Keeping Up With the Best of Them

An interview with Ralph Reiff, Executive Director of St. Vincent Sports Performance

By Sophia McDonald

Ralph Reiff poses at the Olympic Trials with strength coach Greg Moore and athletic trainer Scott Hudson. / Photo by Sophia Bennett
Ralph Reiff poses at the Olympic Trials with strength coach Greg Moore and athletic trainer Scott Hudson. / Photo by Sophia Bennett

Much like an Olympic athlete, Ralph Reiff, M.Ed., LAT, ATC, is living the dream. Reiff is the Executive Director of St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis, an organization that is gaining attention for its high performance workshops. Each clinic follows a “one stop shop” model by gathering a range of sports professionals (including athletic trainers, nutritionists and sports psychologists) in one place to meet with participants. Athletes and coaches go from person to person to discuss their strengths and weaknesses in each area. Trainers give customized homework to help the athlete make improvements. They go home, do their assignments, and come back for successive rounds of consultation. Track & field stars Matt Tegenkamp and Jesse Williams are among the people who have taken advantage of the program.

The high performance workshops have been successful enough that St. Vincent’s has a formal partnership with USA Track & Field, the national governing body for track & field. That relationship brought Reiff and four of his staff to historic Hayward Field for the eight days of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track & Field. It was a familiar setting for Reiff, who has been involved with the United States Olympic Committee and the Trials since the 1980s. On one of the rest days Reiff sat down with 1859 to discuss how track & field athletes differ from football players; doping at the Trials; and his thoughts on the rain, rain that wouldn’t go away.   

What are some the specialized needs of track & field athletes?

If track & field athletes don’t feel absolutely perfect, we consider them injured. Basketball players, football players and most other athletes just learn to live with bumps and bruises. For a track & field athlete, discomfort is a barrier to a finely tuned high performance. Both those groups of athletes are excellent in their own way, but the unique thing about track & field athletes is that they’re very reliant on their body as a tool and they have limited repetitions. You only run a race or throw a javelin so many times in a competition, so there’s a culture of the importance of individual performance.

There are definitely some athletes at the Trials who are performing with physical injuries. How do you balance their desire to make the Olympic team with their well-being over the long run?

That’s the difference between the science and the art of this profession. There’s a component that’s black and white: here’s what the issue is, here’s our diagnosis and here are some pathways to treat it. But then we have to look up from that and see the human being there. That’s the art of health care and performance management; to be able to read the athlete’s personality and determine what they need. The folks who are really good at coaching, performance management and health care—basically anything in this field—are those who can blend those two things.

That sounds really hard.  I don’t think I’d be very good at your job.

You know, I taught at Butler University for 18 years and it’s very difficult to teach that human component. Some folks are just born with it. That’s a gift I have and it’s real important to have success in this field. 

What would you say is the biggest challenge you face in your profession?

Having more ambition than we have time and resources. I’m very fortunate to have a group of individuals at St. Vincent’s who are truly passionate about what they do. Because of that, it’s very difficult to draw the line and say, “I’ll help up to this point and then I’m going to stop.” If someone needs help it’s hard to say no to them.

How much drug use is taking place at the Trials, and is the problem getting better or worse?

I have to believe that track & field athletes mirror our culture. I’m sure there are athletes here who are tinkering with performance enhancement. If I look within the sphere of people I interact with there are all kinds of different decisions being made, so I have to feel when you grab a group of athletes ages 16 to 40 from all over the United States, who have different life experiences and are under an enormous amount of pressure to do their best, people have different ways of getting there. 

But I was talking to Dr. Robert Chapman, Associate Director of Sports Science and Medicine for USA Track & Field, and asking him about the high performance workshops that have been in place for two years. I said, “Dr. Chapman, fill in the blank: the high performance workshops have made the most dramatic impact on athlete performance since ________.” And he said, “Since performance enhancing drugs.” Then he came back and said, “This is the most important thing that’s safe and ethical that’s making a difference for people.” 

There was a lot of talk about the rainy weather at the Trials. Do you think it affected athlete performance?

I don’t think it did. Look at the preliminary round of the men’s shot put. Reese Hoffa goes out into a wet ring in a downpour and immediately hits the automatic standard and advances to the Olympics. The rain might make a difference if you’re measuring performance against American records or world records, but when you look at the Trials in context it’s been extremely competitive, as every Olympics Trials is.

On Saturday [June 23] there was a comparison between the weather here and the weather in London. I believe having poor weather was actually a confidence boost for some people. I think it was [high jumper] Jesse Williams who said, “I’m going to travel all over the place and jump in the rain.”

What do you think of Eugene? Have you found any great spots to visit?

I love walking on the north bank of the Willamette River. It’s just beautiful, and every once in a while you can stop and watch a fishing boat navigate down the river. 

My overall impression of Eugene is that this is a place that embraces track & field. There’s no doubt about that. When Vin Lananna [Director of Track & Field at the University of Oregon] left Standford and came to Oregon, he knew what the opportunities were for someone of his vision and passion for track & field. He’s certainly caused the rest of the country to acknowledge that Eugene is truly Track Town USA.  

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