Mark Conyers remembers the pivotal moment in his running career.
He can recount precisely the occasion that turned him from a keen and hopeful athlete from the NSW southern highlands into a genuine middle distance competitor.
“When I was a youngster, living in a country town, there was no club, no coach, no track. And I used to kill myself training twice a day,” Conyers recalls.
“And I sucked. I got beaten by every man and his dog whenever I went to Sydney or Canberra for a race.
“And one day this old fella had been watching me and he said, ‘You look like you should be a lot better than you are. What sort of training do you do?’
“I told him and he just shook his head and said, ‘I want you to do x, y and z for me.’
“Within three months I’d won a state title, I’d improved two minutes over 5000m, I’d improved 30 seconds over 1500m.
“I walked out onto the track at state titles and everyone knew who I was, all because one old coach took an interest in me and told me what I had to do to get better.”
A lifetime later, Conyers is at Wagga’s Jubilee Park coaching youngsters on a warm Monday afternoon, days before autumn blows the first of its genuine icy warnings.
But even through winter, he will be at the track four times a week generally, coaching young distance runners, adults, para-athletes and a sprint group on different days.
At The Daily Advertiser’s request, he’s brought the gold medal he won late last month at the Australian Masters Athletics Championships in Perth but plays down its importance.
The 63-year-old won his 2000m steeplechase in Perth and also completed the 800m and 1500m events.
It was six years ago that he returned to track, motivated partly by the desire to be a role model to his young charges.
“A coach who actually does it is more effective than a coach who stands there yelling instructions and looks like it’s been 50 years since he’s done it,” Conyers says.
“And the other was related… I’ve had to sort of prove to some parents that I knew what I was doing and the only way to do that was to walk the talk.
“If I could still win at state and medal at nationals, I could prove I knew what I was doing.”
Conyers is excited to have won a title, but wants to keep it in perspective.
“Oh yeah! To win a gold at a national titles is good,” he says. “But the standard was the weakest this year that it’s ever been.
“I’m not a star Masters runner. Yes I won a gold medal but really, I’m midfield and every so often I pick up a second or third. But as it is with Masters… Alan had sore calves and Peter pulled a hamstring and David had fallen off his bike, and that’s the way it goes with old people’s athletics.
“They’re very fragile specimens these old people. Especially jumping barriers.”
Conyers finished the 2000m steeplechase in 9:18.74. He ran 5.21.26 in the 1500m and finished his 800m in 2.31.88.
If nothing else, the medal does show his runners that with will and determination – and some sound advice – success is achievable.
“I came to Wagga and I thought – there’s all these kids running. I can’t knowingly let kids bust their guts trying to be good, and not help, knowing what I had gone through,” Conyers says.
“It’s not just a matter of energy and enthusiasm. There are techniques to improve your speed and your aerobic capacity. And I wanted to contribute to the development of young athletes.”
Conyers says there’s often been the perception that talented athletes in the country need a coach from Sydney, Canberra or Melbourne.
More recently, he’s worked with Wagga athletes in conjunction with professional coaches. It was an approach that worked with Carly Salmon who finished fourth in the T35 100m final at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast a month ago.
“Oh, what a hoot! The Commonwealth Games was an outstanding experience,” Conyers says.
“But the model there – it wasn’t just me coaching. When somebody becomes good, like Carly in sprints, or Hannah Mison with walks, we have, if you like, a professional coach or an AIS coach, who calls the shots. And I function as the local coach.”
He believes the team coaching model works, because it gives the professional coach someone on the ground to help run training and make the day-to-day observations, and the athlete gets the support, expertise and care they need.
Conyers says he also benefits by continuing to learn a little more about coaching all the time.
Although it’s not as if he has anything to prove.