Former Denton runner now coaching pair of 1,500-meter Olympians
When Nike track coach John Cook first stumbled across Denton native Ryan Ponsonby a few years ago, Cook was in Oregon and Ponsonby was still running. According to Cook, Ponsonby went to Oregon with a slew of injury problems and was looking for a little help.
While he may have been unaware of it then, Cook ended up doing much more than helping out with those problems.
Ponsonby, who graduated from Denton in 2001 and ran middle-distance events at Texas before graduating in 2006, impressed Cook so much that Cook decided to bring him on as a coach in the fall of 2008. So far, the partnership has proved to be successful.
Two of Cook and Ponsonby’s athletes — 1,500-meter runners Leo Manzano and Shannon Rowbury — will compete in the London Olympics, which will begin this week and continue until Aug. 12.
Ponsonby talked about the event and what it would mean to him if Manzano and Rowbury made a lasting mark on the world’s greatest stage.
“I think anytime you talk about Olympics, there’s interest, there’s excitement and there’s a lot of buzz around it,” Ponsonby said. “I think that it’s certainly special, and again, it would be a dream come true if that were to happen, mostly because you’re working with not only great athletes but great people.”
Cook is the director of one of Nike’s long-distance teams, with Ponsonby one of the team’s coaches. Cook, 71, built one of the strongest track and field programs in the nation at George Mason, where he was the head coach for 19 years.
Upon their first meeting, Cook was impressed with Ponsonby’s willingness to learn and his humility.
“He’s very intelligent,” Cook said. “He’s one of those guys that kind of grows on you. He’s a real smart guy, but he’s quietly smart. He doesn’t tell you how brilliant he is.”
The Denton native’s brilliance has helped him maneuver from being a volunteer assistant at Texas to becoming one of Nike’s strongest young coaches.
Around the winter of 2006, Ponsonby co-founded Flotrack.org, a website dedicated to track and field. Flotrack has more than 21,600 followers on Twitter and almost 26,000 “likes” on Facebook.
In starting the website, Ponsonby began to interview coaches and athletes, something he found appealing and with which he quickly identified. Soon enough, he appreciated the pursuit of the perfect training system and proper training techniques.
“I don’t want to make this sound as if it’s guesswork, but it is trial and error to a certain extent,” Ponsonby said. “You’ve got to know their limitations and what they’re capable of doing, but you kind of have to prep those limits without taking them over and pushing them too far.”
Manzano won the 1,500 at the Olympic track trials in 3:35.75, sealing his spot in this summer’s Olympics. Cook said Manzano wouldn’t be where he is if it wasn’t for Ponsonby’s hands-on approach that has turned Manzano into a world-class athlete.
When his athletes fail to produce results, Cook said, Ponsonby never blames the athletes. Instead, he asks what the coaching staff did wrong and what could have been done better.
“He never blames the athletes, and I like that,” Cook said. “He takes responsibility really well.”
Rowbury won the bronze medal in the 1,500 at the 2009 world championships after finishing seventh at the 2008 Olympics.
Rowbury and Manzano qualified for the 2011 world championships, but injuries derailed them. Ponsonby said the setbacks have propelled both to success this year.
Ponsonby’s progress as a coach has been evident since he began coaching in 2006. He helped found the Austin Track Club, a group of elite runners based in Austin and coached by Cook and Ponsonby.
Cook knows he’s not going to coach forever, and he said he hopes that one day Ponsonby can take over the program.
“He’s been with me now for three years, and I think he’s learned a hell of a lot,” Cook said. “He’s willing to learn, and I’ve learned from him, too. He’s got great demeanor. He’s got good people skills. He’s very open-minded. I really hope someday, and it’s not my decision, but I hope Nike has the confidence in him that I have.”
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