The majority of America’s Olympic hopefuls belong to pro training groups, in which small numbers of athletes practice together in places around the country, from Boston to Rochester Hills, Michigan, to Flagstaff, Arizona, to Portland, Oregon. These teams are often funded by a single sponsor, a shoe company trying to build visibility for its products through athletic performances.
The biggest of these teams are all coached by men. So across the insular world of elite running, coaches and athletes noticed when two recent plum jobs went—once again—to male coaches. For some, it rankled. Others shrugged it off as the same old, same old: It’s all about connections, who you know.
In the past seven months, two new training groups have formed: In August 2020, Swiss footwear company On started the On Athletics Club in Boulder, Colorado, with eight runners.
Over the winter, a Puma-sponsored training group based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, formed with three recent college graduates so far. The group is expected to add several more athletes.
(A third group, Dark Sky Distance, sponsored by Under Armour, was officially announced in September, but several members had already been training together under the group’s founder, Stephen Haas.)
Of course, every new team needs a coach. On hired Dathan Ritzenhein, a three-time Olympian, to lead its group, after he announced his retirement in May. And Puma enlisted Alistair Cragg, a distance track star who is a three-time Olympian and Irish record-holder at 5,000 and 10,000 meters. He’s married to American Olympic marathoner Amy Cragg and works for agent Tom Ratcliffe.
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How did two men get those jobs, which look to be among the best recent openings for coaches? Did On conduct an extensive search? Did Puma? How many candidates were interviewed? Were any women considered?
Runner’s World posed those questions to representatives at each company. In a statement, Steve DeKoker, On’s global manager of sports marketing, said that five candidates were interviewed, two of whom were women.
Of Ritzenhein, DeKoker said, “Not only does he come with incredible credentials, but he was in the best position in his career and life, just recently having retired from professional running himself, to move to Boulder, Colorado, and take on this opportunity with us.” (The full text of On’s statement is below.)
Ritzenhein was a volunteer assistant coach at the University of Oregon in 2014, and he had been coaching several athletes in Michigan, where he was training with Brooks, before his retirement. They included Leah Falland, an NCAA champion in the mile, who is now with On.
Puma, which is focused heavily on the women’s running market in the U.S., did not specify whether any women were interviewed for the job Alistair Cragg now holds.
In a statement, Pascal Rolling, Puma’s head of sports marketing for running, who is based in Germany, said, “We spoke with many coaches during our search for the Puma pro group, and we felt Alistair Cragg was the right fit for the position.” The statement goes on to say that the company supports two female coaches in Europe, Katty Cham and Tatiana Stepanova.
Amy Cragg told Runner’s World she has been going to every practice the Puma group holds, and Puma plans to bring her on in an official coaching role when she’s ready.
Alistair Cragg spoke to Runner’s World and said he had long hoped to create a new training group to share the coaching principles he first learned as an athlete from Arkansas coach John McDonnell and later from Jerry Schumacher at the Bowerman Track Club. Cragg was, in essence, an unpaid assistant coach, going to practice every day, when his wife was running for Bowerman. But he has held no official coaching positions.
Women with impressive coaching résumés are out there. Andrea Grove-McDonough, now the director of cross-country and track and field at the University of Toledo, said she had conversations about coaching a pro group a couple of years ago, but they ended abruptly when she asked how much input she would have.
She wondered how the On and Puma hires happened, but quickly forgot about them. “It is so standard that it barely registered,” she said. “It barely sent a ripple.”
A male coach said to Runner’s World, “It’s not a question of whether Dathan will be a great coach for On. He will be.” The question is, as that coach saw it, was whether Ritzenhein was the only one given serious consideration. An August 3 article by LetsRun implied that Ritzenhein was one of DeKoker’s top choices all along, and that Joe Klecker, the team’s star runner, then age 23, “signed off” on the hiring.
Dena Evans, who has been a top college coach and now is the club director of the Peninsula Distance Club in the Bay Area, saw news of the hires as fitting into a larger pattern.
“Like many structural imbalances in society, they can easily be perpetuated by making comfortable decisions, through personal relationships,” she said. “That’s the way the world works in a lot of different things. As a coach, trying to work with post-collegiate athletes, I want to see as many people have an opportunity as possible. I think it would be a richer environment if some of the great female coaches we had out there had similar opportunities.”
One team took a different approach recently. When Northern Arizona Elite head coach Ben Rosario was looking for an assistant coach, he posted the job on the group’s website. He told Runner’s World that the post netted more than 80 applicants. He conducted more than 30 interviews and brought three finalists—two women, one man—to Flagstaff for in-person visits. The process took more than three months.
In the end, Rosario hired Jenna Wrieden, who had been in coaching since 2006, most recently at the University of Louisville.
Running has found its coaches at the college and pro levels through personal relationships for so long, people were pleasantly shocked.
“A job posting for a professional coaching opportunity? I stopped—I didn’t even know that was a thing,” said Rita Gary, assistant coach at Furman University. “I’ve been coaching for 20 years.”
All the coaches who spoke to Runner’s World hailed the arrival of any new pro groups for the opportunities they give to young runners—who can devote their time to training and finding out how good they can be. Will they make Olympic teams? That’s the hope, for the athletes and the sponsoring companies.
These coaches just wished the opportunities extended up to the leadership ranks and that women candidates were vetted as frequently as male candidates were for top jobs. Runner’s World wrote about the dearth of women in the pro coaching ranks in 2013.
But women coaching pros remain rare. The landscape of professional running is constantly shifting, which makes it difficult to count groups. But of the roughly two dozen professional distance teams currently operating in the country, only a handful have women at the helm or sharing head coaching duties.
Among them: Retired runner Lauren Fleshman is the head coach of Littlewing Athletics in Bend, Oregon, which is sponsored by women’s apparel company Oiselle. Amy Begley is the head coach of the Atlanta Track Club’s elite team, sponsored by Mizuno. And Shayla Houlihan co-coaches Dark Sky Distance with Haas.
“There are a lot of outstanding male coaches doing great work today,” Evans said. “We are probably missing out on some outstanding young female coaching talent. There is going to be some brand or some organization that benefits from looking at this in a different way.”
We’ve learned a lot this past year about how we operate as a sports marketing team and as a business. We value the running community and our fans holding us accountable to have equal representation in the sport.
There were a variety of factors in play during our search for a coach to lead the On Athletics Club (OAC). We were in conversations with five coaching prospects, two of which were women, and ultimately landed on Dathan Ritzenhein. Not only does he come with incredible credentials, but he was in the best position in his career and life, just recently having retired from professional running himself, to move to Boulder, Colorado, and take on this opportunity with us.
“We spoke with many coaches during our search for the PUMA pro group, and we felt Alistair Cragg was the right fit for the position. We continue to support female coaches in our partnerships with Katty Cham, who trains European champion in the hurdles Wilhem Belocian; and, Tatiana Stepanova, who coaches the world junior record holder in high jump, Yarislava Mahuchickh.”
A previous version of this story said that Alistair Cragg is a two-time Olympian. He is a three-time Olympian.
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