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Originally published August 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 3, 2008 at 12:19 AM


Steve Kelley

Ex-Cougars, friends on track for success in Beijing

Fostering a relationship with former WSU coach John Chaplin, James Li hopes to help coach former Cougar Bernard Lagat to Olympic gold in Beijing.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Words were exploding out of John Chaplin's mouth, an eruption of English so rapid his Chinese interpreter was overwhelmed. It was like trying to interpret for an auctioneer.

Chaplin, then the track and field coach at Washington State, doesn't just speak, he revs like a race car. He talks in rapid-fire, multi-syllabic soliloquies.

And in 1984, after the Los Angeles Olympics, on his first trip to China, he had so much to say and the Chinese officials were so hungry to learn, it seemed like the two sides were playing a losing game of "Beat the Clock."

Chaplin was no match for the interpreter, who struggled to find the right words for simple track terms like "starting blocks." As Chaplin continued to talk, the interpreter fell so helplessly behind, there was no way he could find a finish kick to catch Chaplin.

"He listened to me for 15 minutes and then quit," Chaplin said.

It became clear to Chinese officials that they needed to find someone faster, someone who not only knew both Mandarin and English, but also knew the language of track and field.

Li Li, a coach at the Sichuan Sports Institute in Chengdu, and also a well-regarded 800-meter runner, was given the job.

"He spoke impeccable English," Chaplin said. "He spoke English better than most Americans."

And Li could keep pace, word-for-word, with Chaplin.

They rode a train from Chengdu to Nanjing and for eight hours Li translated Chaplin's thoughts on track and field to Chinese athletic officials.

It was the beginning of a relationship that has lasted through Li's seasons as a coach at Washington State, through the bloody uprising at Tiananmen Square and all the way to Beijing, where Li is the manager of the U.S. Olympic men's track team and the personal coach of Bernard Lagat, a favorite to win both the 5,000 meters and 1,500.

Li's timing was perfect. China wanted to become a player on the world's sports stages. It looked to Chaplin for help. And Chaplin found Li.


After a dinner in Nanjing in 1984, the table was cleared and a serious discussion began. The Chinese told Chaplin they wanted more United States coaches to come to China.

Chaplin told them they had it all backward.

"I told them they didn't need a bunch of coaches coming over there and giving them pennies," said Chaplin from his Pullman home before leaving for Beijing to help the U.S. track team prepare for the Olympics. "What you need to do is send some kids to the United States, get them masters degrees and have them work with the college track program. That's the big payoff.

"I told them they had to get to know who the real players were in track and field, and I could help them with that. I told them, if they put up some money, I'd put up some money and I'd have the university [WSU] put up some money and I'd get Li a teaching assistant's position."

Chaplin, who coached athletes from 31 different countries during his 26-year tenure in Pullman, went back to Washington State's admissions officials to lobby for Li's enrollment in a master's program.

"You're telling me, John, that Li interpreted what you were saying for eight straight hours?" one of the admissions officers said. "He not only deserves to be admitted here, he deserves a medal."

In 1985, Chaplin and WSU offered Li a new address, a new job, a more promising opportunity.

Now Chaplin, 71, says Li is like a grandson.

"I'm very proud of him," Chaplin said.

The respect is requited.

Li, now 47, became a United States citizen in 1998 and, as a tribute to the man who opened the door to this wonderful life, he asked Chaplin's permission to change his name to James Li, in honor of Chaplin's oldest son James, who died in an automobile accident.

"He realized Li Li was a wonderful name, but it didn't fit over here," Chaplin said, laughing. "When he asked me if he could use the name James, after my son, I just told him, 'It's yours now.' "

Li was a quick and voracious learner. Now, the associate head coach at Arizona, Li has become one of the most respected men in his sport.

"When he goes over there now he's like a rock star in China, for crying out loud," Chaplin said. "He has been instrumental in setting up our training facilities over there for this Olympics. So many of the Chinese officials went to college with him. I don't know what the U.S. team would have done without James."

Li got his master's and doctorate at Washington State and was planning to return to China in 1989, when violence broke out in Tiananmen Square.

With Chaplin's help, Li stayed in the U.S. and became the head coach at Mankato (Minn.) State in 1990. He returned to coach at Washington State in 1994 after Chaplin resigned.

In 1996, Li, who was looking for a great miler the way a college basketball coach looks for the next great big man, found Lagat at a private school in Kenya and, following Chaplin's tradition of recruiting talented African runners, brought Lagat to Pullman.

They have been together for 12 years. Running for Kenya, Lagat was a bronze medalist in Sydney in the 1,500 in 2000 and a silver medalist in Athens four years later.

"James is a great coach," Chaplin said. "He is a very smart kid and a hard worker, but coaching is all temperament. And James has very good temperament. I think the fact that he went through the Cultural Revolution and all that stuff, I think he himself had this epiphany and understood what it means to help people."

More than two decades ago, Chaplin spoke. Li listened and understood.

Now, with his mentor watching proudly, Li stands with Lagat, poised for greatness.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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