Friday, August 08, 2008

On the Road with Chris Lundstrom:
Looking Back on the Olympic Trials

Down the Backstretch is pleased to report that Chris Lundstrom has joined our little organization.

Chris, as you likely know, is a member of Team USA Minnesota and a former Northfield High School and Stanford University standout. Chris (pictured) has already contributed to DtB by covering the second portion of the Olympic Track and Field Trials and getting the scoop behind the improbably fast Run for Oromia races.

Today, we introduce "On the Road," a column Chris will write regularly for DtB. We think Chris' background as an elite runner, high school coach, and long-time witness to the Minnesota running and track scene will make his observations an interesting and entertaining read.

Welcome aboard, Chris!

On the Road
By Chris Lundstrom

About a month has passed since the USA Olympic Track and Field Trials. I did not compete, but rather attended the meet as a spectator and journalist. Having spent the better part of my life deeply involved in running and track & field, I have rarely been a spectator. I have competed more times than I can count, and I have coached a lot of teams at a wide variety of meets.

But this was different. I wasn’t worried about warming up and checking in for my race, or concerned about whether I had given the team the instruction that they needed to perform their best. I had a rare opportunity to just sit back and watch the drama of the sport unfold.

I watched the Trials partially as an objective observer – someone who appreciates the sport for its innate beauty. And indeed the Trials featured an amazing gathering of talents and abilities, from the coordinated power of a perfectly executed triple jump to the sustained drive of the final laps of the 10,000 meters. Add to that the inherent drama built into the Trials. It’s all or nothing. Top 3 go to the Games. Everyone else goes home. Hundreds of athletes from around the country put their lives on hold to train and prepare for this opportunity that comes once every four years. A cold, an inflamed tendon, or an aching muscle can turn a favorite into an also-ran.

At the end of the day, most competitors are forced to accept that their best wasn’t quite good enough. Not this time. Yet they battle on, hurling themselves to the finish line for 8th place, knowing I suppose that the race against themselves must be fought as courageously as the race for the Olympic team. Maybe next time third place will be on the line, and they will need to know how to dig in with everything in their being. Or maybe the athletes simply need the peace of mind that comes with knowing that they gave it everything they had on that day.

So yes, it was a beautiful thing to watch, as I’m sure the Olympic Games will be. But I have to admit that I also watched the meet as a partisan fan. I don’t normally get into sports in the sense that many people do – I haven’t entered an NCAA Final Four pool since I was a kid, and I couldn’t tell you who won the Superbowl since sometime in the late 1980’s.

But at the Olympic Trials, I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat, heart in my throat, pulling for my favorites in race after race. Much of that has to do with the personal ties I have to many of the athletes who were out there performing, I suppose. There were my current Team USA Minnesota teammates, a few former collegiate teammates from Stanford, and many other individuals who I have gotten to know over the years. There was even a young woman who I remember as a very talented high school kid that I worked with in my first coaching job at Sacred Heart Cathedral High School in San Francisco.

That young woman, Shannon Rowbury, won the 1500 meters and is going to Beijing. As her high school assistant coach 8 years ago, I have had little to nothing to do with her success, yet I feel so proud of her and what she has done with her talent. Watching her run at the peak of fitness in perhaps the biggest race of her life was such a thrill. It was a reminder of just how great the highs can be in our sport.

But the lows can be pretty low too. And the one meet qualifying system does not forgive those who do not peak properly, or who simply face too much bad luck too close to the meet. I had aspirations to compete at the Track and Field Trials myself, but several illnesses, a shin injury, a foot injury, and various other life events all conspired to keep me out. So I return to my specialty, the marathon, humbled by the unforgiving oval. Having the experience of two Olympic Trials Marathons under my belt made it easier to stomach sitting in the bleachers.

But for others, track is everything, and the Olympics are what they dream about every day. My Team USA Minnesota teammate Carrie Tollefson became an Olympian in dramatic fashion in 2004. After massive surgeries and two years of struggle, she found that her Beijing dreams were not to be. Despite all of the work, the unerring positive attitude, and the support of her family and friends, it wasn’t meant to be. If the Trials could have been delayed a few weeks, would it have made the difference for her? I don’t know. If there were some other way to choose the team, maybe she would have had enough time.

Many countries have different selection methods. Kenya chooses its Olympic team by selectors – individuals who decide who should go – rather than through a Trials meet. Impress the right people, and a slot in the Olympics is yours. Get on someone’s wrong side, and forget it. Kenya dominates the world running scene, particularly among men. Yet in the biggest of the big meets – the Olympic Games – the podium hosts just a sprinkling of Kenyan runners.

I can’t say with any certainty that it’s because of their selection system, but I can say that the many of the Kenyan runners I know do not feel the same passion about the Olympics that most track & field athletes in the U.S feel. They do not tend to place representing their country at the Olympics at the top of their list of dreams and aspirations, the way most elite athletes do in the U.S.

I think part of the reason for that is that with our system, the athletes make the decision in the most pure manner conceivable. Head-to-head. One shot only. As many hearts as the system has broken, it has fed the dreams of thousands and thousands, the dream of having that perfect day when it counts, and making the trip to the Games ahead of the 21 guys who had faster times than you going into the meet.

Part of the goal of USATF is to send teams that will bring home the most medals. Some argue that exceptions should be made to include athletes who have a better shot at making it to the podium. Does Alan Webb have a better chance to medal than Leonel Manzano? Probably. But if Webb were to be placed on the team at the expense of an athlete who beat him fairly, we would not only be crushing the dreams of that athlete. We’d be crushing the dreams of all the long-shots and underdogs.

Those athletes need to have their dreams fed, because they are the fuel that keeps the competitive fire burning in our sport. These athletes rise to greatness or fail trying, but they do so because they can, not because someone calculates that they have the best odds. Head-to-head competition is what the sport is all about. Whether it’s a high school dual meet, an age-group duel in a road race, or the Olympic finals, it’s all about the testing our limits against others and ourselves.

It’s about seeing where we stack up, and doing the best we can on that particular day.

Photo courtesy of TCM and Competitive Image.


crossn81 said...

Great insights and great addition to the blog. I think the story of Christian Smith is a great example of the beauty of the American Trials System. No selector would have picked him but he dug in and gave 110% to nab the 3rd spot.

Chad said...

Yeah, great addition to DtB. I've always enjoyed Chris's writing and this article is a great example.