Interview with Ocky Clark
Ocky Clark was one of the leading US 800 m runners during the years 1984-1992. He was the first American runner to go sub 1:46 indoors, and his 1989 US 1000 m indoor record of 2:18.19 stood for 13 years.
800 m progression
In this interview Ocky describes his career, his successes and his disappointments. The text of this interview was kindly submitted by Ocky Clark using email during Dec 1997 - Jan 1998. I would like to express my thanks for his kind cooperation.
Eric Roosendaal, editor of this page.

My name is Ocky Clark, and I was born on Nov 14, 1960 in Sanford,Florida. I was raised in the farming community of Lake Monroe. In 1958 my mother moved to New York city after graduating from High School. During this time in our countries history there were better opportunities for Blacks in the North. My mother met my Dad and she became pregnant. She moved back home to Lake Monroe where I was born. My mother and father never married and she returned to New York. So I was raised by my grandparents on a ten acre farm, and my grandmother always kept me busy with chores.

My early life did not include Track & Field at all. In fact Track & Field was not even my first choice. At first I wanted to be a football player, but at 96lbs I had no chance. At the age of 14 I therefore decided to make Track & Field my main sport. At 15 I decided to try Cross-Country in the fall and I liked it. My home was approximately 10K away from school and my only transportation was an old 10 speed bike.

During my early Track & Field days I was not good at all. During the seventies in Florida if you were very skinny, and if you did not instantly show sprinters speed, you became a distance runner. For 2 years the only races I ran were the mile and 2 mile. By the age of 17 I ran 4:24.5 for the mile and 1:58.00 for 880 yards and 47's on the 4x400. The biggest race I ever won was the conference championship my senior year in high school. With those type of times no major U.S. colleges wanted to offer me a scholarship, so I joined the U.S. Navy for three years.

I think the reason it took me so long to develop into a National class runner is because of two reasons. Firstly it takes some distance runners longer to physically mature than it does for sprinters. At 18 I was only 5' 8" and weighed 124 lbs. I think the environment and the physical conditions of the military actually helped me to mature. Secondly in the U.S. we do not have a good program to encourage or help our youth to develop. In the U.S. most of our young boys want to be the next Michael Jordan or Deon Sanders. On our major sports station, ESPN, Beach Vollyball and Tractor Pull Competitions get more T.V. time than track and field!

It was in the military where I became serious about training. While in the Navy I was stationed in the state of Washington for 2 1/2 years. The weather over there is exactly the same as in Eugene, Oregon. My first year in the Navy I only ran 1:57. In my second year I just trained, and in my final year I ran 1:51.65 at the interservice championships. Why 800 m? Well, it just kind of happened. No one told me to run it. I just loved the race.

Just exactly how much talent he had only showed when he came to work with a class trainer.

I entered Santa Fe Community College the Fall of 1982, one week after I got out of the Navy. I was encouraged to attend that school by a family friend named Charlie Harris. He knew that I had ran 1:51.65 a month earlier. Charlie Harris also knew the Head Coach at Santa Fe, Terry Long. Terry Long is the coach of Kim Batten the World Record Holder for the 400H. She was also my teammate at Florida State. Santa Fe was only a two year College where you study the general subjects of Math, English, Biology and the Social Sciences. A very small school that was perfect for me after coming out of the military. While there I won the 800m twice indoors and once outdoors at the Junior College National Championships. At the time I was training under Assistant Coach Byron Dyce.

(Note: Byron Dyce was a very good Jamaican middle distance runner in the seventies. His record for the mile still stands as the Jamaican and Central American record.)

In my first year training with him I ran 1:48.65. In my second year, in 1984, at the Junior College National Championships I qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials when I ran 1:46.90 in the finals. Butch Reynolds also won the 400m and we became roommates at the trials in Los Angeles. I was not very successful at the trials, I only made through the second round. I think I was so excited to be competing against James Robinson, Don Paige and other historical relics that I really was not focused. In 1985, when I graduated from Santa Fe, I further improved to 1:45.29.

At this point in his career Ocky seemed to be on the brink of a major breakthrough. A few setbacks held him back from further progress though:

Once I graduated from Santa Fe in April of 1985 I transferred to Florida State University on a full athletic scholarship. I also specialized on a specific degree. I could have started at Florida State, but I chose to start at a much smaller school. When I transferred to Florida State, Terry Long had now become the head coach there. I really did not believe in the new coaching, and had an injury my final year. For two years I never broke 1:46 again.

After graduating from college in 1987 I left Florida State and moved all the way out to Eugene, Oregon to train with Luiz De Oliveira and his Brazilians, what a crazy group! My training brothers in Eugene included Cruz, Barbosa, and Guimaraes, and also Mary Slaney. I had met Luiz through a Brazilian teammate at the Pan Am Games in Indianapolis. He invited me to come and train with his group once I had finished College, and I gladly accepted his offer. I owe my world class career to Luiz, I will always love him and will always be grateful to him.

So why is Luiz de Oliveira such a good trainer?

Luiz is a super trainer of men and women. You learn to grow up very fast with Luiz. If you come there as a boy I promise you that you will leave a Man. His training is the hardest thing I ever did in my life. Under Luiz we would train in the morning and in the afternoon. A typical day of midseason training? Well, going for a 5 mile run in the morning and doing very intensive short recovery interval training in the afternoon.

Although the track and field part of his life was now in full flow, it took a while before financial problems receded as well:

I left Florida in December of 1987 with only enough money to survive for a few months. My girlfriend at College also sent me some money. But it was not until May 1988 when I made my first dollars in running at a meet in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I was very happy! From 1989 things got much better: we ran the indoor circuit and I made enough money to help me make it to the outdoor season. Then, during the outdoor season I made more than enough to make it through into 1990.

Although the US has a number of running circuits the real highlights of a career often lie in Europe.

My first race in Europe was June of 1988 in Grossetto, Italy. I always wanted to go to Europe and it was everything that I expected. I enjoyed the European people and their culture. I did not go there like a stuck up big mouth American expecting Europe to be like America. I am now a Geography teacher in my home town. My travels through Europe have helped out a lot. Competing on the European circuit can be very tough because you are traveling and competing every three days. I was glad when the long season ended, but then again I was happy when it started again.

And of course 1988 was also an Olympic year. Any luck at the trials this time?

In the first qualifying round of the USA Olympic Trials at the 450m mark I was accidently tripped by John Marshall. When I fell I fractured my collar bone. There was a huge protest by Luiz and I was put into the next days qualifying heat, where I ran very well. The night before the second round though I was in severe pain from the fall. I could not sleep, and I could not take anything for the pain because of drug testing. I believe I got 2 hours of sleep at most. On the fourth day of the 800m finals I was fifth, and did not make the team.

The injury healed quickly enough for another visit to Europe though:

On August 23 I took part in a race in Bern, Switzerland. Cruz was the winner, in 1:44.58, Sammy Koskei was second and I was third in a PB of 1:45.06. I was overflowed with joy to have run so fast, but I was also upset because I did not run 1:44!

After that the preparations for 1989 got under way. The indoor season of 1989 was a memorable one:

On December 25, 1988 I got married to my college sweetheart Mary Hawkins, who was a 13.40 100m hurdler. On December 28, I left for Brazil for six weeks of very intensive training. When we arrived in Europe we were ready to kick butt, and we did. I ran a PB in every single race. It started off with 1:47.33 on the beautiful track in The Hague, The Netherlands. In Stuttgart, on Feb 12, I ran 2:18.19 on the 1000, and Cruz and Barbosa shaved my mustache for breaking the American record! A few days later in Spain I ran 1:46.04 to break Johnny Gray's American record. A few days after that in Athens, Greece I made history again by being the first American to run 1:45 indoors. My 1:45.85 did not get any press coverage in the U.S, but I did receive a small bonus from Nike. I believe the training in Brazil helped me to achieve those records.

After such a marvellous indoor season nothing great happened the summer 1989. I think we put so much emphasis on indoors that we peaked a little early. My fastest time was 1:45.26 in Nice. I think indoors is good to run on years when there is no major outdoor championship. But it can drain you physically and mentally if you do not take a break between the two seasons. This was the one mistake we made in 1989.

In 1990 I ran indoors again but not with the same intensity. My fastest time that season was 1:45.64 in Bologne, Italy. I was not injured this year, but I just did not run that fast.
In 1991 I finally broke 1:45 for the first time! It happened at the U.S. Championships at Randalls Island, New York, where I finished fourth in 1:44.88. Going sub 1:45 gave me great satisfation, but finishing outside the top three meant I did not make the World Championship team though. I did qualify for the Pan American Team however. The Pan Am Team competes against all of the countries in the Western Hemisphere. At the Pan Am games in Havana the U.S. team was not very successful, largely because the top three athletes of the U.S. Championships did not want to compete at the Pan Am Games because they'd rather save themselves for the World Championships later that season. On the track only two individual gold medals were won by the U.S. team and coincidentally both athletes had the same last name: Clark. Cleatus won the 110 hurdles and I was successful in the 800 m. My medal was presented to me by Fidel Castro himself.
Later that season I further improved to 1:44.83 in a race in Vigo, Spain where I finished second behind Barbosa.

I knew that I could run until 1992 and I really did think that I had a fair chance to make the U.S. team. At the trials in New Orleans though I ran 1:44.87 and finished 6th. After that I gave up hope in continuing with my running career. I had worked so hard to run 1:44 and it was not good enough. I am currently still active in the sport of track and field. I am a high school Cross-Country coach, and I also coach track. I still love the sport, and I try to give back to it as much as possible.

Looking back over my career if I had to change something I would probably change the following: I would have trained harder between the ages of 14-18. I would also have run more 1500m races. But yes, I would do it all over again.

If any young athletes would ask my advice I would say: train hard, and become a student of your event. Read about training and study the legends of your event. I would also tell them to take care of their bodies. Grade your performances against the best runners in your country and the world. Stay away from drugs in order to improve your performance. It is not worth it. I am afraid that there are currently a lot of cheaters in the sport who want to take shortcuts in order to make big money. Finally never ever settle for being average, because when you are average you are just as close to the bottom as you are to the top.