At 51, Kentucky’s “Coach Flo”—Edrick Floréal—has arrived at an enviable position in the sport.
The Wildcat mentor need only take a glance around his Lexington track to see an assemblage of talent that would sell tickets at any meet. There’s Kori Carter, the world champ in the 400 hurdles. She often works with World Indoor hurdle champ Kendra Harrison, who is also the WR holder in the 100H. And don’t forget Jamaica’s Omar McLeod, the Olympic and world champion in the 110 hurdles.
And Floréal‘s collegiate stars, Sydney McLaughlin, the World Junior Record holder in the long hurdles, and Jasmine Camacho-Quinn, the ’16 NCAA champion over the straightaway barriers.
In a wide-ranging chat with us, the Haitian-born Floréal, a 2-time Canadian Olympian and 3-time NCAA triple jump champ for Arkansas, shared with us his thoughts on everything from coaching the prodigy McLaughlin to how to race rounds in a major championships.
The Sydney McLaughlin Plan
After a spectacular indoor campaign, super-frosh Sydney McLaughlin opened outdoors even better, moving high on the all-time Junior lists with PRs in both the 200 (22.39) and 400 (50.07), not to mention a 49.95 relay carry.
And what about her subsequent 11.07w display of speed at Tennessee?
Floréal says to prepare for more surprises: “To be honest, the thing that we are going to do is fully expose her range. Sydney has a tremendous amount of range. She can do lots of stuff. And I think people see her primarily as a quartermiler or a hurdler. But what I want to do outdoors is dispel that myth that she can’t sprint.
“And I’m sure she could do 2:03 halfmile right now—but she just hates the event and doesn’t want anything to do with it. She can probably run sub-13 second 100 hurdles. It’s just a matter of letting people know that this isn’t just a one-trick pony, so to speak. So I’m just going to show people that Sydney can do lots of stuff. Not just do them but do them at a high level.”
He cautions, though, “It’s too risky,” when asked about McLaughlin’s desire to long jump. “She just asked me. She really wants to long jump, but she just wants to run and jump.
“And I’m sort of a nerd, I like preparation. So if we’re going to long jump, we’re going to spend a month and a half long jumping and she’s like, ‘I don’t want to do that. I just want to long jump.’
“So I told her, ‘We’re not going to long jump until we long jump in practice and I feel confident that you are not going get hurt.’
“And the same thing with the 400 hurdles. We have a few more things to clean up mechanically and with the stride pattern. She’s not completely comfortable with all the adjustments we have made, but until she gets comfortable in practice I’m just not going to run her.
“I’m just going to run her in things that I know she can come through with. And as we improve we might see her do some things that people probably don’t think they’re going to see from her.”
Which brings to mind previous statements that McLaughlin would not be running in her flagship event during her frosh year. No longer the case, confirms Floréal. “I’m not saying that anymore because she’s just made a, what do they say, ‘A left at Albuquerque?’ as the saying goes.
“We were having some issues with the hurdles mechanically—technically I couldn’t get her to do some the things I wanted to get done and she admitted in numerous interviews that the thing that brought her the most stress was the hurdles. So I had to water down my teaching.
“I think I get too technical. I’m all X’s and O’s and we were looking at angles and takeoffs and touchdowns. You have to be precise and I think for an 18-year-old mind sometimes that is like this is too much. I backed up a little bit, watered it down and lo and behold, we’re on a roll. The 400 hurdles are looking really, really good.”
He adds, “From day 1 we’ve adjusted her running mechanics to try to make it a little more efficient so that when she does it she doesn’t appear to be running fast. She has done a wonderful job of adjusting. She’s going pretty high, B+ mechanically, and the goal is that the easier it looks the better it is. Once you do this thing well, it will not look like you are running fast.
“Until somebody is standing next to you and they look and say, ‘Holy smokes, she just ran 22.3 and it looks like she was jogging.’ And that’s kind of the goal with mechanics in the hurdles. We’re getting close, but we’re not there yet. We’re going to keep pushing until we can get her to look effortless and if that happens, we’re going to throw her out there.”
An important theme in Floréal’s coaching emerges. He doesn’t want McLaughlin racing unless he feels she’s ready for success, because at this point in the game, a failure isn’t going to help her build her confidence. That colors his answer to whether she will run in Europe this summer.
“We might see her dabble in a meet or two in Europe and it’s going to depend on June. If she’s dead exhausted physically and mentally, I’m going to send her home to go take a break. But if she has some juice left in her legs and she’s excited—that’s the goal. You don’t want to go to Europe and flop. If you go to Europe and you run terrible, you’re sort of a failure.
“I don’t want a repeat of what happened in Rio: she goes there, she doesn’t look comfortable in the environment, and doesn’t get the best out of herself. I want a bulletproof vest for her. I want to put her into a situation where we know she can be successful. Because the worst that you can do with a kid like that is you throw them out there, they fail, they become gunshy and they’re definitely afraid, confidence goes down.
“So I’ve been strategic about when do I run her and what do I run her in. And I have to be certain within the shadow of a doubt that if I’m putting her in, the results are going to be good.”
He explains further: “Sydney doesn’t want to be the high school phenom that went to college and became a flop. That’s the one thing she made me promise her. ‘Promise me you’re going to do everything you can to make sure that I am not one of them should-a-been/coulda-been/but never was,’ so we are just being strategic and that takes lots of conversations.
“That’s one of the things that I think she appreciates, that there are no surprises. I tell her what I’m thinking, how I’m thinking and what I’m expecting way before it comes, so when it comes she knows that A. I am capable of that because of A-B-C-D.”
Kori Carter The 100 Hurdler?
The world champion 400 hurdler is still planning to take a break from the event in ’18 to work on speed, but Floréal confesses there is much work in store: “Kori is only doing the 100m hurdles and the sprints this year. I did not like the indoor season at all I. I thought she could have done significantly better, but then again, the year after you have a major breakthrough, most everybody wants to excel and I think Kori excelled, but indoor she just took a mental break. She trained hard and did what I told her to do, but I don’t think she was mentally connected.
“Last year she was just a demon. She was eating workouts. In the beginning it was ugly, but once she got fit and in shape, the things she was doing were just amazing. She was gobbling information left and right. She was dragging me in the mud. But this year, not so much.
“So I think after winning Worlds and being No. 1 in the world, she took a deep sigh. In the time she took that sigh, we didn’t make the progress that I expected. I didn’t like the way she hurdled, didn’t like the intensity, didn’t like the progress we made technically.” Yet the coach knows the athlete and knows that good things are ahead.
Kendra Harrison The 400 Hurdler?
This potential event-switch is not so certain, says Floréal. “The goal was to not do the 100 hurdles this year, but it was based on her winning the World Championships outdoors and doing all those wonderful things that didn’t happen and then all of a sudden you find yourself behind the 8-ball again.
“I think that after winning World Indoors, you take a deep breath, and refocus. We’ve got to win a major outdoor championship, which we just haven’t done. We—she and I—just sort of failed. I think people want to see Keni win the Worlds or Olympics, just to further validate her, so I’m going to try to get her to that podium outdoor. And doing it indoor I think helps her.
“You wouldn’t believe, her level of confidence has changed tremendously. When she came across that line, it’s like ‘I can actually win a major championship and do it in pretty grand fashion.’ It’s a statement. Sometimes you’re just trying to sneak past and say, ‘God please let me win this one so they don’t say I’m a choker.’ I tell her now, we’re going to kick the door down. We’re going to run each round like we’re out for blood.
“She executed perfectly. And typically that’s what I want. I want these type of aggressive rounds to sort of relax her. You could go the other way and run slower but at World Indoor she did exactly what I told her to do. You run each round like you don’t give a hoot and then by the time the final came she was so confident she was ready to just ask for seconds.”
Will His Athletes Race At USATF?
“We plan on doing that,” Floréal says of attendance at Des Moines in June. “I think there’s some validity to getting to a championship, the qualifying rounds stress, the preparation—it’s helpful and good. There’s World Cup this year, I’m not sure what the format of that is.
“We’ve got to keep continuing to grind and I like the idea of taking them to a championship to prepare them for next year’s World Championship Trials. Obviously Kori doesn’t need to worry about that because she has a bye and helping Keni to get that bye by winning the Diamond League hurdles would be good.
“So they’re going to all go and compete there. Plus it makes it easier for me if I’m there competing with somebody that three or four other people in the group don’t have to be at home training by themselves.
“I’m not even sure what we’ll do with Sydney, she may run some alternate events in Des Moines and then we’ll will play it by ear. I’m not even sure what I’m going to do with her at SECs or NCAAs. We’re just going to take it one meet at a time and then once we get into SECs we’re just going to sit down and figure out what she’s passionate about. The good thing is with so many good skill sets, she can pick the event.”
Kentucky’s Relay Teams
At Florida, the Wildcat women rocked a 3:26.92 college leader with McLaughlin burning a 49.45 anchor. The 4×1 cruised 43.13, No. 2 on the NCAA list at the time. Two weeks later at Tennessee, the team produced a collegiate-leading 1:30.76 in the 4×2.
Floréal quickly says none of his foursomes are engraved in stone: “There’s a lot of moving parts. And some people that I think are going to get better and get a little faster. Things change. I always tell them that we are going to run the four fastest people and it doesn’t matter who’s on it. If somebody’s faster than you, I’m going to put them in.
“And sometimes a person just has to fit. You got a tall person taking a baton from a short person and you’re sitting there thinking, ‘That is not going to work.’ Other than that, it’s just that I’m going to run the four fastest people on the team. And try to get us to run as fast as possible.”
Who Else To Watch For
Floréal also has a Puerto Rican hurdle ace in Jasmine Camacho-Quinn and he says she is on a tear: “She made some good lifestyle adjustments. She was sort of a junk food fanatic, and thank you God, she’s finally decided to do a little bit better for her body and make some better food choices, which has helped.
“You have a girl that opens up at 12.77 in a negative wind in the pouring rain and then runs 22.59w and splits 50.8 and also runs the second leg in the 4×1 and that was a monster. You’re so focused on Sydney because Sydney draws monster attention and Jasmine did four events—it’s not like she’s chopped liver.”
And of course, there are more. Floréal is excited to talk about some of the up-and-comers he has on the collegiate side. But he acknowledges that the almost obscene level of quality around the track can make some of his younger stars feel like chopped liver. But he knows it also shows them a path to greatness.
He adds, “Our triple jumper is also going to surprise some people, Marie-Josée Ebwea-Bile. She kind of came out of nowhere a little bit. We’ve got to make some adjustments but I think she is the one that is probably not getting as much of the credit she deserves because you got a team that’s a bunch of superstars.
“Daniel Roberts (13.82 PR), he’s going to surprise some people once he gets himself completely healthy.” Floréal also notes that sprinters Kayelle Clarke (11.31/22.83) and Kianna Gray (11.20/22.79) expect to contribute well, as will frosh Dwight St. Hillare, a Trinidadian recruit who is already at 45.62 in the 400.
“And Tim Duckworth [8145 decathlon], don’t forget about that guy. He’s just a fantastic guy who takes care of business. And finally, Jacob Thomson [13:41.33/28:47.55]. So we have a handful of people who I think are going to make some noise outdoors. Hopefully we keep giving you some stuff to write about.” □