Thursday, June 30, 2016

Reflecting on the first US Olympic Track & Field Trials attended...

The 1976 US Olympic Trials marked the debut of
Nike's Vainqueur track spike (photo courtesy Nike)
In just a few hours, I’ll make the drive from Seattle to Eugene to attend my 11th US Olympic Track & Field Trials that begins Friday at Historic Hayward Field (though technically, the Trials start today with the men’s and women’s 20k walks through the streets of Oregon’s state capital city, Salem).

As I finish packing for the 11-day trip, my thoughts race back to the high school kid who traveled alone for the first time in his life to attend the 1976 Olympic Trials on the corner of 15th and Agate in Eugene.

That kid was fascinated by the fact that both grandstands at Hayward Field were almost at full capacity for the meet, in contrast to the biggest meet that kid had attended before, which was the Washington state high school meet at Husky Stadium.

That kid got to see people competing on the track that he'd only read about in Track & Field News, in the day before sites like letsrun, Flotrack & RunnerSpace were invented. Names like Mac Wilkins, Francie Larrieu, Edwin Moses, Craig Virgin, Fred Newhouse, (who was a grad assistant at the University of Washington) and more, became real and not just a black & white photo you saw in the latest issue of the magazine.

That kid truly fell in love with one of the innovations unveiled at those Trials, which were the Vainqueur track spikes, and a running shoe with an ultra-wide flared heel known as the LD-1000 made by an upstart Oregon shoe company called Nike.  That kid also made a point to look up Nike’s track & field promotions office on 11th and Agate run by some guy named Geoff Hollister, who actually wrote back to that kid a month earlier after that kid wrote inquiring about some shoes.

That kid was mesmerized by a custom made pink and black pair of Vainqueurs that one of the Club Northwest runners that he’d seen in Seattle at meets was wearing on the track in the 5000.  That guy from Club Northwest was Don Kardong, who later that summer, finished fourth in the marathon. Kardong would later go on to start up the biggest footrace in the country, a little 12k race in Spokane known as Bloomsday, 

That kid also laced up his Nike Pre Montreal track spikes for an impromptu 10000 meter race at Hayward Field on one of the rest days organized by Jack Pfeifer, a track nut extraordinaire, who lived in Seattle. Among those in that race were two of Washington state’s top distance runners, a guy named Richard McCann from Mt. Rainier HS, and a guy from Port Angeles named Ed Hopfner.

That kid also recalls how accessible the athletes competing at the Trials were, especially considering that most of them were staying in the dorms at the University of Oregon. And yes, the UO opened up the dorms for fans to stay, and that’s where that kid stayed during the Trials. That kid somehow ended up meeting a triple jumper from Los Angeles named James Butts and somehow convinced him to go into the dorm housing the adidas hospitality suites, and get a brand new pair of spikes.

That kid also remembered the first time running on the new wood-chip trails near Autzen Stadium named after the late Steve Prefontaine, and thinking that this was the greatest thing invented for runners.  Hours later, that kid was crying his eyes out trying to wash the pollen out after getting hit with the worst case of hay fever, and running to the drug store for quick relief with a bottle of over-the-counter allergy medication.

Forty years later, the US Olympic Track & Field Trials remains in my opinion, one of the greatest sports spectacles in the world. Over the next ten days, many hopes and dreams will either come true or be crushed. For some veteran competitors, these Trials will be the swan song, as they exit stage left, and begin or resume life as another Joe or Jane in the work force. For the brightest stars, these Trials will be the first of many meets where they’ll be asked to rise above the crowd.

I’ll be happy to see many of the friends from the country and around the world I’ve made over the years as they share their stories from past meets.  I’ll think about some of the people I’ve met on this life-long journey in the sport who are no longer here, especially Geoff Hollister, who became a friend to myself and to many people around the world, and whose passion for the sport touched many.

Most importantly, I’ll think about those people competing inside the 400 meter oval, and what young person they can inspire to do great feats.

By the way…that kid was me.

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