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Olympic dreams

Story by Mary Lane Gallagher

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Inner Strength: Vernacchia’s sport psychology graduate students include, from left to right, Catherine Rasnack (’08), Kelly Jones (’09),Kaylee Gardner and Brian Zuleger (’09). “He has taught me and other students what it really means to set your principles and really live by them,” Jones says. “That’s what you have to measure every decision you make against.” | Photo by Rachel Bayne
| Photo by Rachel Bayne
| Photo by Rachel Bayne

Professor Ralph Vernacchia has made a career of encouraging athletes and helping them reach their peak physical performance, but forgive him if he becomes a complete couch potato for two weeks in February.

Because when the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., are on television, Vernacchia says, he’ll be an “Olympic zombie.” For a scholar of sport psychology, watching the Olympics is like field research and he’ll try to soak in as much as he can get, he says, watching the well-trained minds of the world’s best skiers, skaters, lugers and hockey players at work.

“I’ve had a love affair with sport my whole life,” he says.

As director of Western’s Center for Performance Excellence, a 40-year scholar of sport psychology and a former WWU track and field coach, Vernacchia has helped anyone from struggling college players to Olympians find the mental toughness to achieve their physical goals.

When race walker Allen James (‘87) thinks of Vernacchia, he remembers what his WWU track coach said about the competition: race walkers training in the relative luxury of an indoor track during brutal winters of the northern Midwest.

“Oak trees don’t grow in a greenhouse,” Vernacchia told him.

“That’s something that’s stuck with me the longest,” says James. “You’ve got to go out there and make the effort. It doesn’t matter what it’s like outside. It doesn’t matter what the competition is like. If you think, ‘I’m cooked before I even start,’ how do you succeed, when you’re already defeated?”

James, along with WWU teammate Herm Nelson (’87), went on to compete in the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games in race walking.

But Vernacchia won’t share credit for the accomplishments of great athletes he’s known along the way. He may have helped, he says, but the athletes themselves did all the work. Asked for a favorite moment in coaching, he remembers a young man who wasn’t a star, just happy to contribute.

“‘Ralph,’” the student said after Western won the district cross country championship,“‘this was the happiest day of my life.’ That’s one thing I’ll never forget.”

For a decade, Vernacchia worked with the nation’s top track and field athletes, first with the junior team and then the senior team, traveling with the U.S. Track and Field teams to international competitions in Bulgaria, Scotland, Greece and Spain.

In 2000, he was one of two sport psychology professionals to travel with the team to the Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

“It was very humbling to be able to live my dream,” Vernacchia says.

Part of Vernacchia’s job was to help the athletes and coaches to perform at their best even under less-than-ideal circumstances. The pressure and attention of the Olympics can be sistracting for athletes, who must focus – and refocus – to stay in the zone.

Vernacchia learned that first-hand when he was faced with a common distraction at the Olympics: colds and flu bugs gathered from the far corners of the world. But illness didn’t keep Vernacchia down for long.

“You don’t have much time to think about it,” he says. “You’re there to serve the coaches and athletes.”

Vernacchia has been fascinated by the mental aspects of sports since his high school days as a track and field athlete. A miler, one of his early heroes is Roger Bannister, whose smashing of the four-minute mile was as much of a mental accomplishment as physical, Vernacchia says.

Before Bannister’s mile, Vernacchia says, many people just didn’t believe humans could run a mile in less than four minutes, that perhaps the lungs would explode. But as Bannister later wrote, believing he could do it gave him that extra physical edge he needed.

But sport psychology was still in its infancy in the ‘70s, when Vernacchia was pursuing a doctorate on the mental aspects of athletic activity. Most of Vernacchia’s coaching colleagues seemed to believe they’d get the best out of athletes through a “survival-of-the-fittest” approach, but Vernacchia remained convinced that coaches needed to strengthen athletes’ minds as well as their bodies.

“To me, every person is gifted,” he says. “My role as a professor or a parent or a coach is to help you discover that gift, your specific talent.”

The power of belief is the thing that keeps Vernacchia intrigued these days. For years he’s told athletes how important it is to develop and believe in their own dreams and goals, to visualize them and prepare to achieve them.

But he’s also thinking about the power of others’ beliefs.

“We can all look to a mentor or someone who believed in us when we didn’t even know we had talent,” he says. “People underrate that, the power of belief.”

And James, who continues to race walk and coach younger athletes near his home in the Buffalo, N.Y., area, still puts his old coach’s advice to good use. Even during the most brutal of New York winters, he refuses to work out indoors.

“Oak trees,” he says, “don’t grow in a greenhouse.”