As you drive into Eugene, it is clear why this place is known as Track Town, USA. Billboards are up throughout town with images of the United States’ premier track athletes. But it’s not just on these signs you’re able to see greatness. With the Olympic Trials in town, these incredible athletes are around en masse.
As I stepped onto the free shuttle bus in the Autzen Stadium parking lot on a drizzly Tuesday afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice the young lady in bright pink Nikes sitting on the bus. I noticed she was wearing a USATF lanyard, indicating she was likely an athlete herself. Sure enough, as the women jogged out to the track for the first heat of preliminaries in the 5,000 meters, there she was.
Brie Felnagle went to high school in Tacoma, Wash., and ran collegiately at the University of North Carolina. Under most circumstances, I would have no rooting interest in the preliminaries of the women’s 5,000. I especially wouldn’t have reason to root for a Tar Heel.
But the simplest of things – riding on the same shuttle – led to a slight connection and reason for me to cheer her on.
That’s the magic of Track Town — an incredible bond between the athletes and everyday people. It’s why Nick Symmonds moved to the Eugene area. Since he’s lived here, he’s become a fan favorite. That fanaticism grew on Monday, when Symmonds won the 800 meters in 1:43.92. Symmonds also won the 800 at the 2008 Olympic Trials in Eugene. “This crowd doesn’t want to see me just make the team – they want to see me win. It allows me to race with a little more aggression. I know I need to be on the leader’s shoulder with at least 100 to go to have a chance to do that. I know as I’m picking people off that as soon as I get up onto that leader’s shoulder, they’re gonna rise to their feet and they’re gonna go crazy. That’s the Track Town community. It’s just such an advantage,” Symmonds said.
It played out exactly as Symmonds said it would in the evening’s final event Monday. Sitting in fifth place at the bell, Symmonds started moving up. By the 200-meter mark, he had caught the leader and was zipping past him.
But the track at Hayward wasn’t the only place fans got to see Symmonds run this week. The casual runners in the community – of which there are many – got to see him jogging.
“I was out for a 20-minute jog on Pre’s Trail yesterday. I literally didn’t pass a single person who didn’t wish me luck or say congratulations. Or people just come up and start running with you. This is Track Town, USA,” Symmonds said.
It’s clear the fans appreciate seeing such incredible outings on the track and in the field. And judging from the post-race interviews with the athletes, that feeling is reciprocated. Nearly every single athlete acknowledged the tremendous crowd at Hayward Field and the honor to run at such a historic facility. They then show that appreciation by going onto the festival stage next door to the track and interacting with fans, posing for pictures and signing autographs.
On the shuttle back to Autzen after the meet, a couple of youngsters in Wesleyan cross country sweatshirts were comparing their cell phone pics of men’s and women’s 800-meter runners-up Geena Gall and Khadevis Robinson. They were clearly overjoyed with the chance to interact with their running heroes.
That childlike wonder was evident elsewhere as well.
As I was walking out of the festival, I spied Sam Crouser posing like an excited kid next to a banner reading “The toughest team to make.”
Crouser, the 20-year-old Oregon Duck, had just finished second in the United States in the javelin. He threw 265 feet, 1 inch — a new lifetime best. He was short of the Olympic A standard, so Crouser won’t go to London despite placing in the top three. But at 20, he has a silver medal from the U.S. Olympic Trials.
You wouldn’t know it from watching him walk out of the stadium. Instead he looked like any other 6-5 college student as his mom, dad and sister all walked down the street together. Sure, they talked about his performance, but they did so the way father and son would talk about any high school competition. Sister Haley, who just finished her junior year of high school, didn’t seem the least bit nervous that she’ll be throwing the javelin against the best in the U.S. only a couple days from now.
Instead they just strolled down the street and chatted amongst themselves, a track family content to be surrounded by Track Town, USA.