In many ways, what he did was mad — but John Coghlan saw the method in it. As the pandemic took hold in 2020, the Dubliner had a good, steady job with Meath GAA, training their best players across various levels for speed and strength. But as a former sprinter who’d worked with some of the world’s top athletes, his eyes were always open for a return to athletics.
That came in 2020, a phone call from his friend Paul Doyle — one of the athletics world’s leading agents — offering him the chance to steer the career of a young, gifted sprint hurdler, Jasmine Camacho-Quinn. The Puerto Rican had been a college star, but she lost her way a little in the professional ranks, Doyle telling Coghlan she needed someone with his hurdling expertise to work with her full-time.
And so, in 2020, Coghlan packed his bags and headed to Orlando, Florida.
“It was a bit of a crazy idea to travel across the pond to coach one athlete,” he says. “But who dares, wins.”
At the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo yesterday, that move paid off — Camacho-Quinn delivering Puerto Rico its first ever Olympic gold in athletics. As the 24-year-old beamed a bright smile afterwards, draped in her nation’s flag, she paid tribute to Coghlan.
“He came from Ireland just to coach me,” she said. “He played a huge role; we had a lot of ups and downs, but that’s my dawg. I really do thank him.”
It had been a nervous morning for Coghlan, who arrived at the stadium decked in Puerto Rican kit. Camacho-Quinn was the fastest in the world this year, the favourite for the gold medal. Her nation expected.
“Everybody involved probably gets nervous, but you have to keep a calm head because that transfers over to the athlete,” said Coghlan. “It was a long wait, and the 10 minutes before the race you’re like: ‘Come on, just get it going.’ But when they settled into the blocks, I felt calm.”
It was a moment they’d been working towards for many months — a moment Coghlan, as a coach, had hoped to experience for more than two decades.
His journey into elite-level coaching began in 2000, his brother Peter — himself a world-class sprint hurdler — having close ties to Doyle, which allowed John to get to know Loren Seagrave, who had coached a string of champions. One of those was Pauline Davis-Thompson, the Bahamian who won 200m gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
A sports science graduate at UL, Coghlan spent much time abroad in the years that followed, learning his coaching trade under Seagrave, and he returned to Ireland to coach a number of leading sprinters. However, it speaks volumes that coaches like Coghlan couldn’t earn a living here from athletics, and in 2015 he took a job in China coaching many of their best sprinters.
“I love Ireland, I love athletics, but there’s not really professional coaching jobs,” he said. “I was putting huge time into it and said: ‘I can’t afford to do this.’” He worked on and off in GAA since 2002, and in 2016 took the job with Meath GAA as head of physical development. In early 2020 he paid his first visit to the group in Florida run by Gary Evans, and later that year he moved over full-time, picking apart Camacho-Quinn’s technique and finding ways to make her faster.
“I’m a bit of a nerd, a geek on technique,” he said. “It took a little bit to get her buy-in, there was some stuff she didn’t want to do, and I had to tell her: ‘Come on, this will work.’”
Camacho-Quinn admits they have occasionally had a fractious relationship.
“I thank him for pushing me, and for making me mad sometimes,” she laughed. “I really do appreciate everything he’s done.” Coming to Tokyo, she felt the pressure. In the 2016 Olympic semi-final she crashed out after smashing a barrier, and before her semi-final here she got flashbacks and “kind of had a breakdown”. But she was foot-perfect in that race, clocking 12.26 to move fourth on the world all-time list. In the final she dominated her opposition, a late-race clatter not enough to stop her from taking gold in 12.37. Coghlan cut a delighted figure as he awaited her afterwards, the Puerto Rican sports minister one of those approaching him for a photo.
His skills had been appreciated, albeit far from home.