The Long Run: From Coaching Olympians in Colombia, to Coaching H.S. Girls Track Team

Coach Olga Ladino was a revered coach in her native Colombia where athletes she had trained won over 50 international medals and over 500 national titles. Now her passion for coaching is channeled into a girls high school track team which went to the NYS Championship meet for the first time ever last year.

| 13 Feb 2024 | 03:15

Olga Ladino blows her whistle and 13 teenage girls speed through a long stretch of grass in the southeast corner of Central Park.

Practice had started promptly at 3:15 p.m. The girls had walked together from St. Vincent Ferrer High School on East 65th Street. They had piled their backpacks on the nearest bench.

Coaching outside in crisp 40-degree weather is a drastic change from the usual 80 degrees in her previous home, Cali, Colombia. Before coaching the St. Vincent Ferrer girls, before moving to New York, Ladino coached dozens of track and field athletes in Colombia. Before becoming a coach, she had her own athletic career.

Ladino was born in Pereira, Colombia, a city of under half a million people, in the middle of Colombia’s eje cafetero (coffee-growing region).

“I fell in love with the tracks,” Ladino says, remembering her high school days. Although she thought she would follow her brother’s footsteps to medical school, her track coach encouraged her to take the admissions exam for the new National Sports School in Cali. In 1986, Ladino got the highest score and won a scholarship.

“I realized that coaching is what I needed to do in life,” she says. In 2004, one of Ladino’s athletes, Sandra Zapata, became the first Colombian woman to compete in race walking at the Olympics, in Athens. Ladino cheered her on from Colombia since the country was unable to send all its coaches to the Olympics.

“I don’t really care that I wasn’t there at the Olympics,” Ladino says. “I carry the satisfaction of having played my part in helping her get to that point. In making history for Colombia.”

Federico de Lima, who currently studies at Columbia University, was one of the athletes Ladino coached in Cali. “Every department in Colombia has its own sports institute. The different institutes would fight to have Olga as a coach,” de Lima says. “A coach makes you or breaks you,” he says. “She made me. I owe her everything.”

For 28 years, Ladino coached athletes in Colombia who won 50 international medals and more than 500 national ones. She cut her career there short when she moved to New York six years ago.

Ladino’s father, a Colombian military veteran, moved to the United States as a young adult. Over the years, her two sisters moved. Eventually, Ladino sent her two daughters to study in New York. Her husband found a job and made the move as well. Ladino wanted to stay in Colombia coaching her athletes until the 2019 Colombian National Games. But in 2017, a fire tore through the building where her family lived in Queens, precipitating her move.

“It came down to my career or my family,” she says. “And family is always more important. So I chose to come here. I chose to completely change my life.”

As the St. Vincent Ferrer girls race their final lap, Ladino pulls out her phone and scrolls through her camera roll. She searches for a photo of her son, Juan, a college-level soccer goalkeeper. Then, a photo of her daughters, Diana and Lina, both former college athletes who now work for the New York City Football Club. She beams with pride.

When Ladino first moved to New York, Diana told her head coach at Queens College that her mom had vast experience coaching. Ladino started informally helping the track and field athletes at the college and was eventually hired as assistant coach.

A few years later, Diana got an offer to coach at St. Vincent Ferrer. “You need to interview my mom,” she told the interviewer. They ended up both getting hired, Ladino as assistant coach and her daughter as head coach.

“I have not been able to become head coach anywhere. English has been my biggest barrier,” Ladino says.

When she is not coaching, Ladino works temporary jobs at the Yankee Stadium store selling merchandise, at two Capital One banks cleaning, and at the Hostos Community College’s theater department ushering.

The St. Vincent Ferrer girls feel grateful to have her. “We went to the NY State Championships last year for the first time ever in our school’s history, in any sport. And it was because of coach Olga,” says Rosa Lakouetene, a senior. “I think it’s the way she trains us, we’ve all improved.”

“I feel like besides the training, it’s also her energy that makes you want to come back every season,” says Kyra Winfield, a junior.

Last week, Lakouetene and Winfield finished fourth and fifth place, respectively, at the Catholic High School Athletic Association New York / Brooklyn Sectionals 300-meter race, out of 54 girls. St. Vincent Ferrer also finished fourth out of 19 high schools in the 4x200-meter relay.

Colombia still has at least an hour and a half left of sunlight. Ladino’s life looks different here in more ways than one.

“Look, this is Antonella,” she says, showing a photo of her three-month-old granddaughter. Her first one. She swipes to the next picture, a closeup of Antonella’s tiny newborn hands. Because she’s here, she gets to see Antonella multiple times a week.

“Family is always more important.” She wouldn’t have it any other way.