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Coaching The Elite In Bulgaria

Returning to the Junior World Orienteering Championships as a coach was a fascinating experience. The pre-camp training sessions, long days in the starting quarantines and grappling with appropriate words of encouragement for my athletes post-race were some of the challenges. I can confidently say that the two-week Bulgarian experience increased my coaching knowledge and skills. However, added to this came a huge personal revelation that highlighted the difference between youth and adulthood.

Bulgaria: Bed bugs & blooms
Bulgaria is a new travel destination but with extensive racing experiences in neighbouring countries I was forewarned of its challenges. Small things like excessive supplies of cabbage the night before a race and temperamental water supplies could be among the simple trials. Easy to overlook were the stray dogs ruling the streets, horse & carts, bed bugs and dozens of Russian-built Cruella Deville-inspired hotels crumbling post-communism.

On arrival in Borovets, the alpine ski resort one-hour north of the capital Sofia, 2900m peaks overawed this excitable mountain goat. No amount of stray dogs or scary looking gondolas would bar my path. After a short bug-infested sleep I slipped onto the shady spruce-shrouded trails and began the large 1600m ascent towards the skyline. After an hour of climbing (and just a little stress about how late I might be for breakfast) I was rewarded with blooming alpine meadows and literally hundreds of butterflies. I have later heard that this is a hot destination for butterfly ‘twitchers’. Never fear, exhilaration ensured I was back for breakfast on time and my coaching responsibilities took over.

Pre-competition: Lessons on adulthood
The pre-JWOC camp rushed past in a blur of control flags out, control flags in. We trained alongside the New Zealand team and enjoyed the usual happy trans-Tasman banter. The athletes performed exceptionally in the eroded gullies of the middle distance maps and heavily vegetated long distance terrain. On many occasions they put me back in my box when I was misplaced and they were still perfectly in control. If it gave them additional confidence then I was only too happy to be lost!

Just prior to the commencement of the races we held a birthday party for one of our New Zealand athletes. She had turned twenty, the same age I was when I won the Junior World Long Distance and shortly after the Senior World Title in the Sprint Distance. These achievements are still bounced around and I have never really stopped to consider the circumstances under which they were achieved. Watching this athlete blow out her birthday candles and receive presents of Bulgarian pool floaties highlighted just how different 20 and 28 years of age is. I couldn’t help but realize that at some point we all transition from childhood to adulthood and begin to accept responsibility for all of our actions and words. I can now honestly say that at the age of twenty I was still a child. At twenty-eight I am an adult and now I am ready for that role. At what age the switch occurred I cannot say but I am eager to fulfill big shoes again.

JWOC – a little more than golden
I loved my role as coach of the Junior World Orienteering Team in Bulgaria. Aside from being outside all day every day, the most rewarding aspect of the job was watching athletes rise to the challenge of international competition. Under difficult conditions from the weather gods and Bulgarian Way, our athletes performed exceptionally. A huge highlight was observing our senior men and women walk away at the end of the week with heads held high. They had learnt from their younger years and applied the teachings to their 2014 races. Well-deserved results are the most rewarding! Our best Australian results were five top-20 finishes and if we take a little credit for our kiwi friends, a gold medal and two more podium places.

Conclusion – back to the real winter
In the involved process of preparing for my own World Senior Championships in the Dolomite mountains and ensuring our junior athletes were ready to perform, I had spent little time thinking about what it would actually feel like to return to JWOC and on the other side of the crowd barriers. Despite some strong emotional moments as I grappled with a changing of the ages, I loved every part of coaching at the international level. Without fail, returning home to negative temperatures is the rude awakening you never want. But warming me from the inside are fond memories of all that was achieved in the last six weeks and dreams of bigger things to come… I may have my ‘athlete’ shoes and ‘coaching’ hat on as I say this!

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