2018-03-15 08:25:43 - Kohawk Talk
The United States Association of Blind Athletes considers Larry Lee "one of the most successful Paralympic coaches of all time." For Lee, coaching the U.S. Paralympic judo team was a rewarding experience.
"It truly was a triumph of the human spirit and represented the very best in the ideals of amateur athletics," Lee said. Now vice president for facilities and operations at Coe, Lee was inducted into the USABA Hall of Fame in 2017.
His journey toward that honor began in 1987 with a career-ending injury that turned him to coaching and a fundraising/auxiliary operations position with the United States Judo Association. He later joined the United States National Coaching Staff and became executive director of the United States Judo Association. In that role, he was asked to assess a training camp for the United States Blind Team.
"I was impressed with the athleticism and dedication of the athletes, but the approach of the coaches was not in line with the talent I saw on the mat," Lee said. "It was obvious the athletes were being treated differently or as disabled athletes versus national level athletes with an expectation to make a U.S. World or Paralympic Team."
He wrote a detailed report and offered to run a camp with the coaches. That is when he discovered his passion.
"The athletes were so hungry to be coached, to learn, to challenge themselves, and they were so very appreciative for any time that I could offer," Lee said. "I ran three sessions a day and had guys asking me for private time between sessions."
A week later, he was asked to take over the program as head coach. Though he could remain on the U.S. National Staff as well, Lee resigned and never looked back. He saw tremendous talent and desire in the visually impaired athletes. And soon, the team that had finished last at the previous Paralympic Games set a goal to become best in the world.
Lee began by demonstrating technique on each athlete, allowing them to feel it. He scheduled private lessons to work on technical basics outside the group sessions and made tapes of technique specific to each athlete for coaches in their hometowns. Eventually, he asked the U.S. Olympic Training Center to integrate the program so members of the blind and sighted national teams could train side by side.
"This was a huge breakthrough because now they were training with our very best," Lee said. "When I taught technique, we would pair a blind athlete with a sighted athlete, so the sighted athlete could go first and our blind athlete could feel it. This allowed me to cover far more technique much more quickly."
In 1992, the team won 17 matches and three silver medals at the Paralympic Games, finishing third in the world. Though the team had come a long way, they still had fallen short of their goal: No. 1.
"We had set a goal, a goal that others thought was crazy," Lee said. The team was upset, but locker-room talk transitioned to the next step — to achieving that goal. "The culture and the expectations of the program and the athletes had been changed. This was my greatest satisfaction because I knew that we were going to win the World Championships as a team in the very near future."
And Lee was right.
The team's new attitude led to six medals and a first-place finish at the 1998 World Championships in Madrid, Spain. "The team went on to win the next Paralympic Games, as well, proving that we were the top team in the world," Lee said.
Two of his athletes went on to become ranked among the nation's sighted athletes, and one trained for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team.
"They learned to allow their own drive, determination, work-ethic and athletic ability to determine their potential rather than other people's perception of their abilities to determine the heights of their aspirations," said Lee, noting this attitude carried over to their personal lives and successful careers.
Lee's induction into the USABA Hall of Fame came alongside one of his standout students, Scott Moore. Moore was a part-time student at the University of Southwest Louisiana when Lee tracked him down on a tip.
Moore had never won a local tournament, but "I saw right away a tremendous inner drive in the young man and invited him to stay with me in Colorado at my house and to train with our local program over an upcoming school break," Lee said. Moore became part of Lee's athlete development program and went on to win both World and Paralympic gold and become the first blind athlete ranked in the sighted division at 156 pounds.
"Scott's success means so much to me because he won on the mat and off the mat and is now coaching within the program," Lee said. When they were inducted into the Hall of Fame together, Moore credited Lee with pushing him to succeed, completing his degree faster so he could train full time and "forcing" him to get a master's degree.
"While I wanted him to be a World champion and a Paralympic champion, I forced him to focus on life after sport as well, and that means a lot to him today now that he has a wife and children," Lee said.
Hearing Moore's speech is just one of the many moments that give Lee pause. Being chosen to escort the U.S. flag bearer into the sold-out Olympic Stadium for Opening Ceremony is one of his proudest. And being inducted into the USABA Hall of Fame is one of his greatest honors.
"I loved coaching the athletes more than anything I've ever done in my life because they were so driven, dedicated and appreciative," Lee said.