The career of Bryan Hoddle, one of the nation's most recognized and honored track and field coaches whose attention to developing young athletes and counseling coaches came to include aiding disabled athletes and now wounded veterans, provides evidence that the chain of fortune forged by fate is sometimes composed of remarkable links.
This Harp is about those links that Hoddle has forged during his 34-year career as a track and field coach in Olympia, a career that over the past two-plus decades has included a national focus on disabled and wounded athletes. I learned of Hoddle and his work as we met and developed a link while he was Bellevue in July working with area athletes who queue up to spend 30 minutes or so with him each summer to get tips on running, training and life disciplines.
And it's with his focus on wounded veterans that he is off this weekend for what has become one of his most important contributions, an annual week-long involvement with a select "team" guiding programs at Eagle Summit Ranch in Colorado for those "suffering from the visible and the invisible wounds of war."
There he is part of a unique team working with the veterans in sessions at Eagle Summit, one of two such ranches founded by Dave Roever, himself a dramatically wounded Vietnam veteran, and his wife, Brenda, through their Roever Foundation, to work with wounded veterans.
More on Roever (pronounced Ree'ver), the foundation he and his wife created, and his unique ranches for programs for wounded veterans later in this Harp, but first the rest of the Hoddle story.
Hoddle has received a scrapbook-full of accolades for his accomplishments as a coach and an advisor to coaches, a career that over the past two-plus decades has come to include an emphasis on assisting disabled athletes and, since 2005, aiding seriously injured veterans, including those who have lost limbs.
Among his many honors, Hoddle was chosen head coach of the 2004 U.S. track and field team in the Athens Paralympics, was a 2013 Runners World Magazine Hero of the Year in Running and a U.S.A. Track and Field Presidents Award winner. In 2014 he was honored by the Washington State House of Representative for his work with disabled athletes and wounded soldiers.
But the accolades all pale for Hoddle when compared with the expressions of gratitude through emails or telephone or personal contact from the athletes, particularly the wounded veterans, who he says inspire him every day.
"Each day I email or text several veterans letting them know I still care and encouraging them, and many veterans have inspired me by something they have said in response." Hoddle emailed me.
Before his focus on wounded warriors, Hoddle had suddenly burst on the scene for work with disabled athletes. That resulted from a series of links that came about by accident, or maybe fate, when in 1994 his wife, Sherri, saw a television program on Tony Volpentest, the young disabled sprinter who had won three gold medals in the 1992 paralympics in Barcelona.
Volpentest, born without hands or feet, took some time off after the '92 paralympics and before he could compete again he faced the problem that officials had decided his prosthetic leg was too long and provided an unfair advantage and would have to be shortened.
By that point Hoddle recalls that he had reached out to Volpentest, who lived north of Seattle, "so we met and formed a friendship."
"When he decided to train for the 1996 paralympics, he called me and we talked about how it could work for me to coach him and help get a new, shorter prosthetic leg," said Hoddle, noting that "Ross Perot had taken Tony as a cause and agreed to provide for all his expenses. When Tony talked to Perot about me coaching him, Perot gave the thumbs up to pay me to be Tony's coach and we started training in the fall of 1995. Perot was wonderful to me and my family."
At the '96 paralympics in Athens, under Hoddle's coaching, Volpentest bested his 1992 record 100 meters time by half a second and shaved two seconds off his 200 meter record time, winning the Gold medal in both.
ABC did a special feature on Volpentest as he stayed after his victories and, as Hoddle had instructed him, signed every autograph of those who wanted one, many of them disabled youngsters. The signings went on for more than 90 minutes.
The Volpentest experience led Hoddle to work with athletes with disabilities, including Marion Shirley, an amputee Hoddle convinced to try sprinting who then went on to win the 100 meters in the 2000 parlympics as well as the 2004 games for which Hoddle had been chosen to be the head coach of the U.S. team in the 2004 Paralympics in Athens.
Just after returning from Athens, Hoddle got a call from an organization called Disabled Sports USA, asking him to come back to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to do a running clinic for injured soldiers.
He made three more trips to Walter Reed then began doing running clinics at Lakeshore Foundation in Birmingham, AL, which became a continuing commitment as Hoddle told me he made his 17th trip there last April.
"Lakeshore asked me in 2005 to come to one of their sporting camps, to which they invite veterans from all over the country, teaching a lot of them how to walk again and some, although they may have just gotten prosthetic legs, who want to run," Hoddle said.
He told me of working with one veteran who was one of the first soldiers wounded in the Iraq invasion, his leg blown off, adding "Two years after we began working together, he ran in the Houston marathon."
In discussing relationship building with the wounded veterans, Hoddle told me "relationships are about letting them know you care about them beyond just running. You've got to win someone's heart before you can win their mind over and help them.
Now on to the compelling link to Dave Roever and his far-flung wounded-veterans connections.
Roever recalled, in an email exchange with me after Hoddle gave us a virtual introduction, that it was "a casual conversation spurred by a mutual friend about our need for a good coach for the wounded athletes in Operation Warrior RECONnect and Bryan's passion for reconnecting the troops to a healthy and active life that made him a perfect fit." So Hoddle joined the team in 2015.
Eagle Summit Ranch is an amazing story in its own right, one appropriate for marking 9-11 since it was on that date in 2007 that it was dedicated into service, a story that Roever shared with me in our email exchange.
He told me that it was his dream to "provide a place where our beautiful, young heroes, who were wounded while serving so faithfully in the United States Military, have a place to be restored, encouraged and trained. Eagles Summit Ranch, Colorado, is just that place."
"The Roever Foundation was birthed from the unspeakable inner pain brought on by the negative reception of Vietnam vets coming home from war. As a vet I swore they would never again do that to our heroes returning from this Global War on Terror. One man can make a difference."
The "inner pain" may well have a personal aspect since in 1969, as a gunner in the elite Brown Water Black Berets in Vietnam, Roever was burned beyond recognition when a phosphorous grenade he was prepared to throw exploded in his hand. The ordeal left him hospitalized for more than a year and he underwent dozens of major surgeries.
He came back to become a speaker of national and international prominence who appears in a variety of settings from public schools, military installations, business groups and youth organizations, as well as television interviews and appearances.
Hoddle, who will travel to the Roever Texas ranch for additional veteran sessions in October, told me he's often asked about what he's learned from his involvements. His answer: "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. I think that's something we can apply to any profession or relationship."
There's a personally satisfying Hoddle link in that our mutual friend, "energy medicine specialist" Robert "Doctor Bob" Greczanik, who is one of Hoddle's closest friends, convinced him to give some advise on sprinting to a senior sprinter who was preparing to compete in the Hunstman World Senior Games in October in St. George, UT.
In fact, "Dr. Bob" is responsible for one additional link to both Hoddle and me, enlisting our involvement in the effort to attract support to Olympic decathlete Jeremy Taiwo, who is hoping after his 11th-place finish in Brazil to return to the Olympics on the U.S. track and field team for the 2020 Tokyo Games.