By LARRY VAUGHT
Debbie Ferguson-McKenzie had a lot of success during her four years as an assistant coach at Houston, but it pales in comparison to the success she had on the track during her career.
The University of Kentucky assistant track coach won 52 medals in international meets, including Olympic and World Championship medals. She participated in five Olympics for the Bahamas — where she was a 10-time national champion in the 100- and 200-meter dashes.
She was on the 4×100 meter relay team in 1996 in Atlanta that won a silver medal and four years later in Sydney was on the 4×100 team that won gold. In Athens in 2004 she took bronze in the 200 dash. In 2004 and again in 2008 at Beijing she was picked as her nation’s flag bearer at the opening ceremony. She also competed in London in 2012 and then coached the Bahamas team in 2016 in Rio.
She doesn’t share that information with her athletes at Kentucky. Instead, she says most find out when “they Google me” and then may ask questions.
“I hope the majority of them trusted me in the beginning and realize as a staff we are here for them,” said Ferguson-McKenzie. “As a last resort, I will tell them I have been there, done this. I want them all to do bigger, better things than I did. I will usually tell them, ‘I hope this would work or this is just my opinion on what will work.’ I want them to learn on their own, too.”
When she graduated from Georgia she didn’t intend to become a coach. Then she realized she had been involved in the sport so long, why not coach.
“That’s what I was good at. I love motivating people. If you ask me something, I hope I can give you the right option,” she said. “I love making people feel good. I didn’t always have someone there for me. I had some coaches that were mentors but a lot of my learning was trial and error.
“I like being part of the team here at Kentucky. We are all-in for this program and love the student-athletes. I don’t have kids of my own and being part of this and being a mentor and role model is important to me. I can make a difference here. We have a great group of student-athletes I believe in them. After four years here they go out in the world and become who they are meant to be. I just don’t want them to be afraid to learn.”
When Lonnie Green left Purdue to become the new coach at Kentucky, she felt it was the “Lord’s doing” to bring her to Kentucky. She had competed in UK as a college freshman in 1995 and remembers it well because it was the first time she had ever seen snow.
“I was so excited,” she laughed and said. “I was outside playing in the snow. I never really thought one day about living here but now this is home for me. I have no control over where I go. I just go where I am needed. I am thankful he (Green) hired me. It wasn’t just following him, either. I think he chose a good coach to be part of his team.”
She says any athlete afraid to fail is “also afraid to succeed” and that everyone has to learn to fail or “fail better” because that is part of life.
“There is nobody out there who has not had struggles or ups and downs,” the UK assistant coach said. “We are trying to help athletes to believe in themselves and embrace the journey.”
Ferguson-McKenzie admits she did not always embrace the journey. She thought going to the Olympics “was the norm” and didn’t fully appreciate what qualifying for five straight Summer Olympics meant.
“I was just doing what I loved,” she said. “Now I realize it really was a major accomplishment to have the endurance to do that. I just didn’t realize then how big it was. I just thought everybody did it. I guess I was just a crazy person.
“My first Olympics, I cried the whole time. I was the baby on the team. I ran the semifinals of the 4×100 relay because I had got second at the (national) Trials in the 100 to get on the team. Then they didn’t let me run in the finals and I cried. I said this would never happen again. I could have chosen to never go compete again. Instead, I chose to make sure next time I was No. 1.
“Everything student-athletes experience, I have done and I have walked that path and know what it feels like to not feel good enough or what it feels like to come back and crush it.”
She finished third in the 100 and 200 at the NCAA Championships as a freshman at Georgia. The next year she was second in both events.
“My junior year I did not know what was going on with my body. It got so tight I could not move and train. I had to redshirt, and I cried,” she said. “It’s like putting a horse in a stable when all it wants to do is run. I made a promise to myself to stretch properly, hydrate properly. I came back and won the NCAA in the 100 and 200. That was my dream. I didn’t know if it could happen but I made sure every day I was on the track or doing something to take care of business.”
Surprisingly, Ferguson-McKenzie was stunned at the crowd reaction when she recently attended her first basketball game in Rupp Arena. Remember she ran in front of over 110,000 fans in Sydney when she won her Olympic gold medal but said the noise in Rupp reminded her of being at the Olympics.
“The fans were so vocal and so happy and cheerful,” she said. “I have been to Georgia and football is like that. I have been to football games at Miami, Southern Mississippi, Houston. But that was the first time I had ever seen noise like that in an indoor facility. It was just something special I had not experienced in my life. It was awesome.
“I had never seen fireworks indoors. Who does that? Just something about Kentucky fans is super special. I felt that energy. I am hoping to get to another game this year. If not, next year for sure. It just shows how special being here at Kentucky is.”