With fewer than 80 days remaining before the 2016 Olympics, hundreds of athletes are making the final push to represent their country in Rio de Janeiro come August. Track and field steps into the spotlight every four years, but the preparation needed to reach the starting line begins long before the big moment. Running goes beyond just putting one foot in front of the other as fast as you can.
Ryan Hill, a distance runner for the Bowerman Track Club based in Oregon, is on the verge of making his first Olympic team. Over the next few weeks leading up to the trials, Hill will write a first-person piece for SI.com discussing his training, races, and preparation ahead of the trials in July and the Games in August.
Ashley Higginson is sharing her own road to the Olympic Trials as a steeplechaser for the New Jersey-New York Track Club. Danny Mackey also writes on being entrusted with the Olympic dreams of a training group and coaching two-time Olympian Nick Symmonds.
In the world of professional track and field, you’re either an Olympian or you’re not. And that kind of absolute thinking can drive a man insane, so I tread lightly around this topic.
However, this is the prevailing truth that all athletes all understand. We are all sponsored by companies because we have a shot at making the Olympic team. We are in the exposure business. We are paid through endorsement contracts to train and race at the biggest track-and-field meets in the world. My job is to put the swoosh on my singlet in front of as many eyeballs as possible and look fast while doing it. There will be millions of eyeballs watching the Olympics, and companies like Nike pay me to be in front of those millions of eyeballs.
To me, the real reward of making an Olympic team is earning what athletes have always desired more than anything—respect. In this sport, Olympians are placed high above all others; at a level that’s almost mystical, as if they are connected with the ancient Greeks of Olympia. All others are considered plebeians who must wait four long years for another chance to join their ranks. Do you feel the pressure yet?
I am the defending U.S. champion in the 5,000 meters. I also won a silver medal this March at the World Indoor Track and Field Championships. You could say that, at 26, I’m in ideal position to make my first Olympic team, although I’m not naive enough to think that myself.
World indoors was merely the opening act for the eventual main event of the Olympics, but I do have a few things on my side, like a great sponsor in Nike, a great coach in Jerry Schumacher and a great training group in the Bowerman Track Club.
To have all these professional accolades and resources, I must have always been a hot commodity right? Not quite. I don’t have a track-and-field pedigree, I wasn’t hotly recruited out of high school and I didn’t win any NCAA titles.
So how do I find myself in the best possible position during an Olympic year? Where I came from plays a huge role.
First, my parents instilled in me a strong work ethic. My mother Ruthie taught me to never feel sorry for myself, but to rather dig in and fight for what I want, while I inherited my more laid-back side from my dad, an air-conditioning repair man. I was raised in Hickory, N.C., and despite its rural setting, Hickory High placed a lot of importance on athletics (and it had the only rubberized track in the county). Aside from a short stint on the baseball diamond, I was always meant to be a runner.
I won several high-school state titles in cross-country and track, which attracted the attention of several colleges, including NC State, my mom’s alma mater. And it was in Raleigh that I met the person who would have the most influence on my athletic success: Rollie Geiger, coach of the NC State track and field team. From day one, Coach Geiger had me on a five-year plan to gain a sponsorship and keep my eyes set on an Olympic team, but I didn’t realize this until about Year 4. I just did my part to improve and help the team win conference titles and climb the national ranks.
After I graduated, I just missed qualifying for the 2012 Olympics, crossing the line fifth in the 5,000 meters at the U.S. trials. But a year later I finished third at the 2013 U.S. championships, earning a spot on the world championship team. And that’s when the phone started ringing. The best call was from Jerry Schumacher, a 43-year-old coach who was building a Nike-sponsored Olympic training group.
Everyone knew them as “Jerry’s Boys” or the “Rip City Track Club,” but it was just an unbranded collection of some of the most talented American distance runners of our time, including Olympians Matt Tegenkamp, Evan Jager, Lopez Lomong, and Shalane Flanagan and American record holder Chris Solinsky. Jerry’s enthusiasm, energy and high expectations were clear from this first conversation. This was a special coach and these were special teammates, who could elevate me.
Coach Geiger always knew that I would leave one day for a professional group, but that didn’t make it any easier moving on from each other. It helped knowing that I was going to a place where the possibilities were endless.
Since joining Jerry in Oregon, I’ve rapidly ascended the professional running ladder, along with several members of our training group. At the 2015 U.S. championship I won the 5,000-meter title with arms outstretched across the finish line to say “I’m here and we are here. Take notice.” We had our first world championship medalist in 2015, when Emily Infeld took bronze in the 10,000 meters.
The light bulb turned on. We are training like medalists here. Bowerman Track Club athletes can medal.
How did we do it? How do we continue this success?
Like most things in running, the work is simple yet very difficult. Our workouts push our bodies beyond their current limits. We race with a purpose. Jerry stresses the importance of those tough days by showing up for workouts. I have no idea what he does in the two or three days in between workouts. (My theory: He slowly slips into insanity while watching hours of race videos on YouTube, ignores the hundreds of emails and calls he receives daily or plays basketball in his house to show off his silky jump shot. Most likely, he is just being the world’s best dad for his four kids.)
Our team also follows an intense lifting and strengthening program, which former runner Pascal Dobert oversees. Our team also works with Drew Honessee, an active-release expert who was former runner at Wisconsin under Jerry, and Ryan Gibbons, our team’s free-spirited massage therapist.
The influence of our group is in our numbers, as each athlete’s popularity is elevated by the group. It’s like we always said at NC State, “The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” That’s the BTC way.
The Olympic trials are July 1–10 in Eugene, Ore., at historic Hayward field. Training and racing plans are in place. Now it is a matter of execution and working together as a team to achieve individual glory.
In June I’ll be in Park City, Utah, for our 30-day altitude trip. In my next post I’ll talk training and divulge my relationship with some of my BTC teammates and with Jerry. Sports are always unscripted drama, so I can’t promise anything other than that. I’ll let the tension, stress, and mayhem write itself.