Mentoring from the right coach can mold a great athlete into a champion. That was true for Elvis Forde during his time as a college sprinter. Now, as Illinois State’s head track coach, Forde serves as a mentor for a new generation of sprinters and hurdlers.
“I had coaches in high school and college who took a real interest in my success, and I feel very indebted to them,” said Forde. “I enjoy coaching tremendously because it gives me the chance to give something back to a sport that has given me a lot.”
He cites one particular coach who was the guiding influence during his college track days and continues to be a mentor and confidant. Bill Cornell was Forde’s coach at Murray State University in Kentucky and at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale during the 1980s. “Bill pushed me to do my best,” Forde said. “He was a great coach, and he taught me a lot of things that I try to pass on to our athletes. He was, and still is, a father figure, and I talk with him regularly about track and about life.”
Forde’s approach to athletics is also influenced by his upbringing. A native of St. Andrew, Barbados, Forde grew up in a British-style education system. “Education was put on a pedestal and athletics came second,” he said. “Participating in sports was a kind of stress release from studying, not an end in itself. I have carried that philosophy into my coaching and I stress to our athletes that academics needs to stay at the forefront of what they do here.”
That secondary emphasis on sports during his high school years in Barbados certainly did not slow Forde down, literally or figuratively. His speed and skill as a sprinter were further developed during his college career at Murray State and at Southern Illinois. With Cornell’s coaching, Forde became a four-time NCAA All-American and two-time National Amateur Champion. Following his collegiate career, he became a member of the Barbados national team and competed in the 1984 Los Angeles and 1988 Seoul Olympics. In both 1986 and 1987, he won the National Indoor Championships at 600 yards, and he still holds Barbados’ national team record in the 400-meter dash.
Channeling the spirit of his mentor, Forde takes a very straightforward approach to working with his runners and hurdlers. “I push them to be the best athletes they can be,” he said. “I also try to be very honest with them about their performance and their overall work ethic. They might not always like what I have to say, but I always stress to them that you never truly fail at anything. A poor performance teaches you to make corrections in your game and to move in a different direction. You just have to keep working if you want to achieve success.”
That honest approach to athletics extends beyond the day-to-day mechanics of the sport and encompasses a broader outlook on life. Forde notes that most track and field athletes have a realistic approach to their sport, knowing that very few go on to the professional ranks. “That is why I really stress life skills like self-discipline and hard work in both academics and sports,” he said. “I want athletes to work hard and learn things about themselves along the way, and I want them to be successful in whatever they do after graduation.”
In his seven years at Illinois State, Forde has mentored 27 indoor and outdoor men’s and women’s conference champions and more than 150 All-Missouri Valley Conference selections. With Forde’s coaching, two-time Missouri Valley Conference Female Athlete of the Year Devon Williams garnered 11 conference titles and set Valley Championship records in the 60-meter dash as well as school records in the indoor and outdoor 60, 100 and 200-meter dashes.
“I am in coaching to be successful, and one measure of that success is wins and losses,” Forde said. “Seeing athletes working hard and achieving their goals is also an important measure of that success. I take real pride in graduating good athletes and good students. The track team is like an extended family and their successes and failures are also mine.”
Working with younger athletes is something Forde really enjoys during Illinois State’s summer track and field camps for junior high and high school students. He passes on the same message of hard work and self discipline that is a cornerstone of his coaching philosophy. “The summer camps are a fun time for me,” he said. “It is exciting to see young people develop new athletic skills. Many of them have big dreams about their sport. I tell them to hang on to those dreams, and I remind them that it takes a lot of hard work to make them come true.”
When he is not working with his team members or young athletes in summer camps, Forde can be seen striding around the track behind Horton Field House working hard on his own running dreams. “I feel very privileged because my athletic ability took me all around the world,” he said. “I still enjoying going out to run and exercise. The health benefits are tremendous, and I want to enjoy life to the fullest as I get older.”