Two Favorite Olympic Moments
If you don’t count watching someone near and dear to me running in the women’s 1500 meter final, then I have two favorite memories from the 2012 Olympic track & field competition. My favorites will reflect the fact that I am American distance runner and coach.
The first happened on a night now being referred to in Great Britain as “Super Saturday.” The Brits are calling it Super Saturday because that was the night the UK won three gold medals in track & field within an hour. While all eyes were on Mo Farah on the final lap of the men’s 10,000 meters and while the majority of the cheering was for Mo, our eyes and cheers were for Galen Rupp. My wife Malinda yelled so loud for Rupp that she made herself hoarse and her voice was never the same the rest of the Games. Rupp stayed in contention the whole race and made a move to get a medal with 200 meters to go. He looked great, striding past runners from Ethiopia to claim the silver medal. It was the first medal in the 10,000 meters for the US men since Billy Mills in 1960.
I was very happy for Rupp. He’s been in the spotlight since his running prowess was first noticed on the soccer field at Central Catholic High School in Portland in 2000. I have a small connection to Rupp because although Rupp’s pretty much been coached by Alberto Salazar since 2000, the head coach at Central Catholic is a friend of mine, David Frank. David was the head coach at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, a rival West Catholic Athletic League (WCAL) school, when I first became the head coach at Sacred Heart Cathedral. At the 2000 US Olympic Trails in Sacramento, David told me he was moving to Portland. One year later, one of his star athletes was Rupp and also one year later, my star athlete, Shannon Rowbury, won her first state championship. It’s funny how small the track & field world can be.
The second memorable moment took place on Tuesday, August 7. It was the final of the men’s 1500 meters. Shannon’s teammate, Leo Manzano was in the race. If you think that all the athletes’ coaches get first class treatment and a front row seat to watch their people compete at the Olympics, think again. Most coaches have to buy their own ticket to get into the Olympic Stadium. Leo’s coach in London, Ryan Ponsonby (Manzano’s main coach is John Cook but Cook often doesn’t travel overseas so in Cook’s absence Ryan is the coach on-site) was sitting two seats over from me in the second level of the stadium in row 69. All the seats have a great view but this was a long way away for the coach of an Olympic finalist to be sitting.
Ryan described the race in an interview with FloTrack. He said that he told Leo to conserve energy early to be ready for a hard and fast last 400 meters. Leo did just that. With 400 meters to go he was towards the back in tenth place but still in striking distance. With 300 to go there was still a sizeable gap between Leo and the first eight runners. As it turned out many of the runners ahead of him had gone too hard too early and would run out of gas the final 100. In an interview after the race Leo said his legs felt like bricks, which explained why he was still a ways back with 200 meters to go. But that’s when things started to change. “Keep going, keep going, keep pushing ,” Leo said he was telling himself. He started moving up. Ryan, after silently focusing on the race for the first 1400 meters, pumped his fists and started screaming as Leo hit the top of the final straightaway. We all could tell what was about to happen. Malinda was screaming herself hoarse again. Leo was going to medal! He passed all but one and ended up in second place to grab the silver medal. It was bedlam in row 69. Ryan gave a thumbs up and we (we being me, Malinda, Shannon’s parents, a few of Shannon’s friends who live in the UK, and Coach Cook’s team doctor Alan King) all started jumping up and down and hugging. It was the first medal in the 1500 meters for the US men since Jim Ryun in 1968.
What a moment! I was particularly proud that I could share in Ryan’s celebration before he rushed down to trackside to greet Leo on his victory lap. I thought back in September of 2011 in Daegu, South Korea. Leo and Shannon had failed to qualify for the 1500 final, both of them being eliminated in the semi-final. It meant they had some unexpected days off with no competition. They would have rather been preparing for their final race but instead we arranged to meet for a Korean lunch. I spend lots of time hanging out with Shannon but this was a new experience to spend the day with Leo. He is a down to earth, genuine, nice person and it was a thrill to just joke around and talk to him. Track & field is a crazy sport. Eleven months ago he was frustrated at his performance at the World Championships. But in London, he might have come in second but as Leo said, it “feels like I got first.”
Two noteworthy Olympic medal performances by American men, ending 52 and 48 year dry spells in their event. Coincidentally, I have a one or two degrees of separation connection with each. No wonder those are my two favorite Olympic memories from London 2012.