Rovelto, Wildcats reflect on NCAA’s while preparing for Rio Games

K-State Track and Field Head Coach Cliff Rovelto on May 7. (Photo Courtesy of Scott Weaver)

In the aftermath of another successful K-State track and field season, you would think head coach Cliff Rovelto would get a chance to take some time off for a lengthy vacation – but his country is calling him.

Rovelto will be a part of the Team USA track and field coaching staff for the 2016 Rio Games that includes former Wildcat Erik Kynard and new Olympic hopefuls, like sophomore Terrell Smith. Before Rovelto departs for the training camp in Houston, he had a chance to reflect on the 2015-16 K-State track season.

“We’ve had a pretty successful year,” Rovelto said. “The women were top 10 in both indoor and outdoor and nationals and among the top three at the Big 12 Championships.”

Although the women’s team did well, Rovelto was just as impressed with the men’s team who exceeded expectations.

“The men actually surpassed their rankings going into the national indoor and outdoor championships, so we were very pleased with that,” he said. “They did a really good job – great job in fact – at the conference championships. The placings were higher than what we thought, but the real key is we scored significantly more points than we had anticipated, so the guys – both indoors and outdoors really did a wonderful job.”

Now that Rovelto has finished with K-State’s season, he is transitioning to Team USA – where he’s worked with nine different U.S. national teams. This trip to Rio will be his 10th. Although the coaching is the same in some respects, the demand and time requirements of the Olympic team make this a much different experience.

“I’ve got to report to training camp at Prairie View on the 23rd of July, I believe,” Rovelto said. “Go to Rio on the second (of August) and won’t return till the 23rd, so the time commitment is far greater for the Olympic games than it is for the World Championships. But our duties are still the same, there’s not much difference … I’m on the men’s staff; we’re there to assist the athletes any way you can.”

Rovelto also discussed the shortcomings that some members of the 2016 U.S. track and field team may face as the games approach.

“Hopefully a majority of their personal coaches are able to be there, so really you’re just there helping their personal coaches with anything they need in dealing with the athletes,” Rovelto said. “But oftentimes their personal coach can’t be there for 3-4 weeks; they just can’t afford to do that, they’ve got day jobs. So a lot of the workout sessions that the athletes do, the coaches may not be there. Having a comfort level with the staff is pretty important, so the fact that I know a lot of those athletes pretty well makes it a little bit easier dealing with them and feeling comfortable with me watching whatever’s going on.”

One athlete that Rovelto will have his eye on in Rio doesn’t wear the red, white and blue of the U.S. but wears the blue and gold of Barbados — senior Akela Jones. At the NCAA’s, Jones competed in the fifth heptathlon of her career and led the heptathlon as she headed into the final event – the 800-meter race. Jones finished eighth to the shocked crowd in Eugene, Oregon.

“I think it was unfortunately an accumulation of things,” Rovelto said. “There is not anyone that really appreciates what she has done given what her background is. That was the fifth heptathlon of her life. Most of those girls have done five before they enter college and three or four every year since then. She is just so inexperienced. Some of the things that she has done have literally never been done before. No one in the history of the world has ever scored 6,000 points in their first heptathlon.”

Rovelto went on to explain that while many of Jones’ athletic exploits are impressive, there’s still some newness to what she does on the track.

“I think the expectation of her is beyond what is really fair,” Rovelto said. “So many of these events are so new to her that we have to focus more on technique than we would with someone who is more experienced. It was not lack of fitness or lack of preparation on her part in any way, shape or form. I think it was the circumstances that got to be a little bit overwhelming.”

Jones is taking this pre-Olympic prep session to get mentally stronger, so that she’s able to handle a big moment like this if it’s presented to her in Rio later on this summer.

“The physical conditioning is there,” Jones said to K-State Sports. “I’m getting back in my groove. In terms of being mentally strong, I’m working on it. It’s a work in progress with every major improvement and every personal investment you make. I continue to have to build a bigger mental capacity. I’m working on it.”

Jones has also employed a new approach into her already extensive training that’s looking to give her a mental edge heading into Rio.

“I’ve been watching videos, I’ve been watching movies and I’m just trying to work on my mental phase,” Jones said. “I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do so it comes down to my heart. So I’m working on those things because everything else is in place.”