Olympians, NCAA head coaches highlight TrackTown Tuesday season finale
By Romaine Soh / TrackTown USA
EUGENE, Ore. – With the best collegiate track and field athletes gathered in Eugene for the upcoming NCAA Outdoor Championships this week, Hayward Field was adorned with NCAA decorations head to toe.
TrackTown Tuesday attendees were the first wave of the public to soak in the atmosphere as they gathered in the West Grandstands to hear from USC head coach Caryl Smith Gilbert and Texas A&M head coach Pat Henry, who lead two of the nation’s top-ranked programs. 800-meter Olympians Nick Symmonds and Clayton Murphy also returned to the track where they had qualified for the U.S. Olympic team not as athletes, but as guest speakers.
Henry, who first wrote himself into the NCAA record books with 27 team championships at LSU, has added nine national titles in the past 13 seasons at Texas A&M. He said his formula for success has remained the same – surround yourself with great assistants and recruit the best athletes you can get, whatever their discipline.
“I was excited to get into coaching,” said Henry, whose grandfather, father and twin brothers are coaches as well. “It was what I wanted to do.”
Henry’s pro tip that he learned from his family, who he regards as his mentors, is that developing athletes off the track is just as essential, if not more, than testing their athletic limits.
“It’s not all about running fast,” Henry said. “It’s about developing citizens and young people in our community. Athletics is one of the greatest places to do that.”
After Smith Gilbert ended her days as an athlete, she found another way to stay connected with the sport she loved: coaching. While the UCLA alum initially balked at the idea of coaching, she fell in love with it when she began coaching her high school athletes to state championships.
“I actually saw I was pretty good at something,” said Smith Gilbert, a former All-American sprinter.
Smith Gilbert progressed to assistant coaching positions at Tennessee, Alabama and Penn State before six highly successful seasons as head coach at Central Florida. When she was offered the head coaching job at USC, her first reaction was an enthusiastic, “Hell yeah!”
“I love California, I love the beach, I love Rodeo Drive,” said the Denver, Colorado native, who considers herself a Western girl.
Ever since Smith Gilbert took the helm, USC has been improving steadily. She became the first woman to coach a 100m and 200m champion when Canadian Olympian Andre De Grasse clinched the NCAA double in 2015. Both the men and women were runner-ups at the Pac-12 Championships this year.
Though Smith Gilbert said there were only minor differences between coaching men and women, she has a single approach in coaching: accountability.
“It’s my responsibility to help them reach their dreams,” Smith Gilbert said. “You can command performances if you believe in them.”
The last time Symmonds raced was almost a year ago before the 2016 Olympic Trials. In his head, the 33-year-old had already mentally retired as he sat in the stands watching Akron standout Clayton Murphy win the 800 meters at the Trials. For someone who lived his life in Olympic cycles, he was done. He had nothing left to prove.
Symmonds’ sponsor, Brooks, thought otherwise, however, and convinced him to return for one more season to qualify for the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London. Symmonds plans to make his season debut at the Portland Track Festival on Sunday. It could be the last race of his career if he doesn’t hit the qualifying time of x:xx.xx for the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships.
But he’s at peace with that scenario.
“There’s something about going out swinging that resonates with me,” Symmonds said. “If it’s a 1:46 and I qualify for USAs, I live to fight another day. If it’s a 1:55 and people are pity-clapping me, at least I go out swinging.”
By contrast, Murphy, plans to carry on his athletic career for at least another 10 years. Prior to pursuing athletics, the 22-year-old Ohio native had come close to winning his first championship trophy when he was raising show pigs, but was ultimately denied that honor due to subjective judging criteria.
In athletics, there is no subjectivity, only who runs faster on that day. After winning the NCAA Indoor 800-meter and NCAA Outdoor 1,500-meter titles last year, he won the 800m at the Olympic Trials, then continued his upward trajectory as he ran a PR of 1 minute, 42.93 seconds to win the bronze medal at the Rio Olympics, America’s first medal in the event since 1992.
Although track and field consists of individual events, the athletes form familial bonds with one another off the track. At the Rio Olympics, 5,000-meter silver medalist Paul Chelimo told Murphy, “I think you can win one.”
Murphy took the bronze and returned the favor to Chelimo. “Hey Paul, it’s your turn now.”
“Yeah, I got it, I got it,” Chelimo said.
Murphy was drawn to race against reigning Olympic champion and world record-holder David Rudisha in all three rounds of the Rio Olympics. Rudisha had an unpredictable racing pattern – he started strong from the gun at the 2012 Olympics, but chose a tactical approach in the 2015 World Championships. Murphy didn’t know what to expect of him, instead focusing on how he could get into prime position to take a stab at medaling.
That’s the beauty of the individual aspect of track and field.
“Only you can do what you can do on any given day,” Murphy said.
TrackTown Tuesday 2017 Schedule
- Tuesday, January 10, Downtown Athletic Club, Eugene
- Tuesday, February 7, Downtown Athletic Club, Eugene
- Tuesday, March 7, Downtown Athletic Club, Eugene
- Tuesday, April 4, Downtown Athletic Club, Eugene
- Tuesday, May 2, Downtown Athletic Club, Eugene
- Tuesday, June 6, Hayward Field, Eugene
Downtown Athletic Club: Free parking is available in the adjacent Overpark.
Social Hour, Food, and Beverages
Shows at the Downtown Athletic Club will have food available for purchase as well as beer with complimentary coffee, tea, and water. Social hour begins at 6pm.
TrackTown Tuesday History
Ten years have passed since the inaugural “Tuesdays in TrackTown” town hall meeting.
The first edition was held in the lobby of the Bowerman Building on the northwest corner of Hayward Field on March 6, 2007.
A small crowd of about 30 people from all walks of life showed up to learn more about a variety of track and field topics, in particular, the growing buzz surrounding ambitious plans for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials.
Vin Lananna, in his second season as director of track and field for the University of Oregon, was the host of the event. He gave a brief, but enthusiastic presentation on the Trials, the planned renovation of Hayward Field, the newly formed Oregon Track Club Elite and the upcoming outdoor season for the Ducks.
It was a modest affair, with free cookies and coffee, and its target audience was the Eugene-Springfield community, reminiscent of the way former UO track and field coach Bill Bowerman engaged local citizens via youth all-comer’s meets and ground-breaking jogging classes in the 1950s and ‘60s.
In starting “Tuesdays in TrackTown,” Lananna’s goal was to provide a forum to connect long supportive fans with the most recent news on what’s going on in TrackTown USA.
Today, the event has become more popular than he could ever imagine, routinely attracting between 200-300 people at each session.
TrackTown Tuesday is now a highly anticipated community event each month during track season with a master of ceremonies, special guests, exclusive videos, prizes, refreshments and a platform for debuting T&F announcements.
People who attend TrackTown Tuesday are the first to hear about plans and developments for upcoming events in TrackTown USA.