By Craig Pearson
TERRE HAUTE — In just more than a month, practice will have officially begun for John McNichols and his 25th men’s cross country team at Indiana State.
In the meantime, the 56-year-old leaves Tuesday on the trip of a lifetime.
McNichols was invited to coach at the international senior level for the first time in his career. He will direct the U.S. hurdlers and sprinters for the Pan American Games. Opening ceremonies were Friday in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The coach of two national champion hurdlers at Indiana State — Chris Lancaster won the 110-meter hurdles in 1990 and Aubrey Herring the 60s in 2001 — McNichols said this is the greatest honor he’s had in coaching.
“This is just kind of a dream,” said McNichols, who currently serves as hurdles broad event chair for the United States Track and Field men’s development committee. He has also answered his sport’s call as a meet official in the 1984 Olympics and 1987 Pan American games.
“I’m looking at this one as a lifetime opportunity and I’m going to enjoy every minute of the trip as well as do all the extra things I can possibly do to help all our athletes.”
McNichols will only be coaching two hurdlers at the meet due to some confusion in the selection process following the USA Track and Field Championships last month at Indianapolis.
The best Americans are asked to compete in the International Association of Athletics Federations World Championships. Those championships begin Aug. 25 in Osaka, Japan, and normally the next tier of competitors compete in the Pan American Games.
But this is also in the middle of a season of racing in Europe in which athletes earn quality pay days. Among those athletes is Herring (ranked 16th in the world by IAAF), McNichols’ pupil who also serves as an assistant for the Sycamores.
Some athletes signed up for the Pan American Games after the USATF then withdrew their names, deciding to race in Europe.
“Normally we would have wiggle room to sign up another athlete, but we had to have our entry in to the Brazilian Federation two days after the USATF Championships,” McNichols said. “We could have gone down to our 13th hurdler and still had a medal winner.”
David Payne, a former standout at the University of Cincinnati, will compete as the eighth-ranked hurdler in the world in the 110s, but he’ll have his hands full against Cuban Dayron Robles, who beat the American twice in a week earlier this month. Anwar Moore, ranked ninth in the world, was the other American picked for the team in the 110s, according to a release on USATF.org.
According to the same release, Kenneth Ferguson (ranked 10th by IAAF) would have been a top contender in the 400 hurdles. Instead, the U.S. is represented by only Laron Bennett (ranked 37th).
“We’re so deep in the hurdles [in the United States] that those guys are high demand in Europe making money,” McNichols said adding that the USATF should find a solution to the problem. “The USATF needs to be able to strong arm in this. If an athlete pulls out on them, then that athlete would lose [financial] support from them.”
Regardless, McNichols still has a full team of sprinters to put his attention to, in addition to assisting with relay teams.
As much as McNichols is looking forward to the competition, he’s also hoping to find time to enjoy the cultural experience of being in a village of 5,662 athletes from 42 countries.
McNichols has visited Bogota, Columbia, with his son Matt, but he has never visited the beaches of Rio.
Americans are on tight security when visiting anywhere around the globe these days — “we’re not very popular right now for obvious reasons,” he said — but McNichols said the U.S. team will be able to see some of the sights.
“Security will be pretty tight for U.S. team,” he said. “We’re not able to run all over the city. We’re under some guidelines. They’ve had some gang violence and so on. We’ve had a lot of warnings. A couple members of the United States Olympic Committee were mugged already.”
McNichols plans to get his own workout in on the Copacabana Beach — a world famous four-kilometer stretch.
“I’m going to try to I want to get my run in and see some of the community, which I always enjoy when traveling,” McNichols said.
McNichols would also enjoy more opportunities to represent the United States as a coach.
“It depends partially on how I perform. I’ve been on staffs before and for a number of years [from 1987 to 1993] was competition commissioner for Olympic festival,” McNichols said. “The festival was designed by USOC to train coaches and athletes for this type of competition. I had a lot of good experience early in my career as far as protocol. It will be fun to actually go through and do it.
“And it could lead on to something else or they may look at someone else for staffs in future. I’d hope I’d have some other opportunities.”
Tribune-Star sports reporter Craig Pearson can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.