Friday, November 27, 2020
By BRENT STUBBS
Senior Sports Reporter
FOR men’s national 100 metre record holder Derrick Atkins, it was a matter of time for him to make his breakthrough as a highly acclaimed track and field coach just as he did with his storied career as an athlete.
Atkins was recently named the new head coach for the Trailblazers track and field team at Dixie State University in Utah. He now joins his mentor Rolando ‘Lonnie’ Greene, the head coach at the University of Kentucky and Norbert Elliott, the head coach at Purdue University, as the only three Bahamians coaching track and field at the D1 collegiate level.
“In the coaching world, to become a head coach, those opportunities don’t come too often,” Atkins said. “For me, I’ve been working very hard as an assistant. I had some good head coaches, worked under some good head coaches and so I know that in order for me to do more in the sport in terms of giving back, I know I had to become a head coach.
“I was given an opportunity to go to Dickinson State in North Dakota of all places. I think that changed my life, or put my life in a different direction. I wouldn’t have been able to get my degrees, then second I don’t know if my projection would have been the national record holder, or a two-time Olympian or a silver medallist at the World Championship, if that opportunity wasn’t given to me.”
The 37-year-old 2001 graduate of CR Walker Secondary High School went to Dickinson State where he had a storied four-year career where he established several indoor and outdoor conference sprint records and he also helped lead the Blue Hawks to four Dakota Athletic Conference championships.
He spent three years as an assistant coach at Kennesaw State before he spent the past two seasons as an assistant track coach at Western Carolina University.
“For me, I’m just being blessed with this opportunity and I want to make the best of it,” Atkins said. “I’m definitely going to be recruiting back home, looking for the right fit because more than anything else, we’re going to be building a programme from scratch.
“So with everything thus far, I’m just happy and blessed with this opportunity. I’m going to make the best of it. I was given an opportunity at Dickinson State. I was All-American national champion, I graduated with my degree, my undergraduate degree, made two Olympic teams, was World Championship silver medallist and so I made the best of my journey and I want to do the same with this one as a coach.”
In an interview with The Tribune, Atkins answered a number of questions in his past and future.
Here’s a look at what he had to say:
Trib: When did you realise that you wanted to coach?
Atkins: I always knew that I wanted to coach. It just happened in my senior year in college. I ran really fast and they offered me to run and so I didn’t turn it down. So for me, coaching was always in my path.
I was just a nerd of the sport. I was also interested in the science, training theory and the physiological aspects that goes into training and then getting mentally prepared for competition. My high school coach, Floyd Armbrister, was instrumental in giving me that insight in being a college athlete. He always told the stories of him going to St Aug, so when I came to Dickinson, I was already prepared.
He did a good job of giving back to me and so I want to be there for the next generation. Being a head coach is different from being an assistant coach. The buck stops with me in recruiting athletes and giving out scholarships. I don’t have to ask anybody if we can do this? So coaching has always been in my path.
My college coach would tell you that I was always interested in the science of the sport. That is who I am and why I got into coaching or wanted to be a coach.”
Trib: You’re now in an elite field of three division one college coaches. How does it feel to be in the elite category with coach Lonnie Greene and coach Norbert Elliott?
Atkins: I won’t say elite. I know it ain’t too much of us but I won’t go that far and say elite. Lonnie Greene and Norbert Elliott were my mentors, who I talk to on a weekly, maybe daily basis. I would always ask them about their backgrounds and their journeys. I got to know that they are two decent human beings.
So for me, I am now one of three Bahamian coaches in the DI level, but those guys are still the trailblazers. They are still the guys I look up to. I’m nowhere close to their level in terms of accomplishments as a coach. I’m not saying that I won’t get there, but I want to be there for the next generation of Bahamian athletes to become great human beings.
That is my ultimate job. I may not have a national champion, but if I can have somebody who graduates and becomes a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, for me, that is just as great as having a national champion at the DI level because I know I helped that person to become what they are capable of becoming as a human being.
Trib: When do you report to work?
Atkins: I start in December, so me and my family are packing now to make the journey. 2020 has been a very difficult year. We didn’t have a recruiting class because most athletes didn’t have a junior season, which coaches use as a recruiting tool to see their progression. So for me, it’s just hitting the ground and getting the job done when I get there.
I’ve already spoken to my team and they are excited about the new head coach coming in and I’m excited about being able to coach there. Hopefully, we can make some waves in our first year in the WAC. This is the first year the programme will be in division one, so we want to hit the ground running so to speak with everything.
Trib: Are you looking forward to recruiting and is the Bahamas on your agenda?
Atkins: For sure, for sure. For me as the new head coach, I’m going to mix it up like Lonnie Greene, Norbert Elliott and Henry Rolle in getting the Bahamian talent to come to my university.
But more so, it’s about giving another kid the opportunity the way that I was blessed with my opportunity. Just having a connection with a kid coming to Dixie State, you never know what to expect. I went to the NIA, not even a division one, two or three school. I went to a smaller school, but I was able to make it all the way to the world stage because I had great coaches, great mentors, who prepared me for college.
So I understand the process. Nothing comes easy in life. You have to work hard for it. That’s where I developed my acronym - D.A.S.H. - years ago when I was a professional athlete - determination, ambition, sacrifice and hard work. That served me well as a professional athlete and it certainly served me well as a coach.
Hopefully, I can give a kid an opportunity to get a degree because you can’t run track forever. But having that degree, hopefully a master’s or a doctoral and going into the work field and being able to provide for your family, is a goal of mine as a coach. I want to make sure that when an athlete comes into my programme. they leave well rounded so that they can sustain themselves for the rest of their life.
Trib: How would you sum up your track career?
Atkins: Yes, it was an up and down career. Yes, I had some highs and lows, but that goes with sports. That goes with life in general. It’s persevering through all of that and working hard, and keeping focused and keeping the big picture in focus. So when I look back at my career as an athlete, it was great.
I learned a lot about the sport, I learned a lot about myself. I felt I was blessed to have been in those situations where I was able to represent the Bahamas at the World Championships, where I won the first silver medal in the men’s sprints and to be the national record holder and the first Bahamian to run under 10 seconds.
I hope it won’t take another 25 years before another one comes. Before I did it, the record was 10.18 and it was 20 years before I broke it, even though a few people tied it a couple of times. I’m hoping that it won’t be another 20 years before someone else comes and breaks my record and goes further than where I have been. It’s good to be the first, but I hope I’m not the last.
Trib: Are you surprised that there isn’t another Bahamian yet to run under the 10-second barrier?
Atkins: Yes I am. We had a lot of great Bahamians to come through the collegiate season as I did. I kept working hard. Sometimes we get lost. I told a couple of the kids coming up that I am here. I am a beacon of knowledge. I will be here to share my knowledge. I’ve been where they want to go. I’m not a ‘don’t talk to me guy.’ If you reach out to me, I will hit them back up and give you some knowledge.
I don’t want to hoard all this knowledge. I want to give it out to the next generation. I want to give it out, so reach out to me, ask me about anything like how did I get there and I will be truthful to whoever asks me those questions. It’s a grind, especially when we have a feeder system with athletes coming up and then they become the next Usain Bolt. Most of our kids come to the United States and after college, or during college, they get lost in the system.
That’s where having a mentor, who can navigate you through those pitfalls. So for me, I want to be an open book where I can give back to those who are coming up. I know I am the first, but I won’t be the last. I just don’t want it to be another 20 years for another me to come along. I want to see where we have three and four guys running sub-10 and become Olympic finals.
Just like the “Golden Girls”, I remember how Debbie Ferguson made her first Olympics at the age of 18 while she was still in college. That was a long time since she competed. We also had Chandra Sturrup, Pauline Davis, Savatheda Fynes and Eldece Clarke. They all worked together and I was hoping that with this next generation, we can get more male sprinters, who can go on and be better than me and better than the Golden Girls.
Hopefully the next generation will learn from our mistakes. That’s how we get better. Hopefully we can benefit from those who trailblazed the way for us. We just have to learn the hard way. I did that. I learnt from all of the pitfalls and all of the ups and downs of my career. I will give you the short cuts, so you won’t have to go through all of that.”
Trib: What would you consider to be the pinnacle of your career so far in track and field?
Atkins: I would say my second Olympics. Yeah, the silver medal was good, running sub-10 was great, but the journey that it took to get me to London, personally, I felt that was my crowning achievement because the year before that, I was hurt for the entire season.
I gained some weight and there was a lot going on in my life personally. People say ‘well you didn’t do much except make the semifinal,’ but coming back from where I was in 2010, being injured and just not competing for the whole year in 2011 and working my way back was my greatest achievement.
The toughest that I had to endure, the resilience to get back to the 2012 Olympics was definitely my crowning achievement.
Trib: What would be your low point?
Atkins: I would say my low point was before climbing the ladder back to 2012. I was just plagued with one injury after the other. It was just a snowball effect. One thing went wrong and after fixing it, something else went wrong. For me it was probably the lowest point in 2010-2011.
I was just constantly hurt and it seemed like there was no end to it. That was my lowest point.
Trib: How does your family fit into the scope of things?
Atkins: Now married, having a daughter and son, I’m in a better place than when I was an athlete. I didn’t have this balance. It has always been work hours to be a professional athlete and be the best that I could be. So my personal life took a backseat.
But being a lot older, I’m not that old, but I’m balancing both and I can continue to do what I love doing and that is helping others through track and field and coaching and being a father and a husband as well. So it’s very good.
My wife, Angela or Angie, is very supportive. My son, Derrick, we call him DASH for my acronym, is five and my daughter, Jaden, is 13, so you get to see them grow up and be a part of their journey now, as opposed to the past when my focus was just on me, me, me. Now it’s a bigger picture. It’s bigger than me.
Trib: How are you coping in the COVID-19 era?
Atkins: For me, it’s safety first, following the guidelines of the health officials at the end of the day.
For me, it’s safety first, making sure my family is safe, making sure I’m safe, making sure the kids that I coach are safe.
For me, that is the goal. I’m not going to do anything to put them in harm’s way.
I am going to make sure that we follow the guidelines, the health officials guidelines, the state officials guidelines for the COVID protocol.
Everybody is dealing with this, so I just want to be a positive mental space.
They call it the COVID fatigue. You get tired hearing about the death. We want to see those stories of people surviving. The media tends to focus on the suffering and the negativity, but what about the positivity?
As a coach, as a husband, as a father, I just want to keep a positive light and be upbeat. We’re going to get through this. This is not the end. It takes everyone of us doing our part to get through this.
Trib: Any message you want to share with the Bahamian people as we deal with this pandemic?
Atkins: Continue to keep your heads up, keep a positive light, be safe, be smart, don’t be selfish.
That is what we are seeing now with a lot of people being selfish.
Just think about others. Continue to pray, continue to be safe and God will take us through this. He never gives you something that you can’t bear.
For me, it’s just staying positive, being safe and most importantly, think about someone else who you can help.