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More Robust Funding Can Cultivate Performance

Consider the following: Last year, the USA Olympic Team captured 29 track & field medals at the London Olympics. Recent statistics show that American men and women are increasingly turning to running – and often to racing – in a renewed effort to elevate fitness and life quality. And the running sports of cross country and track & field – to the surprise of many – boast the most U.S. high school participants of any sport. Not since the heady boom days of the 70’s has the sport of running witnessed such elite success while – at the same time – evidenced such broad-based participation.

So the fortunes of running in America are all good, right? Well, not exactly. For distance running in America, a thorny challenge remains: the further enhancement of the country’s framework for elite athlete development. Few would dispute the notion that the proper development of long-distance runners requires – among other things – a process of maturation that recognizes that most elite athletes reach their performance peak in their later 20’s or even early- to mid-30’s. Remember: Carlos Lopes won the 1984 Olympic marathon at age 37, only to establish a new marathon world record the following year – at age 38. In our country, we have a solid – albeit not spectacular – framework for broad-based participation offered primarily by structured high school and college athletic programs. But once a budding distance runner’s interest is piqued, talent is revealed, and potential is cultivated in our scholastically-based sports system, the athlete graduates and the American “framework” for development comes to an abrupt end. Departure from college often leaves the promising distance runner, perhaps at age 22 and short of reaching full athletic potential, to go it alone – normally unaided by the type of cultural support available to similar foreign-born distance-running hopefuls.

In the first installment of this series, we reviewed the halting – and often messy – process by which the sport staggered away from the Athenian ideal of pure amateurism, and navigated through a shadowy period of covert performance payments to athletes – “shamateurism” – to the egalitarian and transparent environment of open racing which prevails today.

Without question, open racing has been an important and terrific step forward for running. But this advancement has not completely addressed the issue of elite athlete development. While compensated racing has created sustainable opportunities for selected athletes, those opportunities are narrow indeed.

The current prevailing environment works well for the young athletes who have displayed truly exceptional talent – runners like Galen Rupp, Allyson Felix, and – coming soon! – Mary Cain. But there are a vast number of athletes – those who have exhibited distinct promise, albeit not exemplary performance – who get left behind in such a system.

A good example of a promising talent who easily could have been overlooked or lost in the imperfect environment of open racing would be 800 meter specialist Erik Sowinski. A solid 1:54 800 runner in high school, Sowinski displayed encouraging progression at the University of Iowa under Joey Woody’s tutelage and – as a senior – captured the runner-up position in the 2012 NCAA final with PR time of 1:45.90. Out of college and amazingly not quite stellar enough to secure the economic stability of a shoe contract, Sowinski soldiered onward – maintaining focused training while working 30 hours a week in a family-owned shoe store in Iowa City. Less dogged athletes – driven by discouragement, economic necessity, or both – would have walked away from the sport. Even after the young Iowa star set the American record in the indoor 600 last winter and followed it up by capturing the USATF indoor 800 title, his plight remained unchanged. It wasn’t until the 2013 outdoor season was well underway – nearly a year after his college graduation – that Sowinski was able to secure a Nike contract that will provide him with the type of foundational support that should allow this obvious talent to bring undistracted focus to even further development of his considerable middle-distance skills.

There are many Erik Sowinskis out there – although we’ll never know how many have already fallen through the cracks. It is hard enough to claw one’s way to the pinnacle of this sport where an athlete’s tenure of superlative performance is fleeting and the margin for error is infinitesimal. But to do so without a viable cultural support system is approaching the nearly impossible. If the objective is to create an environment that would allow – indeed encourage – promising athletes to develop to their maximum potential, then we must create a different sports culture that would ensure that those with the requisite athletic talent and the unshakable mindset required to excel in running are not resigned to endure an impoverished existence in pursuit of their goal.

The good news is that there are a number of emerging initiatives which are making noble headway in providing much-needed support to distance runners who demonstrated elite potential.
A handful of exclusive running clubs – each sporting small tribes of talented, promising distance runners – can be found scattered across the country.

Team USA Minnesota – founded in 2001 – provides “up to 15” selected athletes with coaching, monthly stipends, training facilities, assistance in finding part-time employment with flexible work schedules, medical assistance – all in accordance with its mission statement of “improving American distance running.” The Mammoth Track Club – reinvigorated under new leadership provided by Olympic marathon bronze medalist and American record holder Deena Kastor and her husband Andrew – offers a high-altitude site alternative in Mammoth Lakes, California which promotes “athletic and academic achievement, professional athleticism and lifelong health and fitness through high altitude running.”

Athletic shoe companies have helped to create and fund post-collegiate distance running programs. Reebok-sponsored ZAP Fitness financially supports “8-10 post collegiate distance runners.” The Hansons-Brooks Distance Project – headquartered in Rochester, Michigan – publishes suggested performance standards for applicants. Hansons actually owns several residences for use by its athletes as it seeks to create a lifestyle for its participants “most accurately described as being like college only we don’t have classes and homework.” The most successful of these running incubators has been Nike’s Oregon Project. Project Director Alberto Salazar guides the fortunes of about a dozen national and world class athletes – including Olympic medalists Mo Farah and Galen Rupp – who work under a sophisticated program which includes low-gravity treadmills and air-thinning technology.

One of the more ambitious initiatives is RunPro – a professional distance running resource center. Originally founded by Team USA Minnesota, RunPro is “specifically designed for athletes who are interested in pursuing a professional running career” and currently is funded by the Road Runners Club of America. Among other expected assistances, RunPro offers a widely-acclaimed camp – a type of “retreat” for runners – which provides participants not only the opportunity to work out with other aspiring elite runners, but also the ability to attend several forums where insights into areas such as the professional experience, agent representation, professional marketing, anti-doping compliance, and shoe contracts can be gained. “We are excited to host the RunPro Camp in a continuing effort to attract and keep talented distance runners in our sport,” says Jean Knaack, RRCA executive director. “We think we’ve selected a great group of rising stars who will have an opportunity to receive a comprehensive overview of what is involved in becoming a professional runner.”

These helpful, noble programs – as supportive of post-collegiate distance runners as they may be – are simply not getting the job done as they should. The reason: they are – for the most part – woefully underfunded. These programs – and others like them – can truly be the answer. They could bridge the current post collegiate training and support gap – but not until a way is found to provide them with the type of enhanced funding which is presently unavailable.

So what is the source of funding for these types of ambitious programs? And how will this funding come about? It will require thoughtful insight from a new generation of leaders who envision opportunities that would both lift up all facets of American running and boost those visionary supporters at the same time – the proverbial win-win situation. That new vision would likely require enhanced corporate support from running-oriented companies which recognize that even greater United States performance at the highest level of the sport increases the sport’s popularity – and bolsters these companies’ bottom lines. The vision should also include expanded coverage from the media – especially television – which finally understands that more extensive and sophisticated coverage of this ancient sport would appeal to the already-established participant base, increase its own ratings – and help these companies’ bottom lines. And the vision should contemplate more aggressive funding by governing bodies that recognize that the very continued existence of track & field and other forms of running is critically dependent upon a properly-funded, ever-present, and multi-faceted program of elite athlete development to create a continuous pipeline of world class talent – to sustain the sport.

It’s not like we don’t know what needs to be done. We know that. What we don’t currently know is how to pay for it. So now it’s up to those who love the sport, those in positions of influence, and those who want to see track & field and other forms of running reclaim its once-held stature as a dynamic and exciting display of athleticism in its purest form to figure that out.

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Dunaway AwardAt the 2019 annual meeting of the Track and Field Writers of America, Dave was presented with the James Dunaway Memorial Award “for track & field journalism excellence.”

2020 Mid-American Conference Indoor Track & Field Championships

Dave HunterOn February 28-29, Dave served as the Color Analyst on the live ESPN3 broadcast of this championship gathering. Coverage of this 2-day conference championship can be viewed on the ESPN app.

Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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