Amy Deem was a darned good hurdler and long jumper in high school and college before knee surgeries forced her to quit. Turns out she was quite the leaper on her career track, as well.
Over the past two decades, Deem has vaulted from accidental athletic department intern to University of Miami track coach to head U.S. women’s track coach for the 2012 London Olympics.
Deem, who coaches the Hurricanes men’s and women’s track programs (one of only six female Division I coaches in charge of both teams), packed up her official Olympic team swag last week and headed to Europe with her athletes. They were in London over the weekend, are in Monaco this week at a relay camp, and will be in Birmingham, England, on Saturday for their final tune-ups. The Olympics open July 27 and run through Aug. 12.
Never in her wildest childhood dreams did she expect to be a member of a U.S. Olympic delegation with the opportunity to march in the Opening Ceremonies, roam the athletes’ village, and coach international superstars. She grew up in Parkersburg, W.Va., a town of 30,000 about 100 miles from Morgantown. Her dad was a pharmacist, mom a nurse, and Deem figured she would wind up a high school teacher and coach, like her mentors — middle school coach Milt Moellendick and high school coach Susan Gardner.
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But everything changed 24 years ago, when she took a plane to Miami to visit a friend over spring break. She went home with a sunburn — and an unexpected six-week internship in the compliance office at the UM athletic department. Deem was completing her Master’s degree in sports administration at Ohio University, her friend worked at UM and informed her of the internship. She applied and got the job. During the internship, she let her passion for track and field be known.
UM was getting its women’s track program off the ground, and Deem was hired part-time to help out. Her internship was extended and she spent the next two years as an assistant track coach. In June 1990, former Hurricanes athletic director Sam Jankovich promoted Deem to head women’s track coach. At the time, no UM athlete had made an NCAA qualifying mark. Since she took over, more than 40 have qualified, and she has coached her athletes to 147 All-America honors and 12 national titles.
To her credit
Among her many successful athletes are hurdler T’erea Brown, a five-time All-American headed to the Olympics, and sprinter Lauryn Williams, who just qualified for her third Olympics. Williams won the 100-meter silver medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics and finished fourth in 2008 in Beijing. Williams also ran the 400-meter relay in both Olympics, but didn’t medal.
Williams said USA Track and Field picked the perfect Olympic coach in Deem.
“I came to her 11 years ago and she made me into an Olympian,” Williams said. “She knows so much, is incredibly organized to an extreme, knows exactly what to say and when, and her level of professionalism is unmatched.”
Williams pointed out that Deem, unlike most coaches, comes to work dressed in business attire — dress pants, blouse, nice shoes — and changes into athletic gear only when it’s time for practice.
“Most coaches spend all day in sweats, but Coach Deem has style, pizazz, and looks like a businesswoman,” Williams said.
Deem, 46, also has the benefit of having been the personal coach of past Olympians. That will come in handy as U.S. coach because she fully understands her role and boundaries.
“I’ve been on both sides, so I understand the role of the personal coach, the collegiate coach, and the national team coach,” Deem said. “My job as Olympic coach is to help everyone navigate through everything, eliminate distractions and stresses. My biggest role is to anticipate questions and issues that may arise, and make sure everything is taken care so all the athlete has to do is compete. The personal coaches will be there coaching their athletes, and I won’t interfere.”
She already had her first taste of that at the U.S. Olympic trials, when the 100-meter final ended in a dead heat for third. Jeneba Tarmoh was initially declared the winner, but later it was determined that she and Allyson Felix crossed at the same time.
Only the top three make the Olympic team, and there was no tiebreaker system in place. Both runners are coached by Bobby Kersee, and Deem stepped aside and let him handle the situation.
They initially agreed to a run-off, but then Tarmoh changed her mind and conceded the spot to Felix.
“I had been involved in a similar situation at the 2007 Worlds in Osaka, Japan,” Deem said. “I was head coach, but also personal coach of Lauryn Williams and she had a photo finish with Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica in the 100-meter gold medal final. The girls were on the track forever before a photo finish determined Veronica edged Lauryn. I’m surprised with today’s technology they weren’t able to break the tie this time.
“I can’t even imagine what Bobby [Kersee] went through coaching both runners and with only one able to get the Olympic spot. I wasn’t really part of the decision because it wasn’t my place. It was between USA Track and Field, the U.S. Olympic Committee and Bobby. It was not my job to pick the team, but to manage it.”
Among her duties: She went to London in February, toured the practice facilities and suggested they improve the long-jump runways and throw circles. She decided when the women on the U.S. track and field team would move into the Olympic Village, and has put together practice schedules for athletes in every event.
Deem and relay coach Jon Drummond will select the combinations for the 400 relay and 1,600 relay teams. And she will make sure personal coaches have access to the places they need to be.
She has high hopes for the U.S. women.
“Sanya [Richards-Ross] is the strongest I’ve ever seen her,” she said. “She’s got it all right now. One of the more disappointing events for me is the lack of progress in the triple jump. I don’t know if we’re losing them to volleyball and basketball. We had a strong showing in shot put. We’re getting better at technical events. We’ve got Jenny Simpson in the 1,500 and Brittney [Reese] in the long jump … I’ve known a lot of these athletes forever and my role is to provide them with an environment to excel.”
Happy at UM
Deem’s success has not gone unnoticed. She has had several job offers over the years, but chose to stay in Coral Gables.
“I had a couple opportunities 10 years ago,” she said. “I’ve had one goal for Miami — I still feel we can win a team championship. That is what has driven me. We have 18 total scholarships, which is the NCAA max. I’ve got a lot of support from Donna Shalala and [athletic director] Shawn Eichhorst, and I worked well with Paul Dee.
“I really like the U — private school, small campus, small class sizes. I like the weather, the diversity. There’s something for everybody in Miami.”
Plus, it’s where it all started for Deem, and that makes it all the more special.
Miami Herald sportswriter Linda Robertson contributed to this report.