By RON LAJOIE
The first time Aliann Pompey met Joe Ryan, her new track coach at Manhattan College, she acknowledges he was less than impressed.
It was during orientation when Aliann and her father decided to drop into the athletic office to introduce themselves to her new coach. The shy, skinny teenager stood silently behind her father while formal introductions were made.
Then Coach Ryan took notice of the half-hidden waif.
“Coach Ryan couldn’t help himself. He was like, ‘Oh my God, we have so much work to do,’ ” Ms. Pompey recently recalled with a laugh. “Apparently, my physique wasn’t giving him much to work with. And that kind of honesty set the tone for our first year. Because I resented that a little bit. You don’t say that the first time you meet someone.”
Thus started a 17-year partnership between coach and athlete that eventually took them around the globe, from the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, to Athens, then Beijing and finally to the 2012 Olympics in London.
Ryan had recruited the 17-year-old future Olympian out of Cohoes High School in Albany County, not knowing she had already committed to Manhattan because the college had offered her an academic scholarship. In fact, that was why she had chosen Manhattan over the other big-time college programs that were pursuing her with athletic scholarships.
“Manhattan College, I wasn’t even on their radar for athletics at all,” she explained after a lecture with her longtime coach at their joint alma mater where the two obviously comfortable old friends traded good-natured barbs.
The talk was part of Manhattan College’s Olympic Lecture Series, Sept. 17-21, celebrating the recent London Olympics where Ms. Pompey had competed for her native Guyana in the 400-meter dash. “Someone in admissions sent me a letter and offered me an academic scholarship and that just did so much for my ego,” Ms. Pompey said. “I thought, they think I’m smart!”
Soon thereafter, Ryan, who had obviously been doing his own homework, called Ms. Pompey, seemingly to her, out of the blue.
“I think maybe in May he had given me a call and said, ‘I see your times and they are pretty good,’ ” she recalled. “He asked if I was interested in going to school anywhere. I was like, I’m going to Manhattan and he said, ‘You are?!’ He couldn’t believe it.”
In fact, Ms. Pompey admits Ryan wasn’t the first to notice her self-proclaimed “puny” appearance. Her parents gently nudged her into athletics in high school because they were concerned about their daughter’s seeming frailty and thought athletics might help her stamina.
Initially, she didn’t show much in the way of competitive spirit, either. She even let her younger sister, who was already on the track team, beat her in races until her coach admonished her for her lack of drive.
It didn’t take long for Ryan to instill in his future star a competitive spirit.
“There were problems in the freshman year,” Ryan acknowledged. “I think we had a couple of them sorted out at the outdoor ECAC (Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference) championships when she ran an awful 400 meters. I called her aside and I told her the truth. Then she went out and ran a fantastic 200. Right there I knew I had a real athlete. I could see the talent. It just had to be nurtured. The body had to be developed.”
Ms. Pompey went on to win the NCAA Division 1 championship in the indoor 400-meter dash in 2000.
Because the caliber of athletics at the elite levels of the NCAA is so high, Ryan believes any athlete that can win there is a potential Olympian. And Ms. Pompey has proven him right, going on after graduation to compete at the highest levels of international track. She was a gold and silver medalist at the Commonwealth Games in 2002 and 2010, respectively. She has competed at 14 World Championships, both indoors and outdoors, the Pan-Am Games and the Central American and Caribbean games, plus the four Olympic games. And Ryan, her longtime coach and friend, has been along for the ride.
When the ride ended in London, Ms. Pompey, now 34, admitted to being “reflective.” As she stood in the Olympic Stadium for the closing ceremonies that final night, she thought back to Sydney 2000, where she was so awed at entering the arena for her event that she literally stopped in her tracks and had to be pushed by the other competitors to continue to her slot in lane one. She recalled the orchestrated pageantry of Beijing, the friends she’d made. She never medaled at the Olympics. The closest she came was in Beijing, where she finished 11th overall. But she carried her country’s flag twice and can forever call herself an Olympian.
“I kept having flashbacks of everything that has happened and everything I was going to miss,” she said of the closing ceremonies. “And I think that helped in a way. But it’s four Olympics. It was a great time. I got to do a lot of things I always wanted to do. I got to compete and I got to see countries I might not otherwise have seen. The last 17 years have been the best of my life, to be a little clichéd. For a long time I was just living my dream.”
Today, as director of educational development of the Armory’s college preparatory program in Washington Heights, Ms. Pompey works with hundreds of high school track athletes, both the elite and the not so elite, to help them realize their own dreams to go to college.
As for Ryan, who still coaches at Manhattan—and perhaps hoping to find the next Aliann Pompey—what he’d remember best about the last 17 years was evident. “The highlight for me was seeing Aliann compete,” he said. “She’s been part of my family for 17 years. It’s been truly a great pleasure for me to work with her. Because people like her don’t come along very often.”