Olympic medalist finds ‘right place’ at Williams

Track and field Assistant Coach Michelle Burgher knows what it takes to compete at the next level because she’s been there. She also knows the intensity and passion required to be successful on the international stage and she has the hardware to prove it.

Burgher runs the 4×400 for Jamaica and she does it quite well, most recently picking up a Bronze Medal at the 2003 World Championships in Paris. Before that, it was the Gold Medal at the 2002 World Championship in Edmonton. Burgher has even vied at the pinnacle of international sport, the Olympic Games, and returned from Sydney with

the Silver Medal in 2000.

Burgher began running in primary school in Jamaica just because it was fun.

“I just saw running as something to do. I was much of a tomboy and I did it because it was fun,” Burgher said.

Burgher then began running the 400 meter in high school but could never break the 1-minute marker. However, running in high school wasn’t as much fun as it was in middle school because the competition was stiffer. So Burgher tried the high jump and found it to be more enjoyable. She continued to compete in the high jump until her senior year when her high school coach pressured her into returning to the 4×400.

“When I got to high school, it wasn’t as much fun because I wasn’t running that much faster than the other girls,” Burgher said. “I was only running around one minute in the 400 meter so I tried the high jump. So my senior year, the coach put me in the 400 again and I ran it in 55 seconds so I quit the high jump.”

Burgher left Jamaica to attend George Mason, a Div. I program in Virginia. She raced successfully for two years and was content with the competition but was unsatisfied with the program. Williams’ track and field Head Coach Ralph White was working at Clemson at the time. White brought Burgher to Clemson where she launched a successful junior and senior campaign for the Tigers.

Burgher loved the type of coaching style White instituted at Clemson and White remains Burgher’s personal coach to this day. When Burgher heard there was an assistant coaching position available under White’s wing, Burgher jumped at the opportunity and joined the Williams coaching staff in 2001.

Burgher now focuses on training the sprinters on the track and field team, but her type of coaching is unique. Burgher does not merely sit back idly and critique her players from aloof. Burgher has designed specific weight training routines with Fitness Center Supervisor Fletcher Brooks and continues to participate in drill and practices. She can be found lifting weights with the team in the gym or running with them on the track.

“The team and I do the same routine [in the weight room] – although sometimes at different intensities,” Burgher said. “I’m able to help them and show them proper technique because I’m doing the same exercises. The same goes on while on the track with Coach White.”

White gushes over the benefit of having a coach like Burgher on his staff. He points out that her mere presence simply raises the level of intensity on the track, but that comes to no surprise to him because when he coached her at Clemson, she had the same effect.

“As an athlete, she made everyone else better. She brought everyone up a level,” White said. “[As a coach,] she’s someone you want on the team because she’s so well respected and well liked. And the point to remember is that as good an athlete as she is, she’s an even better person.”

Burgher continues to train for her next international event right here in the Purple Valley. And, perhaps, aside from the weather, which was quite a shock to the native of a tropical country who went to college in the South, Burgher never really feels at a disadvantage to any other Olympic runner’s training facilities.

“Sometimes I feel at a disadvantage – but only because of the weather. But I just approach it as another challenge that can only make me stronger. But we have a really good indoor facility, so it’s not that bad,” Burgher said. “In terms of the size of the school and the town, I really like the low-profile atmosphere and the togetherness. The facilities are great and the coaching is the bomb.”

Burgher believes that several men and women on this team will be able to one day compete at the World Championships and perhaps even the Olympics. Burgher insists that Williams has built a program that would rival most Div. I programs, and White agrees with her.

“People don’t realize how good we are. We are not merely a glorified IM program,” White said. “We could beat 80 percent of the Div. I teams, and those are the teams who get 18 scholarships. [Track and field and cross-country] are a structured program and it’s extremely well-respected not just on the East Coast, but throughout the country.”

“The best coaches and the best training I have seen, and that includes Div. I and Div. II programs,” Burgher said. “This is the right place.”

It appears as though other coaches throughout the nation agree that Williams has some very special coaches in their ranks, as the U.S. Track and Field Coaches Association recently named White Div. III indoor track and field Coach of the Year.

Furthermore, Burgher has found something special at Williams that she didn’t find at a Div. I school or even on the international stage. Burgher speaks of the support the players show each other and her as they strive for excellence as one of the perks of working at Williams.

“During practice everyone cheers for everyone else. Everyone tries to support everyone. When I run everyone gathers around the track and yells, ‘Let’s go Michelle, you can do it, you can do it!’ and it feels so nice to hear them team cheering for me. That’s something I really cherish at Williams – something you won’t find at the Div. I level where everyone is fighting for a spot.”

“Div. I is so different. It’s much more about the individual. You would think you would get more attention at that level, but everyone just approaches the team likes its their job,” she said. “The difference here is that students here really want to be here at Williams. In some Div. I programs not even the coaches really want to be there. It’s different also because we balance academics and athletics and we’re on top in both.”

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