A gaggle of Minnesotans are bound for Eugene, Ore., and the U.S. Olympic track and field trials this weekend. It is, perhaps, the most glamorous and competitive selection meet of all in this decisive pre-Beijing season.
But Will Leer didn’t have to pack one bag or search for his raincoat to fend off the Pacific Northwest mist.
“Rain, rain, rain,” Leer said during a phone call from Oregon this week, describing the predominant weather pattern.
Leer, of Minnetonka, has been living in Eugene for the past 10 months, training with the fabled Oregon Track Club Elite, and having the kind of breakthrough season that puts him in the mix for one of the centerpiece Olympic events – the men’s 1,500-meters.
He’s coach by Frank Gagliano, “a longtime legend,” as Leer put it, for developing distance runners, including former Richfield and Georgetown Olympian Steve Holman. Nike backs Leer and helps him with rent, health insurance and a stipend. (It’s not unlike Team USA Minnesota, which will be sending five athletes to Eugene, including strong 10,000-meter candidate Katie McGregor.)
Of course, no one is a shoo-in at the U.S. track trials. Many say it’s more competitive than the Olympics because of the depth of the U.S. track community.
Leer’s path to the trials was unusual. He played soccer in high school – a sport that laid his base for foot speed – but didn’t run a full cross country season until college. He was a solid high school athlete, breaking records at Minnetonka High, but never won a state title.
Then, he went off to academically elite Pomona College in California, not exactly a sports power. Still, at that NCAA Division III level is where he began to find his elite athletic voice.
Breakthrough race came close to home
Ironically, a breakthrough race came in Minnesota, 50 miles from his home. He won his first NCAA title, the indoor mile, in Northfield.
“I only ran the meet because it was at St. Olaf,” he said, eager to have friends and family watch him. “I wound up winning, which was a surprise to me.”
And that victory “took me on a wave” that he’s been riding ever since.
As a senior, he won the 1,500 and 5,000 at the national Division III championships. Last year, he finished 10th in the nation at the USA Track & Field nationals, with all the big boys, like U.S. mile record holder Alan Webb and Bernard Lagat.
This year, he’s posted a time of 3:38.11, again among the top 10 in the nation. You need to finish in the top three to make the Olympic team.
Earlier this year, he broke the four-minute-mile barrier and hasn’t been slower in the distance since.
Mostly, he’s been picking up on the spirit of Eugene.
“They love their track and field here,” he said. “You get a sort of energy here at Hayward Field that I don’t think you get in other places in the country.”
Hayward Field is the Fenway Park of track and field. It’s where distance-running superstar Steve Prefontaine made his mark.
There are three rounds in the trials, beginning July 3, with the second round on July 4 and the finals slated as the last race of the trials on July 6. The 1,500 remains the iconic distance race. Leer thinks that the three-part series of races plays to his training regimen and overall strength.
But then he added this note: “I think that there’s magic to happen at Hayward Field, and I think I have just as much chance of being on the receiving end of that magic as anyone.”
Let’s hold him to that.
Lots and lots of others …
Some other key Minnesotans to watch include Katie McGregor, the 10,000-meter standout who runs with Team USA Minnesota, coached by Augsburg’s head coach Dennis Barker. McGregor, of St. Louis Park, just missed the 2004 team. She’s posted the fourth-best time among women 10,000 runners in qualifying for the trials. Her race is Friday night … Former Gopher Emily Brown, who at one point was headed toward trying for the first women’s steeplechase ever in an Olympics, has opted instead to run in the 5,000 at the trials … Another former Gopher Shani Marks, who was extensively profiled by Rachel Blount in Sunday’s Star Tribune, is the nation’s leading triple jumper and it would be an upset if she doesn’t make the U.S. team … St. Louis Park’s Jenelle Deatherage is among the nation’s top 1,500-meter runners… High-jumper Jim Dilling, the former Minnesota State, Mankato, NCAA Division II national champ and USA Track and Field champ last year, is a feel-good story waiting to happen, but he’ll have to deliver … Carrie Tollefson, the 2004 Olympian who’s been fighting injury, will try in the 1,500 meters… . For a complete list of competitors, click here and for the full event schedule, click here.
MinnPost will be in Eugene and tracking Minnesota’s connections there…