Hayward Field is the most iconic track and field stadium in America. Straightaway it conjures up romantic images from the days of Steve Prefontaine in the early 70's, and the cult following he had while attending the University of Oregon.
Prefontaine’s untimely death in a car accident in 1974 added to his legend. He was 24-years-old, and two years before had finished a close fourth in the 5,000m at the Munich Olympics. The legacy and spirit he left behind through the passionate fans and athletes who recalled his great feats continues to connect with track and field fans of today.
This home of athletics in Eugene, Oregon has been transformed recently. Gone is the old style stadium with wooden seats and a stand where you could lose sight of the action through the wooden beams, the place now transformed into a brand new state-of-the-art stadium that was due to host the World Championships this summer, now postponed to 2022, following on from the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
The stadium is getting a number of test runs this year, including last weekend with the NCAA Championships, the American collegiate finals and a breeding ground for the next generation of world and Olympic athletes.
As I sat in the stands and watched Elle Henes from University of North Carolina win the 5,000m, exactly 30 years from when her mother Laurie won the same title, I realised it was also 30 years since I ran my last NCAA race for Villanova, winning the 3,000m in 1991 at this same venue.
When you are reminded of the past like that you also realise how much has changed; not least the stadium, but also the greater professional look and feel to the event and what it means for college athletes to perform at the highest level as they prepare to embark on a career beyond college.
These days the meet is segregated into separate days for the men’s and women’s competitions: heats and finals, Wednesday and Friday for the men, Thursday and Saturday for the women, where both are celebrated and supported equally.
There’s so much talk of which athletes will be going “pro”, as they like to call it over here. I don’t recall this term in the early 90s where you just moved on to the next stage, representing your country and were then recommended an agent through word of mouth and friends.
These days the NCAA Championships is like a shop window for the agents who don’t just help athletes enter races after their college career has ended but also facilitate a tie in with a shoe sponsor, which is also likely linked with a potential new training group.
The college set-up at the division one level is professional in so many ways. The travelling team includes the coaches, physiotherapists, physiological and psychological coaches and travel co-ordinators. It’s a tight-knit support group that an athlete gets comfortable with, an environment where everything is taken care of and the athletes just have to get out and race.
When the time comes for changing it’s a whole new world of choice, one that not all athletes around the world experience. If you can stand out in the NCAA then you will attract the attention of coaches, agents and shoe companies.
In recent years a number of standout athletes don’t even stay competing for their college for the full four-year term and are ready to step out after one year.
This year the standout athletes were Athing Mu (Texas A&M) and Cole Hocker (University of Oregon), both freshmen and just 19-years-old.
Mu set the collegiate 400m and 800m records already this year, and won the 400m in a championship record time and helped her team to win the 4x400m also in a championship record time.
Hocker won the 1,500m and placed fourth in the 5,000m just an hour later, having previously won the 3000m and mile titles indoors. So the big question still remains, will both these freshmen remain in college or take the big step out and go pro?
Next week the US Olympic Trials take place over nine days at Hayward Field, where both will attempt to qualify for the Tokyo Olympic team, knowing only top three across the line are automatically selected as long as they have already achieved the qualifying times or world ranking.
Along with the outstanding freshmen, many college seniors will be looking to sign deals and work towards which path to take beyond college. It’s not a clear -cut decision helped by any draft process like you see in other sports, just purely speculative decisions made by agents, coaches and shoe companies that can determine the fate of athletes in the real world.
The college athletes are protected and feel safe with their team-mates. It’s a big decision to relocate, to join a new group where you will need to fit in and be comfortable to allow yourself develop further as an international athlete.
So it’s not always a purely financial decision, as ultimately athletes need to be comfortable in their environments to be able to grow and develop and establish themselves on the world stage.
The choices are greater in the US as several professional running groups are set up around the country, which can vary in climate and surroundings. Moving away from home to college is one big step, but moving beyond that to living alone is another decision not to be taken lightly.
Many athletes choose to run one last race for their college at the trials, and it seems safer to leave the big decision until after one of the biggest races of your life.
Especially when next year’s World Athletic Championships set for Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon could be the first real world athletics event with packed stadiums, supporters from all around the world, and it may be just worth waiting one more year in the college safety net.