I was never athletic. I was never close to athletic. If athletic was New York, I was somewhere in the South Pacific. I suspected Lyndon Johnson promoted the President’s Council on Physical Fitness – subjecting junior high and high school students across the U.S. to a series of standardized athletic tests – solely to embarrass me. I still remember that I could only throw a softball a piddly 77 feet (when others could throw it closer to 90 feet), but to add insult to injury, the girl tallying the distances was one of my most beautiful classmates. It was one of those embarrassing moments that stays with you for … let me check … yes, it’s now 45 years.
Later in junior high school, I might have attained some measure of athletic honor after I broke my foot playing football. Except it wasn’t in an actual game, it was in gym class. And it wasn’t during an actual play, it was walking back to the huddle that I stepped on a sprinkler head wrong.
To make matters even worse, my high school had a culture of adulation for what were then called jocks. This was made abundantly clear when our yearbook came out senior year with page after page of sports photographs and game recaps – but nary a one of the exploits of the theatre department, where I’d spent much of my time (it soon became apparent that while I had all of an actor’s requisite neuroses, I had none of the talent). For a while, my clique in high school tried to label ourselves as “intellectual jocks” but that never caught on.
Then came Monica, to whom I’ve been married for the last 20 years (as of last month). When it came to sports, she was like the big brother I never had. Her father had started taking her to Oakland Raiders games when she was eight. Thanks to Title IX legislation, she was one of the first generation of high school girls to throw the discus. (She was also a cheerleader, which I found more interesting.) Our DVR brims with gymnastics events, mixed martial-arts matches, and track-and-field meets. During the summer Olympics, I might as well just fade away, because she’s glued to the television set. The more television networks NBC buys, the happier she is.
All of this is a rather long-winded prelude to explain how I’ve ended up in a place I never expected to be – Eugene, Oregon, during the ten-day Olympic track-and-field trials. As the college home of the late premier runner Steve Prefontaine – a name only uttered in hushed tones hereabouts – and other champions, Eugene calls itself Tracktown USA. Just as everyone in Hollywood seems to be blonde and tan, everyone here has that lean-and-hungry look of a long-distance runner. It’s a little embarrassing for the pudgy among us.
When I distributed my out-of-office message about this trip, many of my clients asked when I’d become interested in track-and-field. I explained that I wasn’t interested in track-and-field, but I was interested in Monica. As a dutiful husband, I’d attended several track-and-field invitationals at Stanford. Because the events are held concurrently, rather than sequentially, there’s a charming circus-like feel to such events. Not interested in the javelin? Across the field, the pole vaulting has begun. (Me, I’d worry about poking someone’s eye out with either one of those things.)
But I have to admit that it’s hard not to get caught up in the proceedings. We’re staying at a bed-and-breakfast inn a couple of blocks from Hayward Field. The first morning, we were joined at breakfast by a couple named Horn whose son Gray was a decathlete. For someone who finds the idea of becoming good at one sport daunting, the idea of being Olympic-good at ten is like science fiction.
The top decathletes, based on points, head to London next month, and for most of the first day’s proceedings, Gray hovered in fourth place. He was overshadowed in many events by another up-and-coming local athlete named Ashton Eaton (see graphic), but with each succeeding event, Gray kept pace.
At the end of Saturday’s events was a 1500-meter run which Eaton needed to run in 4 minutes, 16 seconds in order to break the world’s record for decathlon points. While the race was underway, the stands were as loud or louder than any time Stanford’s Andrew Luck had lobbed the football downfield. Eaton ran the race in 4 minutes, 14 seconds.
And Gray Horn capped an amazing day by coming in third in the decathlon, increasing the chances that he and his proud parents – who had spent 16 grueling hours getting from Wapakoneta, Ohio to Eugene earlier this week – would be off to London.
So while I never would have expected to find myself here, especially among all these lithe, skinny people, Im actually having a good time watching the youngsters achieve amazing feats of athletic prowess with just their muscles and sporting implements that have been around since ancient Greece. Thankfully, there are no softballs involved.