by Tom Utescher
At Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, neighborhood joggers regularly amble around the school’s track, but on many days, there is also group of young women who stride around the circuit, lap after lap, gliding in seemingly effortless motion.
The SCH facility has become the training ground for a cadre of elite international athletes who are guided by an unlikely mentor.
Uruguay’s Deborah Rodriguez has been voted her country’s Athlete of the Year and is a two-time Olympian, while London’s Shelayna Oskan-Clark is the current British 800-meter champion who also won that event at the 2019 European Indoor Championships.
Phyllis Francis, originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., was the 2017 World Champion at 400 meters, and at the 2016 Olympics she placed fifth in the open 400 meters and was a member of the gold medal 4 x 400 USA relay team. Angel Piccirello, who hails from western Pennsylvania, was a collegiate standout for Villanova University, placing second in the mile at the NCAA Indoor Championships in 2016.
The youngest member of the group, 20-year-old Sammy Watson from Rochester, N.Y., set a new U.S. high school record in the 800 and then won the 2018 NCAA outdoor 800-meter championship as a freshman at Texas A&M.
Long Island’s Charlene Lipsey, a former LSU standout, was a member of the gold medal 4 x 800 at the 2017 World Relays, and in 2018 she placed fifth in the open 800 at the USA Outdoor Championships. She won the 1000-meter event at the 2017 USA Indoor Championships.
Ajeé Wilson, 25, is the current U.S. indoor and outdoor record holder in the 800 meters. A 2016 Olympian, she signed a professional contract with Adidas® soon after graduating from high school in Neptune Township in Monmouth County, N.J.
Raevyn Rogers, 23, placed second in the 800 meters at the 2019 World Championships, which were held in Qatar last September. She won the 800-meter NCAA championship in each of her three seasons at the University of Oregon, and in 2017 she received the Bowerman Award as the nation’s outstanding female collegiate track and field athlete.
Who has brought together these highly-decorated runners in Northwest Philadelphia to refine their considerable skills? Derek Thompson, 65, did not come up through the coaching ranks at any NCAA powerhouse. He wasn’t even directly engaged in the sport while growing up in Jamaica, with its rich track and field history.
“I was a soccer player,” he explains. “I was just a fan of track.”
After playing for a championship soccer team on his home island, he followed some of his siblings who had emigrated to the United States and Philadelphia.
Settling here in 1974, Thompson continued to play soccer, now for the Horsham-based Ukrainian Nationals Soccer Club. He would work as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service for 25 years before retiring.
While playing soccer here, Thompson also maintained his interest in track. He began to coach youth athletes on age-group teams and made it his mission to thoroughly educate himself about the sport. He learned from many sources, processing information through his own filter.
“I used to go to Borders [Bookstore] for books and videos about coaching track,” he relates. “When I got the opportunity, I would go to places and try to find out when certain groups were training. At the Penn Relays, if I found out the Kenyans would be training at five in the morning I would go there. I would watch the warm-ups before races. I put it all together in my own shape and form.”
Some of the routines he developed also drew on his background as a soccer player.
“Our warm-up is a little unorthodox,” he says. “We do more ballistic stretching than static stretching, and we do drills for the groin muscles. I take a lot of my training methods from what we used to do in soccer, especially conditioning. People forget that a soccer player runs at least 10 kilometers in a game, and they go from jogging to maximum intensity, back and forth.”
Thompson supplements the track workouts with weight lifting sessions, alternating between Olympic barbell lifts and dumbbell routines.
“As you get into the real season, you do mostly maintenance work,” he points out. “You’ll lift one day a week and do things with the medicine ball.”
The veteran coach is soft spoken by nature, but he’s firm with his athletes when he feels it’s necessary.
The youngest runner in his charge, Sammy Watson, states “I like that he doesn’t go easy on us. I think he knows our capabilities better than we do, so he’ll push us knowing that we can go there. It’s been an adjustment, but I feel stronger and more confident because of him.”
The coach notes, “This group is aspiring to the Olympic team, and hard work is needed even for the top talents. It’s difficult; everything has to go right on one particular day. Everybody in that final is going to be an exceptional athlete. It’s like a cone, it narrows at the top.”
In addition to the eight women on his training roster, he’s working with Philadelphian Robert Downs. Downs attended Mastery Charter-Pickett in Germantown, then went on to run track and cross country at the Kingsville campus of Texas A&M.
Coach Thompson hadn’t originally intended to coach middle-distance events. He started out concentrating on sprints, but many of the athletes he got to know happened to be better suited to longer races.
He also says that, living in Philadelphia, “It’s hard to train a sprinter in this climate, but with the middle-distance runners you can stay outside all year long.”
The explosive movements of a sprinter can easily lead to muscle strain in cold weather and, just in general, Thompson feels that many athletes are too impatient when it comes to warming up.
“They warm up for just five or 10 minutes, but on those cold days, you need at least 45 minutes minimum,” he advises. “They don’t want to do it, and then they get injured.”
Most of the young women he trains are 800-meter specialists, but in practices they don’t begin to really focus on that distance until a meet is in the offing.
He explains, “Going into March, we’re still doing base layer training, so if you look at us now, we look more like 1500-meter runners. Three weeks before we start racing we’ll start doing a little bit of speed work. You try to time it right for the races that are the most important.”
The first international-class athlete who came under his tutelage was Ajeé Wilson. While in high school in New Jersey she had been offered a
scholarship to Florida State, but she decided to defer to consider her options.
“Ajeé was the first American to win both the World Youth and World Junior championships,” Thompson relates. “She ran faster than any of the collegiate kids and she was still in high school.”
Wilson recalls that she first met Thompson when she was an 11th-grader attending the indoor national championships at New York City’s renowned Fort Washington Avenue Armory.
“I was between coaches, and he was recommended,” she recalls. “My Mom said, give him 10 minutes, talk to him and see how you feel. Initially, I didn’t feel like I wanted a new coach, but when I came to practice and started to train, I said okay, this is a good fit.
“He’s very much a ‘no excuses’ type of coach,” she continues. “I’m very straightforward – if you tell me what to do, I’m going to get it done. I really appreciated his direct approach, and that as a former athlete, he could identify with us personally. He’s very passionate about what he does and he’s a student of the sport.”
After she won the 800-meter title at the 2012 World Juniors in Barcelona, Spain, she was a few months into her college deferral year when Adidas®
contacted her parents and offered her a professional contract. Wilson’s parents were both runners (her mother ran for The College of New Jersey), and she has older and younger siblings engaged in track and field.
“Deferring college wasn’t a huge deal, but making that next step of turning pro was a big and nervous decision,” she remembers.
“She wanted me to continue coaching her,” Thompson says. “Until then, I had no intention of coaching at the pro level. I was comfortable where I was.”
For awhile, Wilson’s mother drove her back and forth for training sessions here, but in 2013 she moved to Philadelphia and she now resides in West Oak Lane.
One of the admirable traits of Thompson’s athletes is their desire to pursue higher education even after becoming track and field professionals. Wilson graduated from Temple University in 2016 with a B.S. in Kinesiology.
She comments, “It was important for me to do that concurrently to get the college part done, as well.”
Raevyn Rogers turned pro with Nike® after three years at the University of Oregon, remaining in Eugene to attend classes while following track workouts sent to her by Thompson.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve done, but I’m glad I did,” she says now.
She graduated from Oregon as an Art major with a minor in Spanish.
Rogers first linked up with Derek Thompson through Rose Brimmer, a widely known collegiate throwing coach who happened to be the shot put trainer for Rogers’ 15-year-old sister Reghan (“We all have ‘R’ names in our family,” Raevyn explains). A friend of Thompson’s, Brimmer made the connection, and after months of correspondence-based training, Rogers moved to Philadelphia in August of 2018, following her graduation.
Her race at the 2019 World Championships last September was notable not only for her silver-medal finish, but also because she achieved it after being positioned seventh in the field with about 100 meters to go.
She recounts, “I had run that track before [in Doha, Qatar] and I had made the mistake of kicking a little too early. I ended up not having enough gas in the tank at the end. I set a lot of high goals and expectations for myself, and I knew I was going to do better there the next time.”
Along with talent and determination, Rogers considers her religious background to be a key factor in her success.
“My religion and my faith are like a base for me,” she says. “It’s important for me to keep a solid foundation when things get a little crazy. There are times when it gets tough, and my faith is something I can go back to and keep myself grounded.”
The latest addition to Derek Thompson’s training team is the 20-year-old Sammy Watson. As a high school senior in 2017, she broke the U.S. high school record in the 800 that had been set by Olympian Mary Decker back in 1974 (Watson’s time was 2:01.78). This occurred at New York’s Milrose Games on the same day that Ajeé Wilson broke the overall U.S. outdoor record by running 158.27.
As a Texas A&M freshman the following year, Watson won the NCAA outdoor championship in the 800. Signing a professional contract with Adidas® early in 2019, she seemed a natural for inclusion in Wilson’s elite pack of runners.
“Whenever I saw him in passing at competitions, he was always friendly and kind,” she says. “At the U.S. Championships I would see him there with Ajeé and Raevyn. I reached out to him when I was thinking about going pro, and he was very welcoming.”
After leaving Texas A&M and moving to Philadelphia, Watson enrolled at Temple University to study Civil Engineering.
As the youngster of the group training at Springside Chestnut Hill, she was made to feel at home by the older runners.
“They act like big sisters, which I like,” she says with a smile. “They’re really good role models.”
Thompson had trained his runners for years on a track at Cedarbrook Middle School in Cheltenham Township. Due to persistent mold problems in the building itself, the school board voted late in 2013 to close the facility, and activities on the grounds also came to a halt.
SCH track coaches Paul Hines and Maurice Broadwater helped Thompson and his charges find a new home at the Chestnut Hill school. Dr. Stephen Druggan, who became Head of School in 2016, has been accommodating and encouraging, Thompson says.
“He’s the best,” the coach exclaims. “He’s totally responsible for the success we’re having now.”
The immediate goal for Thompson and his crew is to perform well at the Doha Diamond League races in Qatar in mid-April. Of course, restrictions due to the COVID-19 Coronavirus may well have an impact on this event. The U.S. Olympic Trials (beginning June 19 in Oregon) and even the actual Games in Tokyo (starting on July 24) could also be affected.
“You have no control over that,” Thompson cautions, “and you still have to prepare as if you’re going.”
While there are Olympic veterans in his group, the run-up to the Games is a new experience for his younger trainees.
Watson says, “I’m just looking to improve from race to race, and see where it takes me. I’m excited to see what I can do.”
The world is waiting to see what these extraordinary athletes can do, as well.