Cool Running’s

RICKY SIMMS can pinpoint the day his life changed.

Of if you wish, he can be more specific and will talk you through the 9.69 seconds on August 16 this year that catapulted him from an existence in the boardrooms and backgrounds of athletics to a controlling stake of airspace at the highest altitudes of world sports.

For the past six years, Simms and his PACE Sports management team have guided the affairs of Usain Bolt, the 22-year-old Jamaican masterpiece of anatomy, attitude and sprinting genetics.

But in Beijing last August, Bolt revitalised and re-energised track and field. He, and by extension his agent, are now amongst the most influential players in the business as they prepare for 2009.

In a sensational week, Bolt became the first man in history to set world records in three races at a single Olympics.

He also became the first to win three major sprinting events at the event since US speedster Carl Lewis was in his prime in LA in 1984. (For the record Bolt collected in the 100m, 200m and the 4x100m).

And the fastest man in the world did it all with a smiling showboating style which had sponsors scrambling for Simms’ mobile before his client finished celebrating his first gold in the marquee 100m final.

“The texts started to come soon after the race,” Simms recalled. “By the next day I was going through two batteries a day with all the enquiries.”

Simms was always confident his man would be first past the line. Earlier that summer Bolt had set a new world record of 9.72 in New York, two hundredths of a second faster than that set by country man Asafa Powell in Rieti in 2007. Yet still all the talk in Beijing was about a showdown between Powell and Tyson Gay. Bolt was an afterthought.

“He started the season very well in May. He was known as a 200m runner but we knew that he could do well over 100m. He had a good summer and broke a world record. We went to Beijing, confident that he was going to do a good job. All his targets had been met. He was in fantastic form. Nothing was going to surprise us.”

But in the end, Simms joined the rest of the world in jaw-dropping awe at what unfolded in the Bird’s Nest Stadium. After catapulting from the blocks Bolt ran the perfect race with his gigantic stride gobbling up the track en route to producing what US legend Michael Johnson described as “the greatest 100m performance in the history of the event.”

Recalled his agent: “I was sitting at the 70m mark along with his family and his coaching team. The big thing for him is his start. Once that went well, I knew he would be okay. By the halfway mark I knew he had won, I knew by the way he was running, he could not be beaten.”

In the aftermath, after his theatrical celebration shuffle, Bolt, singled out the Donegal native for special praise.

“Ricky, he’s the greatest. He’s the best. He’s done everything for me. He makes sure I’m comfortable, and he stuck with me when things weren’t going very well. I give thanks to him.”

“I’m originally from Milford in Donegal,” explains Simms of his incredible career path. “I started in athletics when I was 12 with the famous Finn Valley AC. I mainly ran middle distance and cross country. What were the highlights of my athletics career? There were more lowlights that highlights! I won an Ulster Schools title and came second and third in Irish underage but never managed any gold medals. I got a few Irish vests — with student and U23 teams. But I was just a good club runner, never anything more than that.”

Simms though had found a calling. After secondary school he completed a degree in Sports and Leisure Studies in the University of Ulster, Jordanstown, had a spell teaching, before moving to Limerick to join the National Coaching and Training centre.

“From university onwards I got into coaching athletes. It was something I enjoyed and something I was good at. When I was working in Limerick I got more and more involved in coaching and because of that I became quite friendly with Ger Hartmann.”

By the end of the ‘90s, Hartmann had carved out a reputation as one of the top physiotherapists in Europe. His contacts book contained some of the major players in world athletics — on the track, and behind the scenes.

One of those was Kim McDonald, then in charge of Sonia O’Sullivan. Hartmann played matchmaker and set Simms up for a summer job in London with McDonald. He hasn’t left since.

“I came over to work with Kim in and around 1999, 2000. We got on really well and it just took off from there.”

Tragedy struck though when McDonald died while on holidays in Brisbane in November 2001. The company which bore his name was thrown into turmoil. Simms, Marion Steininger, now his fiancee, and Duncan Gaskell took command and christened the venture, PACE Sports management. Currently the London-based operation has more than 100 clients on their books.

2006 was the company’s high-point as PACE athletes won 42 medals in the various championships around the world. 17 of their stable were in the top 25 at the World Cross County in Japan; Saif Shaheen continued his four year unbeaten streak in the 3000m steeple chase while Micah Kogo ran the fastest 10,000m in the world. The new regime didn’t stop with name changes.

While McDonald’s empire was primarily built up around middle distance and cross country running, Simms and his colleagues expanded into sprinting and jumping talent, making it one of the most powerful agencies in the business.

Enter Usain Bolt. “We started looking at some Jamaican athletes when we developed PACE. The first time Usain came on the world stage was at the world junior championships in 2002. Even though he was one of the youngest competitors he was breaking lots of records. I wasn’t there but the reports I got back were a tall, gangly 15-year-old that was beating the older boys, waving to the crowd, smiling. He was obviously a show man in those days too. Even then we knew he was going to be great. We met him, spoke to him, he liked what we could offer and he joined us.”

Bolt, would become Simms greatest triumph. But it wasn’t his first taste of Olympic glory. One of his earliest clients, Noah Ngeny, defeated Moroccan favourite Hicham El Guerrouj over 1500m in one of the most dramatic upsets of the 2000 Games. “I worked very closely with him in the build up,” Simms told Irish Runner magazine earlier this year. “We spent a lot of time together at the track. We talked so long about how he could beat El Guerrouj. He was nervous in the warm up but I really enjoy the mental preparation and psychology before a race. We knew he was in great shape but for him to actually do it — they had to hold me back from going on the track for the victory lap! El Guerrouj was the mile king and Noah beat him. That was one of the best moments ever.

“Coaching was my role back then,” he says now. “The level of professionalism at this level is immense. When I was brought up, there was that GAA culture of going for a few beers after a match or an event or a race. But there is nothing like that at this level. They are ... living athletics 24/7 every week of the year. All these people live a very, very disciplined lifestyle and are more than happy to do what we tell them to do.”

Simms was a coaching sponge: “I spent my whole university years, reading about Peter Coe who coached Seb Coe, learning from Kim and from various influences in Ireland, along with the UK, which was one of the leading nations for coaching back in the day. I used to talk to other coaches, talk to other athletes and simply watch what other people were doing.”

But with Bolt, Simms has no role in coaching. He is an agent first and foremost with Glen Mills entrusted with the track work. Explained Simms: “If you compare it to soccer we are more like the club than the agent. With Usain, we are in charge of all his competitions, travel, endorsement, appearance fees, prize money. I would be the biggest thing in the chain.

“For example with the sponsorship side of things, we have set him up with a couple of long term partners. What is important is he will not run and jump at every opportunity.”

But what is involved managing such a talent on a day to day basis? “At an event like the Olympics I was with him every day taking care of whatever needed to be taken care of, dealing with sponsors, officials and the like. I would always be with him in the hour or two before his races.”

So what is he like in these quiet times? Is the showmanship, which earned a rebuke from IOC Chief Jacques Rogge, merely an act? Is Bolt a brooding bundle of nerves before he soaks up the spotlight of the world’s great stadia.

“He is even worse in the changing rooms!” laughed Simms. “Before the 200m final his coach gave him a slap on the back to wish him luck. Usain did a dramatic fall, and tumbled to the ground. Everyone was in shock, convinced he had hurt himself. Of course he got back up and was laughing at us all.”

But for Bolt — and Simms — this is just the beginning.

“He did things that were never done before in the sport of Olympics. He captured the attention of the world.

“He is an iconic figure. He broke three world records at the Olympic Games. Kids are trying to imitate his running — and his celebration. And athletics needs a Usain Bolt.

“The sport has changed. The world has changed. You have the dominance of football, all these extreme sports, things like Big Brother on television and all these computer games. It is harder for athletics and for sport.

“That is why Usain is so special.”

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