For track and field junkies, Eugene is a little piece of heaven this week

Publish date:

EUGENE, Ore. -- If you were to ask the average sports fan how closely they follow track and field, most would probably give you a blank stare. A premier Olympic event, track and field has spent the past few years being bombarded by stories of liars, cheats and more positive drug tests than almost anyone could have imagined. Given this, it would be easy to understand if fans started to turn their backs on the sport.

But if the turnout in Eugene this week at the Olympic Track and Field Trials has been any indication, a decrease in popularity is not something to be concerned about.

The trials have been embraced by the city, with close to 21,000 fans filling the stands and crowding the Fan Festival the first few days. While Eugene is known as a track-savvy community, quite a few die-hards have traveled in from out of town for the 10-day event. Such is the case with a group of high school track coaches from the state of Michigan.

The trials opened last Friday with the first event in the women's hepthalon, the 100-meter dash. The crowd was sparse at best, save for the corner of the East Grandstand, where 44 coaches sat in bright yellow t-shirts to cheer on Michigan heptathlete Bettie Wade.

"It's America's greatest sport, the ultimate sport," said Vranda Goebel, a high school coach in Jackson, Mich. "It's the essence of every sport. It's the ultimate human endeavor: individuals against the clock, tape and each other."

"There are certain skills you need for other sports," added Kim Spausbury, a coach at Grand Ledge High School. "Someone that's 5-feet-4 and 100 pounds probably can't play basketball, but I don't care what your body type is, there's probably an event you can do [in track] if you work at it."

And so these track junkies descended upon Eugene last week, hoping to see some of the year's best performances. Spausbury and Dave Peake, a retired Grand Ledge coach, decided to turn the vacation into a sightseeing adventure as well, choosing to drive to Eugene. Two hundred dollars apiece and 2,400 miles later, the two men arrived in town Thursday.

"We've been best friends for 41 years," Spausbury said. "This is our fifth trials. We went to the 1996 Olympics [in Atlanta] for all 10 days of track and field."

But none of them can touch "Mr. Track and Field," Kermit Ambrose, who has attended every trials since 1960. Ambrose, 97, drove by himself from Michigan to Nebraska before flying into Portland.

For the coaches, the trials serve as an escape from their constant competition with one another during the high school track and field season.

"Some of us compete tooth and nail during the season," said Don Sleeman, a coach at Ann Arbor Pioneer High School who drove solo to the competition.

The event this week has also brought on a dose of nostalgia for Goebel, who qualified in the 100 for the 1972 trials -- also held in Eugene -- but could not compete because of finances. She brought her husband with her this time, giving him a heads up that they were headed for Track Town, USA.

"People think it's such a minor sport but when you come here, it gets the respect it deserves," Goebel said. "In 1980 I came here with an athlete of mine and I remember every store we went into wearing a running suit, we got a discount. We coaches are advocates who haven't given up hope that someone will understand this sport someday."

The group says as soon as these trials are over they will start planning for the next outing in four years, which will also be held in Eugene. They bought their tickets for this week almost two years ago, then started stowing away money for a 10-day adventure. It might be a spendy trip, but Sleeman points out, "It's cheaper than playing golf for 10 days."

Track can also provide more drama, Sleeman said, than almost any other sport. "There's nothing like a good 800 race," he said.

His words proved to be prophetic. Monday night's men's 800-meter final electrified the crowd in the most exciting event yet, as Nick Symmonds and current Duck Andrew Wheating kicked late to finish one-two and earn Olympic berths in a dazzling display of grit and emotion. The crowd's roars during the race were reminiscent of the legendary Steve Prefontaine days, a sure sign that here in Eugene, track and field is still the sport of rock stars.