of experience with Arizona hoops and has established meaningful relationships with Lute Olson and players over the years that has parlayed into memorable stories for his many books about the program. Jon deserves more notoriety nationally for his in-depth coverage and analysis of the Pac-12.He is another tireless worker who covers all of the bases with his information.

And as a news consumer who are a few must-read journalists nowadays for you, especially for Pac-12 insights? How about must-read websites and publications that fit that description?

Some of the more obvious must-read journalists are those who cover college basketball so closely such as Jeff Goodman of ESPN. The same goes for Dennis Dodd with college football at CBS. Rick Reilly as a national sports columnist is a joy to read. He keeps things fun and interesting to read. For Pac-12 insights, Wilner is a must to read as are all of the beat reporters for the publications through the conference. I read most of them throughout the year. Doug Haller of the Arizona Republic is one of the best covering Arizona State and the Pac-12. He is very informative and never disappoints.

Since he’s had a little over a year now on the job now, what’s your impression of the impact men’s basketball coach Bobby Hurley, the former Duke Blue Devil, has made at ASU? Is he a good fit for the program, the university and the Valley of the Sun?

I think it’s the best hire ASU could have made all things considered. He has a basketball name from one of the best programs in the country. His name transcends the Pac-12. He is known. That can only help ASU’s image, which is lacking on a national scope. My only concern – and I’m sure it’s shared by many at ASU – is that Hurley will leave for a higher profile job once he makes the Sun Devils successful. Because of his East Coast background, the odds of that happening are greater than him staying at ASU for five-plus years.

How vital has your former Daily Star colleague Greg Hansen’s body of work been over the years in chronicling the history of Tucson and Southern Arizona sports?

Very vital. He is synonymous with Tucson-area sports and the University of Arizona. He was one of my mentors at the Star along with Magruder and Moran. The Sunday notes column has become legendary in Tucson, especially among those who follow the Wildcats and sports in general in the city. He knows how to piece together a story or column to make it interesting no matter the topic.

Over the years, what are five favorite UofA football games or moments you’ve witnessed? What made them especially significant to you?

Arizona’s win over ASU in 2014 to clinch the Pac-12 South was special because the Wildcats have rarely experienced that kind of success. The 1986 game against the Sun Devils was the loudest I’ve ever heard Arizona Stadium, especially when Chuck Cecil made the 100-yard interception return for a touchdown. Arizona’s shellacking of Miami in the 1994 Fiesta Bowl is even more impressive today because looking back the Hurricanes had Ray Lewis, Warren Sapp and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. One of my favorites is the 1982 victory over ASU in Tucson, a game in which the Wildcats eliminated ASU from the Rose Bowl and started the streak. That game had two long touchdown passes thrown by Tom Tunicliffe and the Wildcats also did the unthinkable with two safeties in the game. The game at ASU in 1985 when Max Zendejas kicked a 57-yarder and 33-yarder in the fourth quarter to eliminate the Sun Devils again from the Rose Bowl was also special.

For Wildcats basketball, what are five favorite hoops games or moments you’ve witnessed? What made them especially significant to you?

I always look back fondly at the “McClutch” game in which Craig McMillan took a length-of-the-court pass from Steve Kerr and made the game-winning basket at the buzzer. The pass bounced off the hands of a couple of players into the direction of McMillan, who was in stride toward the basket. That was one of the few times fans rushed the court at McKale. The Arizona-ASU games during the Fred Snowden-Ned Wulk games were always intense and a must to watch. The double-overtime win over Gonzaga in the 2003 NCAA tournament is a wild game people will talk about forever. (In 1997), Arizona’s overtime victory over Kentucky of course was historic and one of the most significant in the program’s history, but to me, the biggest win was that over No. 1-seed Kansas in the Sweet 16 that season. The Jayhawks had only one loss all season entering the game while the Wildcats had nine and Olson’s team managed the upset on its way to a national title.

Which athletes and coaches from both teams make any top-10 players/coaches list you’d make for best interviewees?

The best interviewee in my time without a doubt is Jason Terry. Very personable guy. Says what’s on his mind. He is also very respectful. Another is Steve Kerr. One time at the NBA Summer League I approached Kerr for an interview during a game in the stands when he was the Suns’ GM. I did so because I was afraid he’d leave right after the game and I’d miss him. He was so cordial with me and answered every question. Most of Arizona’s players have been great to deal with such as A.J. Bramlett, Bennett Davison, Gene Edgerson, Josh Pastner, Richard Jefferson, Jason Gardner, Luke Walton, Damon Stoudamire and Reggie Geary. The list goes on and on. I have not had too many opportunities to go one-on-one with Sean Elliott but I know he is a class act, also. In terms of other programs, I enjoyed interviewing the late Pat Tillman when he was with the Arizona Cardinals. I asked him about his thoughts of Chuck Cecil (a hard-tackling walk-on who made it big like Tillman) and Tillman was very complimentary of Cecil. Tillman was very sincere but always open to talk with reporters.

What are your general thoughts on Luke Walton, who served as an assistant for Kerr on Golden State, being hired as the new bench boss by the Lakers?

(It’s) a great transition for him and acquisition by Los Angeles. It will be interesting next season when Golden State faces Los Angeles. Who will Lute Olson cheer for? Lute may have that same struggle this season if the Warriors face the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. He would have to choose from Kerr, Walton, Bruce Fraser and Andre Iguodala with Cavs assistant Bret Brielmaier, Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson.

Looking back to the fall, in addition to the Warriors’ remarkable talent, what character traits helped Walton make a seemingly seamless transition to interim bench boss in Kerr’s absence?

I believe Luke’s even-keel personality helped a lot. He was not overbearing. He was not a pushover either. He kept things on course and didn’t stray from who he is, which was the most important element of the Warriors staying focused for a record 24-0 start.

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What prompted you to write “The Highest Form of Living?” Was the idea for the book, published in 2014, something you had in the back of your mind for a long time? Is it based on something you observed or experienced? Is it more fiction than nonfiction?

I love writing. I love sports. I am fascinated by war stories and the heroic developments of our soldiers throughout the years. I am especially interested in those soldiers who never made it home. I recall visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier when I lived near D.C. for four years in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I was touched by how we don’t know of these fallen heroes but we know of what they meant to our freedom. The book is more fiction but it has very real elements dealing with a kid without his father, a lost prison of war, and how sports can lift somebody up from the depths of their life.

Is it your first book? 

It is my first book and it is only available through Amazon. I hope to work on more, fiction and non-fiction. I am so into history. I’d love to piece together something sports related from a historical perspective.

What kind of feedback have you received about it? 

Only positive. People have told me they love the positive message delivered. I wish it sold more especially at only $4.99. Last Christmas was the one-year anniversary of the book getting published. I donated the few dollars I made off the book to the Wounded Warrior Project. I would love to keep making donations off the book’s sales to that organization because that subject ties into the book.

Book info: https://www.amazon.com/Highest-Form-Living-Javier-Morales-ebook/dp/B00RF8QTLY?ie=UTF8&*Version*=1&*entries*=0

Shifting the conversation back to your website … Is your website accurately described as a (modest) money-making venture or a labor of love? Or both?

Very much so a labor of love. My brother and I do not make money off the website itself. It’s more of a vehicle to tell stories about Tucson-area sports. Any notoriety we get off those stories is great, but that’s not our focus. I am not blind to realize journalism in most cases is not for one who wants riches in terms of money. Being creative and able to touch lives through the written words means a heck of a lot more.

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Follow Javier Morales on Twitter: @JavierJMorales