A COACH’S PRIDE (Dana Lawson)
There’s glory to be found in coaching a gifted athlete, but more to be gained when you take an average Jane like Dana Lawson and turn her into a champion!
By Laura Dayton
Published: Fall 2000
Four years ago UC Berkeley Coach Randy Ziraldo watched a high school athlete lumber through a shot put. He talked to the girl, Dana Lawson, as he would any potential recruit, but knew this was no scholarship athlete. There was some further contact between Randy and Dana via the phone, but his fellow coaches wondered why Randy was wasting the time.
To his surprise, the next year Dana walked into his training room. She didn’t get there on a scholarship; on the contrary, part of her decision to come to Cal was to avoid having her family struggle to come up with out-of-state tuition. The bigger part of her decision was that she was a civil engineering major and Cal's school of engineering was ranked third in the nation. Randy started thinking that if Dana could get into one of the most sought-after engineering schools in the country, she might be able to muster a little more competitiveness on the playing field. Coach Ziraldo was right. In 24 years of coaching, 11 at UCB, Randy had seen a lot. Although on the surface there was little athletic ability apparent in Dana, he figured it was worth his effort to dig a little deeper.
“In her freshman year she never missed a workout,” says Randy. “She just did everything she was told and never said a word back. There was a time when I wondered if she could even talk!
“I wasn't sure after her freshman year if she would even come back. But she did. Then in the middle of the year she scored at the Pac Ten Conference in 1998 at Arizona State. At that point we put some higher expectations on her. She continued to improve in the shot and was beginning to show a lot of promise in the discus and hammer as well.
“This past year she scored in all three--did an amazing job. She just missed the winning shot by an inch at the NCC Championships. She holds third place for the best shot at Cal. She has beat a lot, and I mean a lot, of the high-profile scholarship athletes!
“I guess it’s fair to say I don’t write her off any more!”
Getting a P.E. with P.E.
Dana grew up not far from the Berkeley hills in Walnut Creek. Later her family moved to Clayton, a small town at the foot of Mount Diablo, one of the largest peaks in the western states.
“Having that mountain in our backyard was a natural for mountain biking,” says 21-year-old Dana, who took the vertical climbs determined to keep up with her father. She also enjoyed horseback riding and four-wheeling with her two brothers. In high school she played basketball, volleyball and track. As she reached her full height of six feet, Dana began to favor the shot over the other sports and dreamed of becoming more efficient.
“I’m the first to admit that I don’t get it the first time,” she says. “It takes a lot of repetition for me, and Randy had the patience. Another aspect that changed my progress at Cal was the weight training. My high school coaches had no time and we didn’t lift. That’s all changed now and I’ve responded really well with the lifting. Today I weigh around 215.”
When Dana entered Cal her sights were on a P.E., a professional engineering license. Now, she’s also looking at another P.E., physical education. “I’m going to have to look closely at what potential I may have in throwing after college. But I love it so much that I can’t imagine it not being a part of my life. Right now I’m focused on my senior year, both academically and athletically.”
Her senior goals are to bring her shot past 54 feet, which is the school record. She’d like to reach 195 in the hammer and 175 in the discus. Another event she looks forward to is the Big Meet between Cal and nearby Stanford. This meet makes Dana’s hazel eyes sparkle as she recalls the fun last May, when Cal beat Stanford for the first time in three years.
“The meet was on our new fields, so it was kind of a christening of the new tracks. Stanford wanted to crush our faces in it. Everyone was up for it. I’m always moving from event to event, but at the Big Meet you get to watch your teammates and really cheer them on. I lost my voice for a couple days from all the yelling!
“You really get emotionally fired. Two guys were injured and weren’t supposed to compete, but they did and scored! You really feel the team effort and these games are memories I’ll always cherish from my college years.”
A Coach with Attitude
Coach Randy Ziraldo, originally from Michigan, has been Cal’s assistant track and field coach in charge of throws for 11 seasons. Some of his better-known athletes are John Wirtz in the discus, Travis Nutter in the hammer, and Jennifer Joyce, also in the hammer and rated second in Canada.
He’s Dana’s primary coach, and for the past three years his patience has paid off and there is a high level of mutual respect between them. However, Randy admits there was a time when his skills with female athletes were not quite as developed.
“When I first began coaching women I thought, ‘No big deal.’ Boy, was I rudely awakened! Training principles may be similar, but psychologically women are so different. The first time a girl started crying I asked her, ‘Why are you crying?’ I’ve come to be a bit more sensitive about these things.
“But the girls get tougher too. Particularly this group. I remember a time when one girl’s boyfriend was beating her up and hanging around. I kicked him out and told her to dump him. If that situation happened with this group I think they'd personally kick him. These girls are dedicated and determined.”
Mental focus is a big part of Randy’s approach. “Everyone looks at how many hours are spent in the weight room and training field, but no one talks about training their minds. When someone says this person can’t compete, you have to ask how he or she has trained. If there isn’t some mental training going on, there’s a problem. I think that kids are not really prepared these days.
“When developing a strong mental attitude you have to be constant. You need to hammer them about the mental aspect so much that when they get to a meet they’re so sick of hearing it they’ll do anything just to shut you up!
“The mindset I work toward is nothing matters except performing well. You perform; afterwards we talk about the problem. If a shoe flies off in the middle of a run, it doesn’t matter. You need to eliminate all the worry over any of the things we cannot control at the moment. You need one goal, and that is to compete well. Everything else can be taken care of after.”
Randy works hardest on his freshmen and sophomores. “The older ones usually get it. They do what we say and stay focused. It's the young ones that need the attitude adjustments.”
Sure, having a young Jackie Joyner-Kersee walk into a weight room is every coach’s dream. To work with the best, and make them better. To work with them not just on a college level, but a career level. Yet, as the athletic field is changing with the new influx of women, many things are changing.
Like Dana, not every female athlete comes in looking for a career. Women aren’t generally as single-minded as men. Many see a career and/or family in their future, not sports. Like Dana, many come without the testosterone-driven aspiration to be the best and beat out all competition at all cost. As with Dana, developing talent takes patience, a virtue that is becoming increasingly valuable in coaching women athletes.
Coach Ziraldo and Dana’s story are about real people--not the superstar athletes that will go on to set Olympic records, but the people who still experience athletic events the way they were meant to be--as a source of personal accomplishment; as a strength and conditioning program for the mind and body; and as an exhilarating and fun pastime that includes teammates and camaraderie.
On the coaching level it’s a reminder that every athlete can benefit from a coach’s skills and influence. So