August 2008 Issue
Right on Track
When U.S. track and field team members lace up their shoes at the Olympic Games in Beijing this month, two Ohioans will be helping them keep things tied together.
Criss and Rita Somerlot, retired high school teachers
from Powell, are volunteer assistant coaches for USA Track & Field, which is sending 130 athletes to the Summer
Games. The Somerlots are the first high school track coaches to be part of the Olympic team’s coaching staff.
Criss, 61, serves as an assistant coach for 12 competitors in the men’s shot put, discus, javelin and hammer throw. Rita is an assistant coach for 15 athletes in women’s jumping and combined events. Both will help the participants prepare mentally and physically for the games.
Their main roles, the duo explains, fall somewhere
between sport psychologist and den mother.
“You’re not a technical coach,” says Rita, 59. “You are the person who makes it possible for athletes to be completely free of as much stress as possible so they can focus on their event.”
The Somerlots say their moment in the Olympic spotlight evolved over time. The two grew up in Richwood, where Rita played high school basketball and Criss played football and excelled on the track team. They quickly became high school sweethearts and married in 1969.
The couple lived in Centerville for 25 years, where they raised two children. She was a guidance counselor, he was a driver’s education teacher, and both coached a variety of high school sports. Criss, who had a passion for track and field, encouraged Rita to assist him. “I learned track as I went along,” she says.
The couple make a good team. More than 450 of their high school athletes also competed at the college level. In the mid-’80s, USA Track & Field came calling, seeking coaches with a high-school perspective, as well as women who coached in a male-dominated sport.
“We got to know the athletes and the athletes got to know us,” Criss says. “They liked working with us, and things progressed.”
In 2000, Rita was asked to serve as assistant coach at the Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. Although she retired from teaching in 2004, her coaching skills remain in demand. Criss, who retired in 1999, was asked to be an
assistant coach at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
Today, they own a home-based company, No Limits Athletics, which sells track and field equipment, designs track stadiums and sells all-weather tracks and turfs.
“If you would have asked me 15 years ago if either one of us would be an Olympic coach, I’d say there’s no way it’s going to happen,” Criss says.
“I dreamed about it, but I never thought it was a possibility.”