Thursday, July 10, 2008

10 Days in the Life of an Olympic Trials Volunteer (and born-again track junkie)

Eugene 2008.

Wanted to see this town since age 10 while reading about a May 1975 car crash in my local NJ newspaper (Prefontaine). I remember trying a new brand of shoe and thinking I was running on pillows. Tried to understand what kind of genius made these things, and much later learned of two magicians named Bowerman and Knight.

As a fanatic track fan growing up, I memorized Daley’s “The History of the Olympic Games” by the time I was in middle school. And thanks to the miracle of Amazon re-sellers, the book now resides on my shelf.  I must have been the only kid in Jersey whose childhood hero was Harrison Dillard, a hurdler from Cleveland who won two gold medals in 1948 (and another two in a subsequent Games).

When I moved west in 2007, I took a few tentative steps back to life as a runner. No small feat, following two back surgeries and a couple of decades off. After that first half mile of bliss, everything hurt except my back. I’m all in.

Then I saw an ad calling for volunteers to help at the 2008 Trials. Are you kidding me?

Attended an orientation 6 weeks before the Trials began. As thanks for our commitment, we were given one day’s admittance to the Nike Employee Store in Beaverton. Now that’s what I call your fringe benefit. Next time, maybe they should restrict the visits a bit because I began hyperventilating halfway through.  So much to buy, so little time.

After the orientation, I walked eastward toward the birthplace of Oregon track and field. Didn’t stop, no need to ask directions, I just knew where to go.

And the clouds parted, and the angels sang.

Hayward Field on the UO campus

Now, I’m standing at the northeast gate of a vacant and stunning Hayward Field. Wow.

I made it, after 30 years. I’m here.

Day 1: June 27th.
Volunteer assignment: Gerlinger Hall
A friend graciously let me stay in his house while he and his wife were overseas; this generosity allowed me a berthing not 4 miles from Hayward. Imagining major traffic congestion, bicycle commuting seemed to make sense. Since my wife and daughter were staying behind in Central Oregon, I could eat, drink, and breathe the Trials around the clock if I desired. And, oh, did I.

Leaving the Eugene house at 2pm, I rode to Autzen Stadium for credential pickup, then over to the volunteer check-in at Hayward and the adjacent Festival. This was the area behind the west grandstands where the public could watch events for free on two JumboTrons. The Trials organizers had their own flair for history; since the last Olympic roster selected from Eugene was in the boycott year of 1980. All team members were invited back for some well-deserved recognition.

There’s Steve Scott, national record holder for two and a half decades in the mile. The man ran under 4 minutes in a whopping 136 races, but his most significant achievement was off the track. He once completed 18 holes of golf in 29 minutes, all on foot. 29 minutes! That’s faster than it takes my daughter to brush her teeth. Let me clarify; he didn’t just run tee to green, he holed out every time. Think about that the next time you’re stacked up like pancakes during a six-hour round.

I spoke with Barton Williams, a 400IM hurdler on the 1980 team with Edwin Moses. He told me that the State Department actually froze all athletes’ passports immediately preceeding the 1980 Games. Made me sick.

My first volunteer assignment was the "Gerlinger Turnaround,” a U-turn driveway at Gerlinger Hall. With the local streets off-limits to normal traffic, this drive was to be used only by city buses ferrying spectators. As I introduced myself to the 15-year-old kid on duty, I noticed that his chair was sitting in direct 90-degree sunlight on the right side of the driveway. Being a rather soft 43 years, I gently asked if I could move the chair under the large shade tree on the opposite side. “Wow, I didn’t think of that,” said the kid. I suppose that with age comes wisdom.  

The highlight of my day was the two oblivious women who walked by, looked at my logo-laden shirt, saw the crowds, and asked, “Is today some kind of special occasion?” No, not really. Just the re-emergence of Track Town USA, but other than that, nothing unusual.

The last event of the evening was the women’s 10,000. Flanagan and Goucher ran away with the first two places. Meanwhile, Amy Begley-Yoder in 3rd looked at the clock with a lap to go and needed to close with 70 to surpass the Olympic standard and make the team. The Hayward crowd rose and brought her home with a second and a half to spare. Her reward is a very long flight to Beijing, and her joyous dance with Kara Goucher kept the stadium rocking long into the night.

Day 2: June 28th
Volunteer assignment: Valley River Inn
First stop: Eugene Running Company and a Wes Santee sighting. Under different circumstances, he would have been first miler under 4 minutes. The man was as strong as a horse and would’ve been a favorite at the 1956 Olympics. He joined the Marines and later had a successful career in industry. Semper Fi, sir.

Back on the bike, down Coburg to the Willamette River Trail, then on to the VRI. My assignment for the day was to direct VIPs from the lobby to the shuttle bus pickup a hundred yards away. Again in direct sunlight, with 90+ heat predicted. Oy vey.

Standing in the lobby, I hear some yell, “Hi Payton!” I turn around, and see a short man who must have been 80 or more. Payton Jordan, longtime Stanford track leader, coach of the ridiculously successful 1968 Olympic team. Next I hear, “Hey, Ollan.”  Could only be Ollan Cassell, 4x400 relay gold medalist from the 1964 Tokyo Games. Then I turn around and see Carl Lewis asking for a Wall Street Journal.

Off shift in time to travel back to the Festival and see the women’s 100m final on the big screen. Somehow I missed Tyson Gay’s near-fatal mishap in the 100 prelims. He slowed well before the line, then realized his mistake and had to spool it back up in a hurry. He probably mistook the curved 2000m starting line for the sprint finish, which means he was about 20 yards short when he shut it down. Too close for comfort; he almost made Usain Bolt’s job in China a lot easier.

Day 3: June 29th
Volunteer assignment: none
Where else to be on a sunny Sunday morning except on the Amazon Trail? My 4-decades-old knees gave me an ultimatum; find the soft paths or else. Park the car, stretch, then lean forward into something less than a sprint; after all this time as a pedestrian, I’ve traded my stopwatch for a calendar.  Caught up with a guy from Ann Arbor, he’s struggling as much as me, thank goodness. He stops a gazelle flying in the opposite direction; it’s Shadrack from the UO track team. Long strides, lean, not breaking a sweat. I already hate him.

Then it’s prime time at Hayward. Halfway up the west grandstands, halfway down the finishing straight. Bumper to bumper, elbow to elbow, and the joint was jumping. The 400IM hurdlers take me back to Barcelona in ’92, when Kevin Young destroys the WR even though he clobbered the last hurdle and then raised in arm in triumph 15 meters short of the line. Tyson makes up for yesterday’s flub with an American record in the semi, then comes back with a vengeance in the final. My brain registered 9.88, pretty good time. Wait a sec, why all the noise? Whoa, that’s a 9.68!!! Fastest anywhere, anytime, ever. No man has gone faster except with gasoline or a rear sprocket. But right in front of me is a small digital screen reading “+4.1.”  As in meters per second, well above the 2.0 mps limit. Wind-aided, record disallowed. Gilda Radner’s character Emily Litella would say, “Never mind.”   

And a couple of guys nearly as old as me made the pole vault squad. Warms the heart, that does.

Day 4: June 30th
Volunteer assignment: Valley River Inn
Back at the VRI, this time I'm teamed up with Paul, a city engineer. He has lots of insider information, and the time goes faster with good conversation. After my shift, I hustle over to the Festival to see the 800m final. The race has three local guys, including some UO sophomore just hoping to be competitive. If luck holds, one of the three will make it, most likely Nick Symmonds. But he’ll need every inch of the track. Halfway down the backstretch, the Oregon guys are boxed and far back. I start motioning with both arms spread wide and pushing upward, “Now, Now, Now.”

Symmonds finds a hole and does a linebacker move to get through, hammering home with a defiant roar. The college kid Wheating seems mired in mud with second place up for grabs. Then the crowd goes into overdrive, and so does Wheating as he takes second with wide eyes. This is nuts; he’s two years out of high school, and now he’s going to the Olympics? And he probably has until the 2016 Games before he hits his peak. Wow.

Meanwhile, 3rd place is anyone’s guess, and it’s a crapshoot with 10 meters to go. At the tape, it’s a three-man desperation dive. Christian Smith takes it, Oregon runners sweep, and Hayward Field adds yet another definition to the word “loud.” I walk away, shaking my head.

Digression: NY basketball fans used to call Earl Monroe “Black Jesus” for the miracles he pulled on the court. Now here’s Christian Smith, he of the flowing locks, ponytail, beard, and his own miracle. I hereby dub him “Track Jesus.”

July 1st-2nd: no events
Volunteer assignment: none
These are rest days for the athletes, and I could use a few myself. Since the events ended at 10pm last night, I decide to stay in Eugene an extra night before driving home the next morning. Better to get a good night’s sleep and read the local morning paper than drive through Cascade Mountains alone at midnight and become a traffic statistic.

Called another friend from Central Oregon a few days ago; he was a steeplechaser at Cal back in the late 50’s right after Don Bowden, our first American miler under 4 minutes. I had noticed in the paper that Don was in town making appearances, so I called Skip and let him know. Turns out that Don gave the medals for the 800 on Monday night, and Skip collared him afterward where they had far too little time to catch up. Made me feel good.

Someone mentioned that that the Mackenzie Pass was open for traffic. This is the most direct path between Eugene and my Central Oregon residence. Great, I’ll get home sooner. On the way, though, I call the traffic hotline to confirm. No dice, there’s feet of icepack still remaining. It’s July, and roads aren’t clear. I should hire a Sherpa.

Day 5: July 3rd
Volunteer assignment: South Eugene HS Practice Track
At the SEHS track, the athletes can work out in solitude. The gate guards were there to keep non-credentialed people out. This includes family members without the proper clearance: one athlete’s father was not happy when he was turned away. Sorry, pal.

I helped out wherever help was needed; getting water and drinks for the runners, handing out towels, picking up garbage, whatever. Stopped and gawked as 2-time Olympic medalist Terrence Trammell did a workout over the hurdles. Now, I’ve seen many track events on TV and video, but seeing a world-class hurdler at high speed and up close is something entirely different. Speed, power, agility, violence, all channeled into 12 seconds of barely controlled explosion. Wow. The paradox was that, for 99% of the time I watched, he was moving slower than I was. But that other 1% was other-worldly.

The 400 finals were good ones. Regardless of who wins the open quarter, it’s always great to watch the US run the long relay and just destroy all comers, especially in 1996 when a fairly inexperienced men's team ran its collective guts out to beat the Brits for gold. Still got that one on tape, along with the women’s race that same year when Kim Graham made up a huge deficit on the third leg and nearly gave Carol Lewis a stroke in the announcer’s booth.

Day 6: July 4th
Volunteer assignment: Bicycle Valet
My 2pm work assignment was a novel one; complimentary parking and storage of bikes. This was a hoot: people on all sorts of bikes would pull up to the corral, hanging their helmets on the handlebars along with anything else they didn’t want to carry.

Once the shift was done, I ran over to the security checkpoint. Being a volunteer has its advantages; my badge lets me jump ahead of everyone. Wait a minute, now a guy in dark clothes gets waved in front of me. I was about to say something, then realized that the man in black is Phil Knight, who started a little company called Nike. Uh, okay, you can go ahead of me, Phil. 

Sidebar: in the Eugene Nike Store, there’s a wall of memorabilia inside the entrance. Of particular interest is the letter defining the partnership agreement between Knight and Bowerman, dated 26 April 1966. My first birthday. Chills.

Tonight’s main events included the men’s 1500 semi-finals: I thought that Gabe Jennings ran like a very powerful truck. He’s all business, no time to waste. In the women’s 5000, Kara Goucher runs a “53” on the last lap, so said a newspaper other than the Register-Guard. 53? That’s a ridiculous typo; the track-savvy R-G would never have made that mistake. UO’s Galen Rupp is second in the 10,000, and Hayward roared again.

Day 7: July 5th
Volunteer assignment: Hilton downtown
At the Hilton lobby desk, I run into Christian Smith (heroic 3rd in 800 meter final) and congratulate him on making the Olympic Diving Team. He shows me road rash worthy of a professional cyclist.

Then I turn around and see Bernard Lagat, one of our best middle distance runners. He trains in Tucson, at the same track as the 12-yer-old son of a high school friend of mine. Sue had sent me a picture of Lagat with her son (below left), and I had brought the picture with me to Eugene.

Now, I hurriedly grab the photo and shove it in Lagat’s face (politely, of course). His eyes grow wide: “I know this boy from Tucson!”  Got a picture of Bernard holding the picture of himself and young Brandon, who I now call LP (Lil’ Pre).

Post-script: next year, I came across a couple other guys who evidently are decent runners.
AW, Mr. Rupp, and that pesky picture
Talking with fellow-volunteer Paul in the Hilton lobby, I point out Al Joyner: brother of Jackie, husband of Flo-Jo, and 1984 Triple Jump winner in LA. Paul says, “You mean the guy who just left his half-empty Dasani bottle on the lobby table?”  Sigh.

Later that night, I got inspired and sent my first ever text/picture msg via cell phone to Tucson; it’s the picture of Lagat holding the picture of himself and LP. Sue calls me shortly after, absolutely ecstatic. Meanwhile, her son is already making the picture into wallpaper. Mission accomplished.

Had a late-night thought about the 800. Alan Webb pulled out of the race, giving his slot to Christian Smith. Kinda similar to the 1991 PGA Tournament where Nick Price cancelled, allowing some guy named John Daly to tee off and ultimately win. The difference is that Christian probably doesn’t gorge on M&M’s during his event, as Daly does during his.

Day 8: July 6th
Volunteer assignment: Hilton downtown
Last day of this great event. Leave the gifts for my hosts, including a case of Deschutes Brewery’s best. My wife works there, and she knows of good beer: her sorority at the University of Washington was renowned for outdrinking even the frat boys.

Drove to the Hilton for my final shift. Abdihraman, a transplanted Somalian and distance runner, came through the lobby waving to Lauryn Williams and Wallace Spearmon, who were warming up outside one of the ballrooms. If you’ve ever seen Abdi, you know he’ll never need Weight Watchers: the man is thin. Anyhow, Lauryn looked at Abdi’s toothpick calves and laughed, “my ARMS are bigger!”

During a break, I glance at the TV in the lounge. Nadal took the first two sets from Federer at Wimbledon, and I thought it was over. 2 hours later, Federer forced a fifth set. This is Borg/McEnroe all over again. Nadal takes the last set in OT. Unreal.

Hyleas Fountain, heptathlon winner, walks by; she should be a model. Later, Lolo Jones wins the 100 hurdles, same reaction. Where were these women when I was young and impressionable? Then I remember Mary Decker. Belay my last.

Speaking of which; I read somewhere that Ms. Decker-Slaney grew up in a small NJ town, while I had assumed she was from out west somewhere. Then I find out that her hometown is about 15 miles from my birthplace at Hunterdon Medical Center in Flemington, NJ. HMC is the only major hospital in that area. Same location, seven years apart?  I later see her and ask if by chance she was born there. Yep.

Over to the track once my shift at the Hilton was over. Shawn Crawford goes back to the Olympics in the 200 where he won gold at the Athens Games. When he did the 100 semis in Greece, he and eventual winner Justin Gatlin ran in adjacent lanes. They blew the field away by the 60m mark, prompting Shawn to turn toward Justin and start gesticulating and talking smack, in the middle of the race. Hilarious! He looks huge on the tube, but in person he didn’t seem any bigger than me, just more densely packed. I guess the camera does add 10 pounds.

John Carlos presented the medals for the 200. He was 3rd in the 1968 Mexico City 200; he and winner Tommie Smith did the Black Power salute on the stand and got kicked out of the Olympics. I wondered if he’d acknowledge the Eugene crowd with a raised fist a la ‘68, but he simply waved. No matter, he made his point  40 years ago.

If you ever get the chance, find the six-part BBC documentary “Black Power Salute” on the Internet. Those men (Smith, Carlos, Lee Evans, Ralph Boston, Harry Edwards) tell the story with grace, pride, defiance, conviction. And they were right. Avery Brundage, the irascible president of the International Olympic Committee, said that the Olympics are not a place for political demonstrations or discrimination. Meanwhile, Brundage was a member of a Santa Barbara country club whose membership charter stated, “no Jews or Negroes need apply.”  And he was instrumental in awarding the 1936 Games to Hitler. Ludicrous.

The last words on that documentary give me chills. Ralph Boston (gold, silver, bronze winner at three Olympics) says, “Those guys (Smith and Carlos) did more to change this country than we could ever realize.” Pause. “And I’m glad they are my friends.”

I hope someday I’m as principled as those gentlemen were, and are.

An American Record in the women’s pole vault courtesy of Jenn Stuczynski. I was also here during the Prefontaine Classic for Brad Walker’s AR. Jenn and Brad should hire me as a good luck charm. Yeah, me and about 10,000 others who saw both.

Now the track meet is over.

Hustle out of the stadium, unlock the bike, fly down Agate, and almost get wiped out by a big pickup that didn't want to share asphalt. C'mon guy, I'd expect that in Jersey, but this is Eugene. Throw the bike in the car, bow toward Spencer’s Butte, and onto 30th and Route 58 Eastbound.

On the way home, I pass through the small, SMALL town of Dexter. Not much there except the Dexter Lake Club, scene of Animal House’s infamous road trip with our introduction to Otis Day and the Knights. “Otis, MY MAN!!!”

According to Kenny Moore, UO graduate and twice an Olympian, his coach Bill Bowerman would tell the team to finish their workouts “exhilarated, not exhausted.”

Right now, I’m both.

Only one question: How long until Eugene 2012?

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