Friday 24 January 2020

An Irishman in Providence: 35 years not out for coach Ray Treacy

Providence College named their first outdoor track after Ray Treacy
Providence College named their first outdoor track after Ray Treacy

Sinéad Kissane

His athletes have a nickname for him: the guru. His knowledge of athletics is such that he can reel off personal-best times for an athlete from any decade faster than you can type the word google. When Providence College opened their new athletics track on campus in Rhode Island in 2014, they named it after him. He also studied and competed for the college.

He's a Treacy from Waterford. It's not John, it's his brother, Ray. Providence named their first outdoor track the Ray Treacy Track. Even though he also ran for Providence and won a silver medal at the 1984 Olympics, John Treacy would tell you himself that around Providence he's known as Ray Treacy's brother.

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It's 35 years this month since Ray Treacy started his job as an athletics coach with Providence College. John - who is two-and-a-half years younger than Ray - wanted his brother to join him at Providence in the 1970s and eventually Ray left his job with Bank of Ireland in Cork and attended Providence in 1978.

The brothers were on the Ireland team that won silver (with individual gold for John) at the IAAF World Cross-Country Championships in Limerick in 1979. Those were big years for the Treacy brothers.

Ray graduated from Providence in 1982, he got married in 1983, John won Olympic silver in 1984, Ray became coach of the new women's athletics programme in Providence in January 1985, he took over the men's programme in 1986 to become the overall head coach. "You could call it very good timing on my part," Ray says.


Ray's brother John, silver medal winner at the 1984 Olympics and current CEO of Sport Ireland. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Ray's brother John, silver medal winner at the 1984 Olympics and current CEO of Sport Ireland. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

You don't get a track named after you or stay in a demanding job for 35 years without notable successes. Among Treacy's highlights reel are NCAA Women's Cross-Country Championship team titles in 1995 and 2013 and he's also been named NCAA Cross-Country Coach of the Year.

When Providence won the women's title in 1995, the victorious team was backboned by Irish stars including Marie McMahon-Davenport and Maria McCambridge. The trend of recruiting Irish athletes, which would go on to include talent like Mary Cullen and Róisín McGettigan, has continued into this season with Orla O'Connor and Alex O'Neill added to his roster.

"If they hadn't come in this year, it would have been the first year I wouldn't have had any Irish athletes in the team since Trish (Logan) and Tina (Maloney in '85) and I wanted to make sure the connection was still there," Treacy says.

Along with trying to recruit athletes, Treacy says he's fully responsible for 20 (all the scholarship athletes) out of the 60 athletes at Providence with his two assistants (one of whom is Stephanie Reilly from Wicklow) in charge of the other athletes.

"The main thing is that every athlete is different. Even if they're competing in the same event it doesn't mean that you train them the same way. Even now with Molly (Huddle) and Emily (Sisson) as they both train for the Olympic trials, they very seldom do work-outs together. Not one size fits all," Treacy continues.

"My main philosophy is not pushing over the edge, not gambling to make sure that people are getting better all the time. Even after 35 years you're still learning. The minute you think you know it all, you're fooling yourself."

Not that he hasn't rolled the dice before and felt the effects of it back-firing. For the NCAA Regional Cross-Country in 2011, Treacy decided to rest Sisson because she was sick that week in the belief the women's team was strong enough to qualify for the NCAA Championship without her.

"We didn't. We blew it. That's the day that still gives me nightmares," Treacy recalls. "I learned an awful lot from that myself as a coach. I wasn't able to get the other girls to raise their game to make up for Emily not being there.

"I felt I was responsible for that myself. The following year we finished second in the country and the following year we won it. I always say that I don't think we would have won it two years later if I hadn't made the mistake that week."

What sets Treacy apart for one of his former athletes is how stable he is in the roller-coaster world of high-performance and professional athletics.

"Athletes have their highs and lows and all the drama. Ray is so steady. He doesn't get super excited, he doesn't get super devastated and I think that's key - not to get too attached to your athletes' results," says Róisín McGettigan, who attended Providence from 1999-2003. "Every fad that comes in - he just doesn't react to every single thing. He's open but he doesn't jump on board with the next thing."

It's long become a common theme among different coaches across different sports that they've had to change the way they coach.

"I can't coach like I coached 10 years ago. I've got to be very, very careful with what I say because that can be taken the wrong way," Treacy says.

"I'm sure it was different in the 1970s than what it was in the 1950s. If you can't adjust to the people that you're working with, you can't do your job anymore.

"That's where I have two younger assistants who're fantastic and can relate to the athletes that are younger."

What exactly did he change? "Maybe how you would talk to them. I don't use language anyway but sometimes you might be a bit harsher than you should be and you can't be like that. Twenty years ago I might have said something in a different way than I would say it now.

"You learn as you go along. It's something that's brought up all the time in the college environment over here. As I've seen and read in all different sports, mental health is a major issue. We're completely immersed in that in college level over here. It's very, very important."

In November, Mary Cain revealed the dark side of pro athletics with accusations she was "emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto (Salazar) and endorsed by Nike" in Oregon. Her story rocked American and world athletics.

"It gives people pause," Treacy says about Cain's revelations. "So you can step back and say, 'Ok, alright we have to be aware' and you learn from the professionals that come in and speak to groups of coaches and groups of student athletes. You take those lessons into practice every day, hopefully."

Unlike most other collegiate coaches, Treacy not only coaches athletes in college but also a group of around 12 graduates who run with a club called Ocean State. This group includes some of the best American distance athletes in Huddle and Sisson who're aiming to qualify for the Olympic marathon in Tokyo.

McGettigan believes that because Treacy also coaches athletes who are finished college, he's more patient with them during college. "He tries to build an athlete over time. He doesn't squeeze everything out of them," McGettigan adds. "Ray's in it for the long game."

He's been in it for the long game, for sure. Raising money from former students and athletes to fund an outdoor track on the Providence campus "was the last piece of the puzzle" for Treacy.

"When you've been in the game 35 years you've probably seen a lot but there's always somebody that will come along that's completely different again. As John (his brother) always says to me - I can't believe you get paid for doing something you'd do for nothing. I agree with him!"

And with that, Treacy heads to watch Manchester United play on American TV. Even after all these years away from home, some childhood rituals still remain.

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