Whitley: Florida Gators track and field coach Mike Holloway leads Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics

David Whitley
Gator Sports

About 5,000 athletes will march into an empty stadium Friday for the opening ceremony of the Tokyo/COVID Olympics.

Nobody knows how the pandemic will impact the next 17 days of competition. But when the Parade of Nations begins at 4 a.m. EST, the head coach of the U.S. track and field team will have a familiar message for his athletes.

“We are the United States of America, and everybody understands how special it is to put that uniform on,” Mike Holloway said. “Remember the dedication and the hard work you did to be an Olympian.

“Now come here and just be who you are.”

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Holloway has been preaching that as Florida’s coach the past 20 years. It’s produced nine national championships and enough All-Americans to just about fill a stadium.

Florida Gators coach Mike Holloway, left, talks with Gator great Grant Holloway during the Miramar Invitational in the spring in Miramar, Fla.

That’s why Holloway has been entrusted with the biggest jobs in Tokyo. Track, swimming and gymnastics are any Olympiad’s main attractions, at least as far as NBC is concerned.

America’s men’s and women’s track team are being counted on to put on a show, especially now that Jamaica’s Usain Bolt has sprinted into the sunset. Holloway’s task boils down to helping the athletes be who they are.

If they can run a 9.7 in the 100 meters or pole vault 19 feet, “Be that guy,” Holloway said.

And remember the effort it took to become that guy.

USA coach Mike Holloway's long journey

Holloway certainly does. If you have a superb memory of the Gainesville culinary scene circa 1984, you might recognize him as the guy who rang up your order of Krystal burgers and chili-cheese fries.

Holloway was trying to make ends meet while waiting for his coaching break. He’d moved to Gainesville a couple of years earlier to run hurdles for Santa Fe Junior College.

He was called “Mouse,” a name he got back in Ohio for how he quietly scooted around the track. Holloway was rehabbing from an injury one day at Santa Fe, and the coach asked him to help the women’s relay team.

Holloway loved it. He became a volunteer coach at Gainesville High, UF and Buchholz High. That was no way to make a living, so he worked at a Krystal and then managed a joint called Taco Nacho.

“The thing I remember about Taco Nacho is the food was too good,” Holloway said. “I ate too much. I put on a lot of weight.”

It wasn’t for lack of exercise. Holloway would often ride a bike to work, and there were plenty of times he went by foot.

“I didn’t have much. I remember having to walk to work and walk home at 1 o’clock in the morning, stuff like that,” he said. “Very humbling.”

His first break came when Buchholz hired him full-time. After coaching eight state championship teams there, Holloway became an assistant at UF in 1995 and the head coach in 2003.

His days of riding a bike to work were over for good.

“I’m very grateful and very blessed that I was able to move on from that situation, but it took a lot of hard work and dedication,” Holloway said. “So my job when I get up every morning is to continue that dedication and continue that grind.”

In Tokyo, that’s an odd job. Though competitors wear Team USA uniforms, track is an individual sport. Athletes have their own coaches, and the head coach is mainly there to take care of residual details.

“My job is to make sure they have everything they need to compete at a high level so they can go after their dreams,” Holloway said.

That entails a lot of planning, paperwork and bureaucratic grinding, along with hands-on coaching. Holloway’s stable of Florida runners includes 110-meter hurdle favorite Grant Holloway (no relations), sprinter Joseph Fahnbulleh and 400-meter runner Doneisha Anderson.

The weird thing is, Fahnbulleh is competing for Liberia and Anderson for the Bahamas. If an Indiana basketball player played for France in 1984, it’s hard to imagine Bobby Knight helping him work on his jumper during a game.

It’s not that Holloway wants an American athlete to lose to someone like Fahnbulleh. He just wants every athlete to perform their best. And may the best performer win.

“It’s not about the medals,” Holloway said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out if we go out there and perform well, we’re going to have a lot of great performances.”

After Holloway takes care of the pre-race details and distractions, U.S. athletes might still need a little last-minute inspiration. For that, they shouldn’t have to look very far.

“It’s very humbling when you’re asked to lead the best team on the planet,” Holloway said. “You get a few goosebumps just thinking about it.”

Especially today when he walks into National Stadium in Tokyo. It will sure beat walking to Taco Nacho.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley