Jumpstart Athletics Articles
Jumpstart News & Events
Posted: August 21, 2012
Bruce Pirnie's Journey Into Canadian Track & Field - by Bruce Pirnie
Posted: May 31, 2012
This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Garden Track Camp. This is my story of how this camp changed my life and started me on a career as a Canadian athlete and coach.
Many people have asked me how a kid from Springfield, Vermont ended up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Sometimes I wonder that it was predetermined – destiny, divine intervention or just blind luck but whatever the cause, I walked into Nash Gym after summer school class at Yankton College, South Dakota in 1964 and saw a poster advertising the Royal Canadian Legion Track and Field Camp at the International Peace Garden. I didn’t have anything planned for the later part of the summer so I wrote and asked if they needed a throws coach for the camp. Assistant Director, Fred Taylor, answered that they already had their staff set but indicated that they would provide room and board if I were interested in being a demonstrator. So there I was, chugging north in the old green VW Bug; heading for the International Peace Garden, a park that straddles the border of Manitoba and North Dakota. I had only a vague idea where I was going or what to expect but I decided that I was going to Canada to coach and this opened a whole new part of my life.
Originally, the Peace Garden Camp was exclusively for track and field and was staffed by physical education teachers from the Winnipeg area. Most of them were trained and/or competed in the United States and the program had originated as a traveling road show in an old van that crisscrossed the province putting on clinics sponsored by the Royal Canadian Legion. Camp Director George Phillips, Fred Taylor, Tom Parker, Dave Lyon and Grant Standbrook were the original core staff and every year this group was augmented by experienced coaches with a lot of competitive experience.
Needless to say, my first year was a great experience and I made a lot of friends, some of whom I still see to this day. I went back to Yankton for one more semester, managed a small artificial snow ski area and then went to Colorado at the end of March. After spending most of the summer in Colorado, I went back tot he Peace Garden as a full coach and really enjoyed working with the staff and athletes. Upon completion, several coaches suggested that I apply for a teaching job in Winnipeg but I had already accepted a graduate assistantship at South Dakota State so I went back to school and served as an assistant coach with the SKSU Track Team for one year. Graduate school left a bad taste in my mouth and while the course load wasn’t a challenge, it was apparent that writing a thesis about something I didn’t care about wasn’t going to happen.
So that spring, after classes were over, I drove back to Vermont not knowing what I was going to do. I was sitting on the deck overlooking Lake Rescue when I got a call form Coach Don Loadman, the Physical Education Supervisor for St. James, who had learned that I had applied for a job with the Winnipeg School Division and offered me a job teaching at Golden Gate Junior High. I accepted over the phone, drove back to South Dakota, picked up my clothing and headed for the border. I’ve never looked back!
I arrived in Winnipeg in May, 1966 and began training with the Manitoba Varsity Track club at the old Sargent Park Oval with Jim Daly and a group of university-age athletes who were preparing for the Commonwealth Games trials in Edmonton. I wasn’t a big time thrower but was good enough to qualify as a guest athlete for this meet which doubled as the National championships. I finished fourth and watched Dave Steen throw over 60 ft which was a good throw at that time.
For the next few years I didn’t specialized in the throws but also played Senior Football and Basketball in Winnipeg. Hosting the Pan American Games in 1967 proved to be the turning point for me as I was introduced to international competition for the first time. I watched my idols Randy Matson, Neil Steinhauer and Dave Steen compete and then cheered as my training partner Maureen Dowds won the bronze medal in the women’s shot. I was hooked and began to see myself as a potential international competitor.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a personal coach who really knew much about the Shot and I was making limited progress coaching myself. Then in 1968, Karen, my new bride and I met a coach at a meet in Regina who would change my life, both as an athlete and later as a coach.
Gabor Simonyi was a coach who had worked with a number of world class athletes in his native country of Hungary. Renowned as a Hammer Coach, he was equally adept in all Throws and Jumps and after a harrowing escape with his family from Communist Hungary, had ended up in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. Gabor was an innovative thinker who was always trying to find a better way of training or improving the apparatus used in the technical events. Widely published in North American journals, he attracted many athletes and coaches to northern Saskatchewan and our home became a haven for athletes from Rhode Island to Oregon. In the winter, the long throwers threw outside in a farmer’s field and used burn barrels on the corners of the hammer cage to keep warm. Watching Tim Vollmer throw 200 ft with the discus in the snow is a special memory and I still have pictures of Steve DeAutremont, Bob Narcessian, Mike Cairns and others who made the trek to learn at the master’s knee.
They say you can’t “teach an old dog new tricks”, but Gabor completely took my technique apart and carefully designed a new one, based upon solid biomechanical principles, but which also was adapted to my strengths and weaknesses. It was a real partnership as he always made sure that I knew WHY I was doing something – right or wrong – and I had input into my training program. He taught me to understand the causal factors of technical analysis and by the winter of 1971, I was throwing over 18m on a regular basis and had my sights set on the 1972 Olympic Team.
Unfortunately, I found it very difficult to increase my training volume while teaching and coaching full time, so Karen and I decided that I should go to graduate school at the University of Saskatchewan where I could train full-time. Saskatoon was a hotbed of Track and Field and I knew that Lyle Sanderson would provide an atmosphere which was conducive to success. Gabor completely understood and encouraged me to take this next step and we continued our relationship throughout the months leading up to the Olympic trials the following spring in Etobicoke, Ontario.
Now Canada has a great champion in Dylan Armstrong, who has been able to take advantage of the expertise and guidance of Dr. Anatoly Bondarchuk, another leader from the old Soviet/Eastern block system. Together they have taken the Shot Put event to the levels beyond my wildest dreams and have inspired a whole new generation of throwers. Like Gabor, Dr. B. will always be remembered for his contributions to the Hammer event and for his innovative and scientific approach to coaching and developing athletes. Due to his extensive research and the training techniques he has devised, modern athletes like Dylan are much better prepared than ever before and it is now possible to have full time coaches overseeing all aspects of the athletes’ development here in Canada.
One cannot help but wonder what Gabor could have accomplished if he had been free to coach under this system. Unfortunately, our North Battleford team was never reunited as Karen and I moved back to Winnipeg and Gabor left for Edmonton where he worked at the University of Alberta for many years. Upon retirement, he moved to the west coast and died some years ago.
Today, I look back on our time together and am forever thankful for his wisdom, time, and patience on my behalf and continue to strive to emulate his influence with the athletes I coach. I mourn his loss.
Interview With Russ Winger - Cover Story
Posted: May 31, 2012
How did you get involved in throwing? I started throwing when I was 17 and a junior in high school. I had played baseball up to that point but decided to try something different. Throwing just seemed like the natural choice since I was a pretty big kid.
When you went to college would you have described yourself as a blue chip prospect? Definitely not. I had only thrown 60’ in the shot and 167’ in the discus with the high school weights. I got a few prospect letters from schools but there wasn’t a lot of follow up. My family paid for the only recruiting trip I went on and only 2 schools offered me any kind of scholarship.
How did you come to a decision to which college you went to? Over spring break of my senior year, my dad and I went on a road trip to see the University of Idaho and the University of Montana. I knew I wanted to stay in the western states and I was really impressed with the coaches and facilities at Idaho.
What would you say are your biggest achievements in your college athletic career? It’s tough to say. My biggest collegiate goal was to win an individual NCAA title and I got close but never did. I guess my biggest collegiate achievement would be throwing over 21m in the shot.
Many athletes quit competing when their NCAA career is over. What kept you going when in the USA there is not much financial support for athletes in Olympic sport? After completing my collegiate eligibility I knew I hadn’t yet reached my potential and I couldn’t face leaving the sport without giving it more time. I’m very fortunate to have a super supportive family that has helped me along the way. My parents, Asics, the USATF Foundation, and the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, CA have all had a hand in keeping me in the sport. I’ve been very lucky to have so many opportunities to take advantage of.
You have been ranked high in world in shot put and discus which one of these do you think would be your best event? On a domestic scale, I’m more competitive in the discus but on a world scale, I’m a little better in the shot (for now). I’ll probably continue to throw both as long as I still enjoy it and injuries don’t force me to pick one over the other.
What would you say is your biggest achievement of your post collegiate career? Probably coming back from several injuries in 2010 to make 2011 the most successful season I’ve had to date. I tore my groin early in 2010, tore a lower ab a few months later and developed a stress fracture in my right wrist prior to the national championships in June. I made it through the summer season but had wrist surgery in October and sports hernia repair surgery in December. It was awful but also a great lesson in proper training and recovery.
What are your goals for this year? First and foremost: to make the Olympic Team. I’ve already thrown A standards in both the shot and discus so all I need to do is finish in the top three at the Olympic Trials in June. Otherwise, my goals are to throw over 67m in the discus while being consistent over 64m and be consistently over 21m in the shot.
How long do you see yourself competing? I plan on continuing to train and compete through the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016.
I know you are coaching part time. Is this a career that you would like to do full time when you finish competing? I’m not sure. I really like coaching and I feel that I could be a good college level coach. However, I have a lot of interest in the fields of mining, resource management, energy development, engineering, and the areas that they overlap. In college I majored in materials engineering and metallurgical engineering and I definitely want to work in those fields someday. That being said, I also want to do my part to give back and help grow the sport and that has been such a large part of my adult life.