Monday, December 09, 2013

Photo ID: Steve Plasencia

Steve Plasencia being congratulated by
John Swain after winning the Swain
Invitational in Duluth.  Photo from the collection
of Gene Niemi
"I won Swain twice," says current University of Minnesota director of track and field/cross country Steve Plasencia.  "(After one of the wins) I was in Faces in the Crowd in Sports Illustrated."  A nice honor for a Cooper HS kid, but as he would later learn, he was not only one inspired.

Don Clary, who grew up in Alaska, but would later train with Plasencia when both were running post collegiately in Eugene, Oregon, saw the photo, checked out what sort of times "Plas," as his friends call him, was running and thought: "I wonder if I could do that too." Not run the times, but get his picture in SI.

Plasencia "grew up in a neighborhood where we were out the door at 8 AM with the whole day centered around outdoor play," Plasencia said.  "Just out being physical.  I never knew I was a runner."  His introduction to running was through recess "races" with another kid during fifth and sixth grade.  They would run back and forth to the fence on the playground getting ready for the 600 yard dash that was part of the President's Physical Fitness program that was at all the schools at that time.

They spent the whole recess doing the fence racing, but it wasn't the only sport Plasencia played.  All the "ball sports," as well hockey made up the PE "curriculum" for the kids in his neighborhood, and Plasencia  had another sport, playing on the hockey team in high school.  "As you can tell from the picture, I was kind of a long-haired punk," says Plasencia of his early years in high school.  "I was a good kid and a good student, but I had another side.  I had to cultivate the party boy out."

By his junior year, Plasencia had finished second in the state in cross country and was aiming to move up a notch his senior year, but an Achilles injury cut short his senior XC season and prompted Plasencia to devote all his energy toward track.  He stopped playing hockey and won the MSHSL Track Championship in the mile in 4:12.  "I loved sports and I loved to compete," said Plasencia.  "When I was a kid, when I lost I cried. I still take my losses hard, whether it's in recruiting or on the field.  I was always trying to figure out what I had to do to be the best I could be."

Don Hurley, a teammate of Plasencia's at the University of Minnesota, says the thing he noticed about Steve was that he was pushing the envelope, willing to try things that weren't even being considered by others.  For example, when Plasencia was training for the marathon, he felt he needed more volume, more miles, endurance work, but also knew that his body didn't handle that well.  So, he went back to his hockey days and substituted roller blading for running to get in extra "miles," sometimes flying along at sub four minute mile pace.

Earlier when he had to substitute running in the pool to get in "mileage" when he was injured, Plasencia took it one step further by wearing a vest that wasn't filled with air for buoyancy, but with sand, so he had to work harder to keep his head above water during his aqua aerobics.  His coaches, Jim Fischer and Milan Mader in high school, Roy Griak in college, Dick Quax and Rob Lyden post collegiately, were advisers, people he sought for information.  "I coached myself," is how Plasencia describes it, with the help of whoever he could find.

He sought out advice from other Olympic runners: Garry Bjoklund, Frank Shorter. When Shorter came to the Twin Cities to do promotions for Dayton's when they were a sponsor for the Get in Gear 10K, Plasencia followed him around.  "I was so keen to learn, ask him questions," Plasencia remembers, "Finally he said: 'Quit following me around.'"

Now the tables are turned.  People come to him for advice.  Plasencia has to pass on his knowledge to others, so the learning process continues.  Instead of motivating himself, Plasencia has to learn what motivates others.  Instead of training himself, he has to find out what works for others.  "Over time," Plasencia says.  "An athlete finds what's right for them."  And it's his job to assist in that process.

Part of it has nothing to do with race tactics or training protocols.  With only a set number of spots available for each year's NCAA Cross Country Championships, a process has been developed for selecting the teams who will get to compete in the Championships each year.  The first part of that process is simple, the top two teams in each Region get automatic qualifying berths.  Where it gets complicated is selecting the "at large" qualifiers who fill in the remaining spots.

For Division I teams that process involves a point system where teams earn points during a portion of the season by how they perform at meets leading up to the NCAA Regional meets.  Each team selects their schedule in an effort to gain as many points as possible so that if they are in a loaded Region with a lot of top teams, they can be one of the teams that still merits selection to "the Big Dance," to use the promo name given to the NCAA Basketball Championships.

This year the Gopher men came within one point of qualifying for the NCAA Championships.  They had purposely run the Griak Invitational and the Adidas Invitational back-to-back in an attempt because it offered the best opportunity to gain points.  By doing well there they were in a position where if they had tied Oklahoma for fourth place in their Region, they would have been the team that went to the NCAA Finals based on having accumulated more points leading into the Regional Meet.

Minnesota tied with Kansas with 157 points, but was one point back from Oklahoma.  That one point kept the Gophers out of fourth and at home for the NCAA Championships.  So close, but yet so far.  They had executed the first part of the strategy by accumulating the necessary points, but fell a point short of being able to use them.

Now the challenge becomes to avoid that result again.  Sport offers a series of teachable moments with the goal being to use those opportunities to your advantage next time.  Plasencia was able to teach himself how to do it.  Now he has to pass those skills on to his team.

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