Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Remembering Geoff Hollister...

"May you have air in your lungs, life in your legs, have the wind at your back, and wings on your feet--I am honored and humbled."

Track and field lost one of its biggest friends Monday morning with the passing of Geoff Hollister after a years-long battle with colorectal cancer, just days after celebrating his 66th birthday Friday.

Hollister was one of Nike's original employees, hired by Phil Knight to sell Tiger shoes for Blue Ribbon Sports out of his car on commission in the mid-1960s.

When Blue Ribbon Sports lost the US distribution rights to Tiger in the early 1970s, Hollister became one of the faces of the company eventually known as Nike, getting the word out, along with University of Oregon graduate Steve Prefontaine about the new brand of running shoes at what seemed to be every high school track and cross country meet in the state of Oregon.

He lived in Sequim with his wife, Wendy, who continues to work at Nike. He has two children from a previous marriage--a son Tracy, who ran at Oregon, and a daughter, Kaili.

For those of us in the sport in the 1970s and 80s fortunate enough to be around Geoff and some of the other Nike sponsored athletes, coach consultants, and employees, Geoff was the go-to guy--he WAS Nike track and field.

Of the many dealings I had with Geoff during his time with Nike, two stand out--a letter I wrote to him during my senior year at Franklin High School asking how I could obtain a pair of green and black Nike Vainqueur spikes that I saw at the 1976 Olympic Trials (the shoe wasn't available for retail until spring 1977, and the green & black color combination was a special make up color only for Olympic Trials competitors); and, introducing high jumper Rick Noji and his parents to Geoff at the 1984 US Olympic Marathon Trials post-race dinner and party.

Unfortunately, he wrote that I couldn't get a pair of those Franklin Quaker green and black Nike Vainqueurs since they were only for their sponsored athletes, but he encouraged me to keep in touch with him and his associates.

During my less than stellar career as a walk-on distance runner at the University of Washington, his staff occasionally sent me some training and racing shoes, and through a colleague of his, ended up as part of Nike's wear testing pool, testing and evaluating prototypes.

For Geoff and the Nike track and field staff, May 12, 1984 was a watershed moment, as they helped sponsor the Olympia organizing committee's staging of the first Olympic Marathon Trials for women, a battle they helped fight for publicly.

Nike's efforts were rewarded when Athletics West runner Joan Benoit, who three weeks earlier, underwent arthroscopic knee surgery, won the Trials, and placed herself on the team, winning the gold medal in Los Angeles later that summer.

While Benoit was cruising to victory, a 5-8 high jumper by the name of Rick Noji made history at Husky Stadium as the 16-year old broke the all-time Washington state prep record in the high jump, leaping 7-4 1/2 (2.25m) and qualifying to compete in the following month's Olympic Trials in Los Angeles.

Why was this a big deal? A month earlier, Geoff and his staff added Rick to Nike's equipment list after he jumped 7 feet in a dual meet, and saw the articles I sent him on Noji written by both Seattle newspapers.

In the pre-cell phone days, we found out about Rick's jump by watching the 5:00 news. I found a pay phone in Olympia and somehow talked Rick and his parents to drive down from Seattle to meet the Nike staff at the party.

After Geoff had a chance to finally meet the kid that his staff had sent shoes to, I recall several of his staff telling me afterwards how excited he was to talk to Rick.

Another Washington prep athlete who was influenced by Hollister was Brad Barquist, a 1996 Olympian in the 10000. The Interlake HS alum was supported by Nike when he won state titles on the track, and during his career as a professional runner.

Barquist said, "When I think of Geoff, I think of grass roots. I think of stories that never took place in board rooms or first class seats. Geoff’s stories took place on dirt trails, on tracks, in friend’s homes, on a sailboat or on a road trip. When I think of Geoff I think of staying true to your beliefs. I think of caring about people. When I think of Geoff I think of someone who loved running, and who was passionate about promoting running to young people, and the young at heart. Geoff was a good friend and I will miss him greatly."

As Nike moved him into several different roles within the company, I saw him less and less, but I always knew that if I were in Eugene for the Prefontaine Classic, there was a better than even chance I'd run into him.

I received an email from Gonzaga coach Pat Tyson, who was a long time friend of Hollister, recalling his life.

Tyson wrote, "It is tough stuff that you lose someone who cared more about others than himself. He will be missed but his legacy for eternity is in place. Like (Oregon coach Bill) Bowerman and Like Prefontaine, Hollister’s spirit will carry on as coaches and athletes from the present generation pass on Geoff’s message of excellence in all we do."

"Geoff loved 'grass roots running'!  He was an artist that took risks and certainly “thought outside of the box” in his shoe designs, color schemes, connecting with youth running and in particular the native American group “Wings of America”.  He was a creator and inspired new grass roots thinkers like young  Nike employees John Truax and Josh Rowe who would create “Border Clash” and “Nike Team Nationals” which have exploded the youth running movement. "

Hollister was the architect of many of the promotional touches that track and field athletes, whether they are affiliated with Nike or another company, take for granted at big meets, such as a quiet place to hang out away from the event, enjoy snacks or a prepared meal, get a massage, try new gear, or just plain socialize.

Some of his designs live on in the Nike Sportswear line, most notably the "Windrunner" jacket, and the "Sunburst" design, where eight swooshes were combined to create a sunburst.

Geoff put his thoughts on life best in the final paragraphs of his autobiography "Out of Nowhere":

“It’s about doing your best, and doing the right thing. It’s about recovering from your mistakes and not giving up. It’s about the baton pass to a new generation. It’s about the realization that you cannot go it alone. It takes a team.”

"In the end, you are somewhere in the middle, part of a never-ending process. The future will never remember what was in your bank account or what kind of a car you drove. The future will remember that wild ride of life where you believed in others and left a gift behind for someone else to dream the impossible. That gift was your own life. It does not matter whether it was long or short. What did you leave behind?"

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