With all that is going on in US distance running, we’ve forgotten to thank Galen Rupp, Alberto Salazar, and the Nike Oregon Project for doing what most people thought was impossible; bring distance running back. Looking at the 2001 Boston Marathon, there were only three Americans in the top fifteen. The fastest American time of 2:12:41 was ran by Rod De Haven, while the slowest of the three ran over 2:16. Fast forward to 2014 and not only do we have an American, Meb Keflezighi, winning the race in under 2:09 but we have six men in the top fifteen who all ran under 2:15. The question is, how did we turn it all around?
It was in that year, 2001, that Alberto Salazar, with the help of Tom Clarke and Nike, founded the Nike Oregon Project. He began focusing on young athletes, primarily Galen Rupp, and college stars like Dathan Ritzenhein. As people of the US began to see a resurgence of Americans on the international stage, the ball started rolling and the Nike Oregon Project began not only pushing their athletes to the top, but it gave other brands, runners, and coaches the idea to start training groups of their own. The 2012 London Olympics was the capstone of Salazar’s plan as he saw Galen Rupp bring home a silver medal and his other NOP pupil, Mo Farah, win gold both in the 10K and 5K. It not only proved that Americans could compete with all the countries, but it also proved that the methods used made elite athletes, such as Farah, even better.
An athlete can be talented, driven, and even win on their own. If they want to become a legend in their particular sport, though, they must also be directed. Michael Jordan was the best basketball player of his time, but he didn’t become an indisputable champion until he allowed Phil Jackson direct him in the way of success. That is much like what Alberto Salazar has done, both with Galen Rupp and the Nike Oregon Project as a whole.
Not only was Alberto Salazar an athlete with talent, but he was a competitor that few could keep down. Whether it was his tenacity as a spunky teenager competing with Bill Rogers in workouts, or battling it out with Dick Beardsley in the Boston Marathon of 1982 – later dubbed “Duel in the Sun” – Alberto Salazar had a winning mindset. He was, and is, a champion and competitor.
When he began to see distance running crumble in the US he decided to take action with a methodical, long view approach. He knew that top tier performance in running didn’t just develop overnight, which is why he, along with Nike, took the time to invest in handpicked athletes that could be groomed to become elite competitors. He developed champions that would not only draw attention, but relight America’s fire for running. He longed for the days where over 150 Americans would go under two and a half hours at the Boston Marathon, he longed for the days where Americans were competing for world medals, and he turned that passion for excellence to the track and roads.
Galen Rupp: a quiet athlete with times and performances that speak volumes. Leaders need participants and followers who are going to be accurate representations of the team’s mindset. Alberto Salazar knew he needed a testimony for all to hear and view that would solidify not only the Nike Oregon Project and its methods, but distance running as a whole in the US. There was no better choice than Galen Rupp.
Rupp is the ideal student. I say student, because although he is an athlete, he is a student of the sport in which he excels. He knows that he can’t find the promised land on his own. Instead, he chooses to surround himself with people who can get him there. He places his unwavering allegiance to those who he fully trusts. The initial decision is what allows him to appear to be just a robot following commands. The certainty in the process is what makes him great. So many athletes lack the resources and opportunities to blindly follow a coaching staff, and it is partly why we will have to wait years to see any American-born runner rival that which Galen Rupp has accomplished.
Rupp made his marathon debut at the US Olympic Marathon Trials in February, and won with dominance. Nearly four months to the day, on a cool Portland evening this past weekend, Galen Rupp showed himself primed and ready to take on the track. He competed in the 5K at the Portland Track Festival and ran under the Olympic standard with a time of 13:20.69.
His 5K performance has helped build even a stronger case for a 10K/Marathon double in Rio this year. Frank Shorter, who was also a running force in his time, was the last American to attempt such a feat. It’s not a fair comparison between Rupp and Shorter considering the running world is completely different nowadays, so one must just look at all the reasons Rupp has a shot at a successful double.
First, Galen Rupp has incredible range. Every event from the 1500M and up, he has clocked internationally competitive times. Just look at this weekend’s 5K in Portland which qualifies him to compete in the Olympic 5K if he so wished. Second, the chemistry he has with Alberto Salazar is unparalleled by any athlete-coach relationship. With such a meticulous coach, and Rupp being an excellent student of the sport, it is undeniable that he will show up to the Olympics completely prepared. Thirdly, it is more than likely that all the races in Rio de Janeiro will be tactical due to the climate, which falls perfectly into the hands of Galen Rupp.
We owe our gratitude to the Nike Oregon Project. Whether or not people are fans of their methods, or the individual athletes, they must respect what has been accomplished. We would not enjoy the sport as we do today if Alberto Salazar, Tom Clarke, and Nike didn’t take a vision and apply manpower to fulfilling it. Runners coming out of college wouldn’t have the same opportunities with shoe contracts and training groups if it wasn’t for the tone that was set by the Nike Oregon Project. So, a thank you is due, not only from runners and fans, but from all the young kids that will grow up with the chance to pursue running like so many athletes before them could not.