Eugene, Oregon, calls itself TrackTown U.S.A. It might be called the City of Knights, where several eponymous facilities at the University of Oregon owe their existence to the largesse of Phil Knight, a former Oregon runner who built Nike into a lucrative sports equipment empire.
The residents have a visceral connection to the sport of track and field. Because of it, Eugene has won out over other bidding cities five times to host the U.S. Olympic Track-and-Field Trials. The first four days of the 2012 Trials at Hayward Field concluded on Monday, June 25. It rained every day, sometimes it poured, but poncho-clad fans still filled the exposed seating areas — no umbrellas allowed — and they cheered runners through every lap, and field athletes through every jump and throw.
They cheer loudest whenever an Oregon athlete is competing, and there are plenty of them. One of their favorites is Nick Symmonds, an aggressive half-miler — he reminds some locals of the legendary Steve Prefontaine — who led an Oregon sweep of the 800 meters at the 2008 Olympic Trials. Symmonds has won every national championship since then, and when he stepped to the starting line of Monday night’s 800, there were two other Oregon men among the eight finalists.
While they were warming up, and the crowd was conjuring visions of another sweep, a faint chant was heard: “¡Olé, olé, olé, olé! Gauchos …”
“That was awesome,” said Ryan Martin. “I love my teammates. I had a lot of friends and family out here.” Martin, distinctive in his blue UCSB outfit and his Gaucho beard, set out to break up the Oregon runners and possibly to do something truly remarkable — qualify for the London Olympics. Hardly a year ago, he wasn’t even recognized as a national-class athlete, but two All-America finishes in the NCAA Championships changed that.
Martin proved his mettle Monday night. He succeeded in outkicking Oregon’s Tyler Mulder and Elijah Greer, but he could not catch three seasoned runners who made the Olympic team — Symmonds, who won in 1:43.92, his best time on the home track; four-time Trials finalist Khadevis Robinson (1:44.64); and Duane Solomon (1:44.65), a Lompoc native who finished sixth four years ago out of USC.
Martin’s time was 1:44.90, comparable to his best (1:44.77), which he ran in easier conditions at the Big West Championships. He plans to race in Europe this summer and said, “I want to be an Olympian. I’m going to train hard the next four years to do that.”
UCSB had two other graduates finish in the U.S. top eight over the weekend — Amy Haapanen, fourth in the women’s hammer throw, and Stephanie Rothstein, eighth in the women’s 10,000 meters. Rothstein, too, pounded away late in the 25-lap race, pulling out of 15th place. Another Gaucho hopeful, Barbara Nwaba, will compete Friday and Saturday, June 29-30, in the heptathlon.
Oregon’s faithful had plenty of reason to sing hosannas, especially when Ashton Eaton, a native of Bend and three-time NCAA champion as an Oregon Duck, set his mind-boggling world record of 9,039 points in the decathlon, becoming the 12th American to lay claim to the title of “The World’s Greatest Athlete.” Think that’s overstating it? Let’s see LeBron James run 100 meters in 10.2 seconds, long jump 27 feet, pole vault over 17 feet, throw a javelin almost 200 feet, and finish with the equivalent of a 4:32 mile.
Eaton is so revered by the fans that when he holds his arms up to indicate that he does not want them to do their customary clapping before he attempts a jump, total silence envelopes the stadium.
Trey Hardee, the runner-up in the decathlon, said the drenching rains made Eaton’s performance all the more amazing. “When it’s written in the books,” Hardee said, “put in parentheses, asterisks, everything you can, to show how crummy the conditions were.”
Eaton is coached by Harry Marra, who came to Santa Barbara to train for the decathlon almost 30 years ago. He couldn’t break 7,000 points, so he took up coaching. UCSB’s late Sam Adams was his role model. Marra brought Eaton to the Sam Adams Invite at Westmont College in April for his first outdoor competition of the year. Eaton blasted the 400 in 45.68 seconds. That was the time 1968 Olympic champion Bill Toomey ran in Mexico City, still the fastest ever recorded in a decathlon.
Toomey and five other Olympic decathlon champions — Milt Campbell (1956), Rafer Johnson (1960), Bruce Jenner (1976), and Dan O’Brien (1996) — made a circuit of the track Friday to the plaudits of the crowd. “It was the biggest reception I’ve had since the parade in Santa Barbara,” Toomey said. He was an English teacher at La Colina Junior High when he won his gold medal, and the city honored him with a parade on State Street.
Toomey now lives in northern California and teaches a course at UC Davis titled The History of the Olympics. Always quotable, he described the decathlon as “an arduous adventure into yourself. … You find out who you are.” Eaton echoed that sentiment. “It’s like living your entire life in two days … the ups and downs, good and bad, the comebacks,” the new world record holder said. “Everybody loves life. That’s why we love the decathlon.”
Eaton played football at Mountain View High in Bend. One of his coaches was Paul Vallerga, who was a standout wide receiver and a high jumper at UCSB, graduating in 1968. “I knew Ashton was a good athlete when he long jumped 24 feet in high school, but I never imagined he would be this great,” said Vallerga, who came to Eugene to follow the decathlon.
HAMMER TIME: A day before the show started in Eugene, the trials in the hammer throw took place 100 miles away at the campus of the Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton. Scattered around the beautifully landscaped grounds and well-groomed athletic fields were buildings named after such Swoosh-wearing celebrities as Michael Jordan, Mia Hamm, Nolan Ryan, Jerry Rice, Bo Jackson, Alberto Salazar, and Lance Armstrong.
Ronaldo Field — named after the Brazilian soccer star — was the site of the hammer event. Access to the field was gained through the lobby of the Tiger Woods Conference Center. The throwers “teed off” in a ring surrounded by a sturdy cage a couple of stories high. If they failed to release the hammer so it would land in the “fairway” — a 40-degree sector — the cage would prevent the 16-pound ball-and-chain from flying into the crowd of spectators with considerably more lethality than a golf ball. Many of the throws did go astray — mimicking Tiger Woods’s shots in the last round of the U.S. Open — and the metal-on-metal collisions sounded like car wrecks. The better throws soared high up against a sun-bleached sky and made big divots on their landing.
Keeping her head together in the chaos of the competition was Haapanen, who was last seen in Santa Barbara throwing things around at the UCSB track — shots, discuses and javelins, as well as hammers — and setting a mess of Gaucho records. She graduated in 2007, returned to her hometown of Manteca, California, and began to practice her hammer throwing with serious intent. Her ongoing efforts reached a milestone when she set a new personal best of 2318, placing her fourth — one place and three feet short of London.
Haapanen vowed to keep at it. “The hammer takes a lot of patience and perseverance,” she said. “I couldn’t ask for more than to do my best in the biggest meet of the past four years.”
Colin Dunbar, a former league champion shot putter at Santa Barbara High and versatile weight man at Long Beach State, finished 12th in the men’s hammer with a mark of 222’7″. In another weighty event, Carpinteria’s Noah Bryant went out at 59’11 ¾” for 17th place in shot put qualifying.