July 22, 2021

By Betti Halsell

Contributing Writer


Coach John Walton Smith, Jr. is known to have the ‘Midas touch’ when creating gold medalists. Currently, sprint-athlete, Michael Cherry, is following Coach Smith into battle; after being cleared through the COVID-19 process, they will participate in the 2021 Tokyo Olympic games. Smith has been in this position eight other times on a consecutive basis.

Reflecting on the past routes to victory, Smith provided the blueprint to achieving the ultimate success in life. Coach Smith talked about his freight train-like focus to achieving the highest reward in all aspects of his life. 


“I didn’t see this coming,” Smith said, in a surprise of the Olympics considering the current climate of the COVID-19 pandemic. Smith described training consisting of running up hills and using parks instead of gyms and training facilities because they were closed. Smith talked about the ingenuity in preparation for this year’s Olympics. 

“I had to dig deep down in some of my principles that I’ve gathered and strengthened over the last 35 years—I didn’t lose hope in my ability to train them or in them.”

Due to his resolve and determination to perform to the highest standard, Smith said he found new words of motivation that captured the passion to overcome the obstacle of not having an official place to train. Coach Smith is considered “one of the most accomplished sprints and hurdle coaches.” He has cleared the path for many athletes to achieve Olympic gold, world championship gold, and noted global records. He is one of the most sought-after coaches known in the Olympic circuit. 

The secret to Smith’s success is staying focused and surrounding himself with great people. He’s known on a global scale as one of the most engaging and supportive coaches, taking his pupils and sculpting their mindset to only envision the gold in their future. 

Another pillar to the coach’s success is to remain in a state of learning. Smith shared this quote, “I’m a student. As soon as I lay my eyes on you, I’m collecting data that assists me in either coaching you or determining how to beat you.”

Smith can reach new frontiers of potential found deep within the athlete. In addition to his innate ability to see ripened talent waiting to harvest within his pupil, Smith has also been in their shoes. He knows the fears, doubts, and mental landmines that can throw one’s mind off track. 

The Olympic coach shared a few personal detours that altered his reality and how he overcame them.

Every time he was knocked down, he got back up. After each plunge of hope, he regenerated his mind to think positively and regained focus. 

Smith credits that skill of remapping to discipline; he made it clear that a trained mind, body, and spirit will align with an unstoppable path to success. Smith shared, “one must discipline oneself to a lifestyle of a champion. That means setting goals, being spiritually centered, being committed to the tasks at hand, no matter how challenging and overwhelming they appear, and finally, executing the plan.”

The former coach of the Muhammed-Ali Track Club accumulated this formula of success from over 40 years of experience. When he competed, Smith was one of the top quarter-mile sprinters, holding a world record in the 440-yard dash. In his collegiate season at UCLA, Smith ran a 440-yard dash in 44.5 seconds (1971 National Championship).

Smith shared that he injured his hamstring in a pre-Olympic track meet, but nothing was deterring his focus on the gold. Locked into his vision, the injured sprinter still made it to the semi-final round. However, his reality changed after he was no longer physically able to finish in the finals. Smith shared those moments of mental darkness; devastation was evident through his tears from the bench.

He mourned the death of that dream by taking a break from the track and field scene, getting into football and acting. He explored different talents that were untapped before this life-changing event.

Smith applied the same tunnel vision to this new chapter of his life and produced multiple levels of success as well. It would be 16 years before Smith would step foot on a track again. “I avoided it, I went to pro-football and tried my hand in that ...” Smith said. 

Smith went on to read off a list of other professions that he tried; he highlighted acting as something he enjoyed because he was able to exercise his strength in an art form.

Reflecting on his journey, Coach Smith said, “What happened to you in your past makes you who you are in the present.” Smith shared that through his experience of trying different career paths, he realized one of the most important pillars in life is living out your dreams. 

Reconnecting to his passion, the UCLA track and field department beckoned for Smith’s return as a coach. The former Olympian struggled with the offer. He said, “I struggled with it because I ran away from track and field for the last 12 years.”

After accepting the opportunity, Smith embodied that process of mental perseverance and laid that down as the foundation of work he did with athletes training under him. 

Sprinters under his tutelage have always seen a medal come from their collaboration. Smith is highly respected as a coach on an international scale and represented five continents, each having been adorned with a medal.  His past Olympics trainees earned 17 gold, nine silver, and eight bronze medals, totaling 34 medals.

Sprint runner, Michael Cherry, is the current clay in Coach Smith’s hands; he is representing Team USA in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Smith started working with Cherry in 2018, and he shared that Cherry is not afraid to work. Smith also said this in reflection of his method of coaching “the spirit” of the athlete, Cherry has a strong spiritual base.

The three-time silver medalist reflected on his transformation with Coach Smith and shared this statement, “Since coming to Los Angeles and working with the legendary John Smith has been nothing short of amazing and a dream. His wise knowledge on life and experience he has had working with multiple Olympians and world champions, shows as he comes to work every day, ready to push me to be a better athlete and person.” 

Cherry continued, “I have learned so much about myself and the sport of track and field since training under John. The growth as an athlete overall is what I’m most impressed about. Qualifying for the Olympics means everything to me--as this was one of the goals that I set before I made the move from Baton Rouge Louisiana to Los Angeles. Trusting John to lead the way and developed me into the athlete that I am today. For us to accomplish that on the first try shows the hard work we have been putting in is paying off. The work is not done and can’t wait to see what the future holds!” 

Category: Sports