Ron Andrews: Dashing Through the Snow

One of the top 110m high hurdlers in the USA is Ron Andrews, who also is the newly-hired sprint/hurdle coach at his alma mater, Kent State University in Ohio. Andrews finished 19th overall at the 2004 Olympic Trials at Sacramento State University with a 13.78, missing the semi-final round by a mere two-hundredths of a second. Having met the 25-year-old Andrews at Coach Curtis Frye’s clinic in South Carolina in mid-November, I called him on the phone a couple days ago and listened as he discussed his hurdling career, as well as his current role as a coach. Andrews is very good at what he does, both as an athlete and as a coach, so although he is still relatively young, he has already made a name for himself in the sport of Track & Field, particularly as a 110m hurdler.

Andrews, who stands six feet tall and weighs 174 pounds, began hurdling during the indoor season of his sophomore year at Sweet Home High School in Amherst, NY, just outside of Buffalo. His coach, frustrated by the fact that he had a lot of great athletes but no one in the hurdles, told Andrews one December day, “Ronnie, you’re gonna be a hurdler.” The well-traveled Andrews, who grew up in Philadelphia until the age of ten, then moved to Montreal for three years, and then moved to Buffalo at the age of thirteen, didn’t start running track until the eighth grade. But because of a mean teacher who constantly gave him detentions just to prove a point, Andrews never made it to practice until 4:30 every day. He ended up quitting before trying again with a fresh start in the outdoor season of his ninth grade year. “I was measly,” Andrews recalled, “skin and bones. And the track coach [Pat White] drove me hard, tried to get me to quit, but I kept showing up to practice.” One of the workouts Coach White had Andrews do was to pull a tire from one corner of the end-zone of the football field to the far corner of the other end-zone. And it wasn’t a small Geo Metro tire, but “a gigantic bus tire.” The whole time that Andrews trudged along, Coach White would be yelling, “C’mon, Andrews, you ragamuffin!” But Andrews stuck with it. Describing himself as an athlete who was “average in everything,” Andrews began to hurdle as a sophomore, running something like a 9.7 in his first 55m hurdle race indoors, and eventually getting down to 8.8, which qualified him for the state meet. At this early stage of his development, he was already hooked. “I wanted to learn as much as I could about the hurdles,” he said, “which really hasn’t stopped to this day.” He opened up the outdoor season with a not-so-blazing 18.9, but got all the way down to 15.5 by the end of the year, breaking the old sophomore school record in the process.

Urged on by Coach White and his other coach, Jim Garner Sr., Andrews continued to improve. “My high school coaches were terrific coaches,” Andrews gushed. “It was crazy because they were pretty much like college coaches. A lot of the drills they knew were ones I later did in college. They laid so much groundwork.” With the guidance and training regimen provided by his coaches, Andrews became one of the best high school hurdlers in the nation by his senior year, as he broke the Ohio state record in the 60m hurdles with a time of 8.06, and went on to finish in seventh place at the Indoor Scholastic Nationals, where he competed against the likes of Terrence Trammell, Sultan Tucker, Aubrey Herring, Ron Bramlett, and Arend Watkins, all of whom have gone on to have exciting collegiate and post-collegiate careers. “I never really imagined,” Andrews remarked, “that I’d come that far from my sophomore year. Colleges were looking at me. It was crazy.”

Andrews’ route to Kent State turned out to be a circuitous one, however, as he was a victim of Proposition 48 coming out of high school. “I had a good GPA,” he explained, “and a 1060 on the SAT, but I only had twelve out of thirteen core courses. I never took a lab course because you didn’t need one to graduate from my school. So I took a watered-down biology course. Little did I know the lab I thought I was taking wasn’t recognized by the NCAA. The head coach at UConn was pretty upset because they were recruiting me.” Andrews landed at Sienna Heights College, an NAIA school in Michigan, where he flourished. His time in the 55m hurdles dropped from a personal best of 7.44 in high school to a 7.36 in his freshman year at Sienna Heights, in spite of the fact that the hurdles were three inches higher. He finished second in the 110m hurdles at the NAIA Outdoor Nationals as a freshman, and was the NAIA 110m hurdle champion the following year.

At Kent State, Andrews pretty much picked up where he had left off at Sienna Heights. As a sophomore at Kent, he ran his collegiate pr of 13.79 at the MAC (Mid-American Conference) outdoor championships, finishing first and setting a new school record. At the NCAA Outdoor Nationals that year, he finished 6th in a semi-final heat in 13.87. The following year, he ran a 7.77 at the MAC Indoor championships, tying Greg Richardson of Central Michigan University for first place. During the outdoor season of his junior year, he was slowed down by a string of injuries, primarily to his hamstring. He ran a relatively slow 13.90 at the conference meet, as it wasn’t until February of that year that his hamstring injury, previously misdiagnosed as a pull, had been revealed by a physical therapist to actually have been scar tissue that remained from an earlier strain. With only a short amount of time to train for the outdoor season, the 13.90 was the best Andrews could muster. As it turns out, he never ran in the NCAA Outdoor Nationals again after his sophomore year, as the injury bug continued to dog him.

As a senior, Andrews had a terrific indoor season up to and including the conference championships. The week before the conference meet, he ran a 7.81 at Penn State although he had missed a ton of training time due to 80 inches of snow that fell in his hometown of Buffalo that month. One week after the Penn State meet, he ran a conference-record 7.72 to easily win the 60m hurdle conference title, and “was geeked for the national meet in two weeks.” In practice that following Monday, while training with teammate Bobby Cruse, Andrews injured his left hamstring. In a harness workout, in which the person in the back has to run extra-fast, Cruse – a 10.18 sprinter – “took off,” causing Andrews to strain the hamstring in the effort to keep up. The injury was not severe, so Andrews did go to nationals, believing himself fit to compete. What happened in Andrews’ semi-final heat at nationals would be funny if it weren’t true: “By the third hurdle, my ham hurt bad. By the fourth hurdle, it was killing me. I cleared the fifth, ran it in, finished second. Turns out Jabari Greer, next to me, false-started. So we had to run the race again. I’m lying on the track and the guy is like, ‘we’re runnin the race over in ten minutes.’ And Tony Galavez in my heat hit the first hurdle, and he was hurt. So they ran the heat again with only two runners in it. It was like, one guy in lane two and the other guy in lane six. It was crazy. They had to pick me up and take me to the training room. Not a single table was available, so I said, ‘Guys, just lay me on the ground.’ They tilted me so I could look up at the jumbotron. I watched the heat of two and saw the huge opportunity I blew.”

Though disappointed by the tragicomic events of that day, Andrews has moved on. In reference to the conference championship 7.72, he says that “I’ve been trying to get back to that point ever since. I really think I could’ve run 13.5’s outdoors. My tests were indicating I was going to have a tremendous outdoor season. My 4×4 splits were consistently in the 48’s, and they had been in the 49’s the year before. I figured I’d be in the sub-51’s in the intermediates.” For the record, his pr in the 400m hurdles is 52.55, which was good for first in the MAC in Andrews’ junior year.

Although Andrews is considerably talented in both hurdle events, he much prefers the 110s to the 400s. “Coming out of college,” he noted, “I felt I had a lot more room for improvement in the 110s because of all the injuries and setbacks I had.” After graduating from Kent State, he went on to coach the hurdlers at the University of Buffalo, and he also ran professionally for the Syracuse Chargers Track Club. In 2004, prior to competing in the US Olympic Trials, Andrews finished second to his collegiate rival Greg Richardson at the Big Blue Invitational in Indianapolis, 13.68 to 13.71. A couple weeks later, he finished first at the USATF National Club Championships in Indianapolis with a 13.81. The 13.71 stands as his official pr, although, while competing for Kent State, he ran a wind-aided 13.69. Andrews feels that the 13.78 he ran at the Olympic Trials is his “real” pr, because, although it wasn’t as fast, he ran it into a very strong headwind. “So for me to run the way I did,” he said, “I was thrilled. I consider that a pr although it’s not.”

In that quarter-final heat at the Olympic Trials, Andrews finished sixth, one-hundredth of a second behind fifth-place finisher Ryan Wilson. Wilson did not qualify for the semis either, as his 13.77 was, literally, one-thousandth of a second slower than that of Antwon Hicks, who ran in a different heat. It’s no small wonder that elite athletes and coaches spend so much time studying the science of the sport, refining every little nuance of sprinting form and hurdling technique, doing drills upon drills upon drills, when a thousandth of a second can be the difference between winning and losing, between going home and moving on to the next round.

Motivated by his strong showing at the Trials, Andrews continues to march forward. He hopes to run under 13.50 in 2005, which would be the type of breakthrough he has been searching for ever since running that 7.72 indoors as a collegian. “When I graduated in 2002,” he pointed out, “I told myself ’05 was gonna be the year – to either hang up the spikes or put it into another gear. My goal is just to spend one summer in Europe running. It doesn’t have to be Zurich and all that; it doesn’t have to be Golden League meets, but some kind of high level meet every week, and just travel, ‘cause I love to travel.” As far as making another Olympic run in 2008, Andrews feels that’s too far into the future to make a decision about just yet. His focus is on 2005. Based on the training he did last year in Buffalo under the tutelage of Tim Beech, Andrews feels confident that sub-13.50 is a reasonable goal. “Coach Beech was good at the multi-lateral approach – developing the athlete first, and then focusing on the specific event,” Andrews said. “He really turned my career around. I’m getting stronger, more resilient to injury. I’m not even getting injured anymore. He was all about endurance, stabilization. It’s like building a car. You have to make the structure strong before you put the engine in. The way I was coached improved every other area of my training.”

Now that Andrews is coaching at Kent State, he doesn’t have Coach Beech to watch him on a daily basis any longer, but he is using the same approach in his training for the upcoming season. Being a coach and developing talent, meanwhile, is a challenging task unto itself. For the brief time he coached at the University of Buffalo, he had six hurdlers qualify for the conference finals, although no hurdler at the school had made it that far prior to his arrival. One of his athletes, Brian Keim, was the MAC 400m intermediate hurdle champion in 2004. Andrews said that, as a coach, “I really try to make my athletes students of the sport. I want to find out what athletes they admire and want to emulate.” He also has had to become more of a student of the sport himself. “I really had to go back to biomechanics,” he noted. “When I see something, I have to ask myself, ‘how do I fix that?’ If I see a bad trail leg, is it flexibility, coordination, strength? I gotta try different things, and through the process of elimination, see what works.”

To Andrews, the most important aspect of hurdling technique is the trail leg, but he does not dismiss the importance of the lead leg. “I think the trail leg is important,” he said, “because it gives you that propulsion into the hurdle. Plus, when you pull the trail forward, it drops the lead leg down. The lead’s a really important aspect, ‘cause I’ve seen a lot of guys who can compensate for lazy trails with aggressiveness. I’ve seen guys with great trails get beat by guys who just run through the hurdles.” In coaching the intermediates, Andrews stresses technique more so than stride pattern or endurance, even though the intermediates aren’t generally considered to be as technical an event as the highs. “The ability to maintain technique while fatigued” is what separates the better intermediate hurdlers from the rest of the pack. “The 400s aren’t as technical, but you’re actually moving at a faster velocity than in the 110s.” Therefore, it is essential that the athlete “conserve momentum as much as possible” so that he or she can maintain efficient hurdling technique throughout the race.

Whether they’re running the highs, the intermediates, or the sprints, Andrews likes for his athletes to be able to deal well with pressure. In talking about his own hurdling, he says that “pressure has always made me a better runner. I’m reading this book called Competitive Fire and it’s got Michael Jordan on the cover, bent over at the waist, looking at something with this intense look in his eyes. The book talks about a lot of athletes – Ali, Barry Bonds, Jordan, Daley Thompson. It talks a lot about their backgrounds. It seems like they were all motivated by a feeling of low self-worth, like they were trying to prove people wrong.” Andrews observed that after smashing the 200m world record in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Michael Johnson said that he was really scared out there, but that he liked to be afraid. Andrews understands what Johnson meant. “When I get those butterflies, I know I can compete. I’m nervous and I’m ready to perform. My fastest races were when those butterflies showed up. It’s always a welcome feeling. I’ve learned how to manage that emotion so I don’t get over-stimulated and choke.”

In addition to Competitive Fire, another book that has had a heavy influence on Andrews’ approach to training, competing, and coaching is They Call Me Coach by legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. Before deciding as to whether or not he’ll stay in the coaching game long-term, he wants to see how his own running career turns out. Nevertheless, if he does stick with it, Wooden is the kind of coach that he would like to become. “It’s a big part of the coach’s responsibility to coach values,” he said, commenting about a recent television interview with Victor Conte – the sports nutritionist at the center of the never-ending BALCO scandal. “I just tell my athletes it’s amazing what kind of great lengths athletes will go to to win. Coaches need to instill the values of sportsmanship and hard work. John Wooden in They Call Me Coach said that the true spirit of the Olympic Games is not in the Games anymore; it’s in the Special Olympics. There, people are happy to finish second, they’re happy to say they tried their best. Wooden said in the book that he wasn’t just proud of the players in the hall of fame or who went on to the pros, but also of the ones who became lawyers and social workers. His definition of success isn’t the norm these days.” Andrews doesn’t buy the argument that everybody cheats, so you have to cheat just to keep up with the competition. “No,” he said, “it doesn’t make it right.”

Andrews’ advice to young hurdlers is basic but indispensable: work on the technique, because, as he said, “technique is going to allow you to sprint to your potential. If you’re persistent in trying to develop your technique, you’ll improve. I was horrible when I first started, and I didn’t get much better until my technique allowed me to.”

Andrews plans on competing in the Indoor Nationals at the Reggie Lewis Center in Boston in late February, and at the Outdoor Nationals in the early part of the summer. So be on the look-out for Ron Andrews in 2005. He’s ready to make some noise.

© 2004 Steve McGill

Update: Andrews opened up his 2005 outdoor season at the MT. SAC RELAYS in California, where he finished third in the Men’s 110m Hurdles Olympic Development University/Open division with a time of 13.74 — equalling his best-ever season opener.

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