Thursday, May 14, 2015

Eugene Bound

Two weeks from today for the first time in 11 years I will hop aboard a jet and fly west to Oregon for one of the best track meets the world has to offer.  The Prefontaine Classic is always a distance running stud-fest.  It's a meet I first attended back in 1985 on a rainy Saturday evening where I watched Mary Slaney take down the American Record for 5,000 meters.
The second time I made it to the meet was in 1994. The star was pole vaulter Sergei Bubka.  I sat right in front of Bubka's family that evening.  Down on the infield NIKE's John Capriotti spotted me sitting with the Bubka's and invited me down on the infield to meet the great vaulter.  I had gotten to know Capriotti when he was the head track and field coach at Kansas State a couple of years before.  It was thrilling to meet the world's greatest pole vaulter.

The third Prefontaine meet, in 2004, featured a fearless mile run by Alan Webb, who dipped just under 3:51 in a solo effort.  That's probably my favorite moment and my favorite year for attending this track and field classic.  I went the meet that year with a good friend, Chris Ronan.  He wanted Webb's autograph, so we made our way down to the media area where Chris stalked his quarry.

This year's meet promises a great men's mile and unbelievably deep fields in the women's and men's 800 meters.  Again I will attend the meet with Chris.  This year I plan to make sure we take plenty of pictures and gather a lot of mementos.

The best part of the meet is Eugene.  The city has a feel to it that is impossible to describe unless you've been there.  The air is fresh and full of pine.  The running routes are numerous and nothing beats heading across the footbridge that spans the beautiful McKenzie River for a quick run along Pre's Trail.

And then there's Hayward Field.  It has changed so much since my first visit in 1976 when I covered the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.  The track back then was rock hard with a sandpaper type substance covering the surface.  A cinder lane circled the inside part of the track and the grandstands were old and weathered.  Just to the west of the newer, bigger grandstands, a cinder track used to sit where the athletes would warm up and where I watched in wonderment a workout one day which featured Alberto Salazar, Rudy Chapa and Bill McChesney.

Now the facilities are fresh and modern.  The track features a state of the art mondo track.  The cinders are long gone and the modern warmup track sits just to the south of Hayward Field itself.  Two more weeks and I get to go to running heaven.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Looking to the Future

The tragic events surrounding this weekend's Florida State Track and Field Championships overshadowed the legacy that lies at the feet of Coach Jeff Sommer.  His shocking death dimmed the incredible performances turned in by a handful of young women who will shape the next few years of high school distance running in Southwest Florida.  Not surprisingly, their achievements are directly and indirectly the result of Sommer and the standards he set for his athletes.

First, there's Sarah Candiano, who graduates from Evangelical Christian added two state titles at 1,600 and 3,200 to go with the championship she won in cross country.  She also anchored a 2nd place finish for her team's 4 x 800 team.  On that squad are two extremely young, but incredibly talented girls.  Sierra Oliveira, a mere 7th grader, finished 2nd in the 1A 800 meter in 2:15.62, a national class time.  Her twin sister Moriah was 2nd in the 400 meter in 57.65 to go along with a 2:18 split on that 4 x 800 relay.

It is impossible to speculate on how good the Oliveira sisters could be, especially given their youth.  This dynamic duo has the potential to re-write all of the records ever set in Lee County.  They could be a twin version of the prep prodigy, Mary Cain.

Estero's cupboard is hardly bare.  Back for another year of high school cross country and track are Daley Cline and Breeana Salcedo.  Those two will team with junior to be Megan Giovanniello to carry on Sommer's legacy.  This trio should help make next fall's cross country battles with Fort Myers High School epic.

That brings us to the Green Wave's Krissy Gear.  How many national class distance runners do you know who scored at their state meet in the pole vault?  Gear is an incredible athlete who has only begun to harness her ability as a distance runner.  She ran a sub-5 1,600 earlier in the season before claiming the 3A title on Saturday.  She followed her that race with her best 800 of the season, finishing 2nd in 2:16.32.

Gear could be the best distance runner in Lee County since Sommer coached Footlocker finalist Bona Jones.  Her ability to run off of a fast pace with a powerful kick could bring some out of this world times, before Krissy graduates from Fort Myers.

Next spring there could be as many as a half dozen Lee County girl's under 2:15 in the 800.  Nationally, most state's don't produce even one girl under 2:15 in a given year.  I don't believe we'd be seeing any of this without years of groundwork done by Jeff Sommer.  Think about it.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Coach

Coach Jeff Sommer
The news came in the form of a phone call from a trusted running friend.  What she told me literally took my breath away.  Jeff Sommer had died at the Florida State High School Track and Field Championships.  My mind went blank and a sinking feeling hit my chest hard.

I always called him coach.  Calling someone coach is the ultimate sign of respect to me.  I met him when I first came to Fort Myers in 2003.  Our paths first crossed at one of the local road races where he routinely whipped my ass.  Then as fate would have it, I moved into his neighborhood, his house just a block over from mine.

Coach Jeff Sommer had spent years building Estero High School into a distance running powerhouse.  I've known a lot of great high school coaches.  Coaches you've probably never heard of, Verlyn Schmidt, Van Rose and Joe Schrag.  They set the standard in the state of Kansas.  But what Coach Sommer did stands out when compared from the trio of greats I mentioned from my home state of Kansas. 

Sommer's had no hills to train his runners on.  He trained his athletes in the humid, pre-dawn hours during the summer to escape the oppressive heat of Southwest Florida.  His 3D approach of discipline, desire and determination, produced some amazing distance runners.  Sommer was cheering on his talented squad of 4 X 800 girls to a championship when he collapsed.

I can't explain why I feel such a sense of loss.  Coach and I spoke to each other less than 2 dozen times in the 12 years that we knew each other.  Our conversations always left me feeling that I was taking to a man in a hurry, a man on a mission, a man touching lives. 

And that's where the hurt comes from for me.  I know that Coach Sommer touched and changed hundreds upon hundreds of lives.  His good work spread across the community and he raised the bar for coaches across Southwest Florida and the entire state of Florida.  He did what my late coach did.

It was almost exactly ago, the coach that changed my life, Tom Dowling, died suddenly from a heart related incident.  Like Coach Sommer, the works of Coach Dowling lifted high school distance running across the Kansas City metro area.  The two men were opposites.  Coach Sommer was an intense, rolling bundle of energy.  Coach Dowling was a zen figure.  But both men trained champions on the track and champions in life.

My heart hurts for Coach Sommer, his family, his athletes, but most of all my heart hurts for our community.

Editors note:  The Fort Myers News-Press asked me to share these links:
http://www.news-press.com/story/sports/2015/05/03/estero-one-run-jeff-sommer/26848729/

http://www.news-press.com/story/news/2015/05/02/athletes-coaches-friends-remember-jeff-sommer/26794079/


Sunday, March 15, 2015

I Don't Hate Georges Niang

Watching the Laettner lovefest on ESPN Sunday night only further cemented my respect for one of the greatest players I've watched play my beloved Kansas Jayhawks in basketball.  I'm talking about Iowa State Cyclone Georges Niang.  I'm guessing he may not come back for his senior year, but Niang has been a very special player in the three years that he has terrorized the Big 12.

My great regret is that I've never gotten to see him play in person.  And despite his ability to absolutely light up KU, I don't hate him, like I did Anthony Peeler, Mitch Richmond, Chuckie Williams or Steve Stepanovich.  His play demands respect.

I go back 40 plus years to the days of great KU foes like Cliff Meely of Colorado, Lon Kruger of Kansas State, Willie Smith at Mizzou, Alvin Adams and Wayman Tisdale of Oklahoma, I could name a half dozen or so more players that were simply a joy to watch during their tenures in the Big 8 and Big 12 conference.  These guys played hard and they played with class.

So does Niang.  I love watching Niang, a ball handling power forward with a beautiful stroke from three and an ability to glide through the lane with beautiful post moves that harken back to the days of when big men actually had post moves.  The two KU players that come to mind when I think of Georges is Nick Collison and Rafe LaFrentz.

Niang has the ability to rise to the level of his competition.  He's physical, without playing dirty, you can tell he respects those he plays against and most important, his teammates feed off of his emotion.  He is the quintessential college basketball player with a whole slew of old man moves.  It makes me wonder whether his lack of hopes will translate into the NBA game, but Georges Niang is a winner and the NBA always has room in its rosters for winners.

I don't think Niang has the supporting cast to make a deep run with Iowa State through the tournament but he's the kind of singular player who can do the impossible.  He could put Iowa State into the Final 4 just on his grit and determination alone.  Unfortunately the Cyclones don't have much of a bench.  But enjoy it while you can, because this might be the last great run of the great Georges Niang.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Good Ol' Dan

I've been lucky to work with a number of talented people in my 30 plus years in television.  One of the greats that I had the good fortune to spend more than half a dozen years with passed away Saturday. Dan Henry was 89. 

Dan stands out to me because he was the last of a breed in television news.  He was quite simply, a weatherman.  He didn't have a meteorology degree, a must in this day and age.  The only other non-meteorologist that I worked with that's still doing his think is KSAZ's amazing Dave Munsey in Phoenix, another heavyweight I had the pleasure of producing.

I had been told that in a previous life, before television, Dan had been a science teacher.  Even without the meteorology degree, Dan was by far and away the most popular weatherman in Kansas City television and was one of the most popular television talents in the city, period.  The guys at Kansas City's National Weather Service loved him.

I'm not going to sugarcoat it.  Dan was polarizing for the audience.  You either loved him and his quirky sense of humor, or you hated him.  But the biggest thing was, everyone knew Dan Henry.  I loved Dan because he embraced the changing technology that came to his weather office.  First it was the weather computer.  Dan, charmingly, tossed his magnet board aside and worked that computer into his shtick, complete with appropriate cartoons.

Dan loved wrapping himself in green in front of the chroma key wall, appearing before the viewers on Halloween as a floating head over a skeleton or some other bit of handywork drawn on the computer.  But when severe weather came around, Dan was all business.  And the addition of doppler radar, the first in the market by many years, cemented his role as the go to weather guy in Kansas City.

I loved Dan because he knew how to keep me in my place.  I produced hundreds of his weathercasts and he knew to the second how much time he should get.  If I gypped him one night he'd teach me a lesson by going 30 seconds long, just to remind me who helped pay my salary.  And on the night's I needed him to bail me out because of some sort of technical mishap, Dan would always cheerfully come to my rescue.

Dan Henry was an integral part of WDAF's ratings resurrection in the 1980's.  He had been with the long suffering, ratings dormant station for more than a dozen years when News Director Mike McDonald executed ratings gold.  It was a combination of a great anchor team, Stacy Smith and Cynthia Smith, sports director Frank Boal along with the unflappable Dan, that helped steamroll the competition.  When Stacy departed for Pittsburgh, Phil Witt filled his shoes and we never skipped a beat. 

Dan is a Kansas City television legend.  I'll never forget that smile, his love of all things Irish and his barbershop quartet.  He made life in the tough business of television news bearable for dozens of up and coming young journalists, including me.  Good bless you Dan Henry.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Son-In-Law

Prime racing season came to Southwest Florida Saturday night with the best 5K you can find in the area.  It was a family affair at the Edison Festival of Lights 5K.  My son-in-law Vlad, step-daughter Natasha and granddaughter Masha all toed the line with me for the big race.  This marked the fourth or fifth time I've run this twilight affair that follows a crowd filled parade route through the streets of Fort Myers. 

The only problem with this gem of a 5K is a crowded start and you better be able to withstand the smell of barbeque along the entire race course.  A Kenyan won the men's race barely dipping under 14 minutes, which gives you an idea of the swift nature of this out and back race.  When I first moved her I could run it under 21 minutes.  Last night I ran just a few ticks over 24 minutes, a real disappointment. 

Much to my surprise I finished 4th in my age group, good enough to take home a trophy.  In all the years when I could still run relatively fast I usually finished right outside the top 5.  Another surprise came from the son-in-law, who ran a personal best of 20:59.  It was a PR by about 90 seconds.

I asked Vlad, who just turned 40, two months ago, when he was running, because I never see him run.  He confessed that he was sneaking out after I leave for work and packing on the miles since the beginning of the year.  He managed to finished 2nd in his age group.  He was incredibly happy as we all were.

Just a couple of weeks before I had run another 5K where I somehow managed to win my age group running under 24 minutes.  I'm beginning to get some longer runs in which should help my endurance.  Now, I've just got to convince myself to do some "safe" speedwork.  I've gone more than a year without getting injured.  I want to keep it that way.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Dean

News of Dean Smith's passing gave me pause to consider the weight of his contributions to college basketball.  John Wooden may have been the game's greatest coach but Dean Smith must certainly rank second.  He didn't as many national championships as he probably should have, but his teams were always in the hunt.

I take pride in the fact that Smith came from Kansas.  He played basketball at the University of Kansas under the great Phog Allen.  He was offered the Kansas job a couple of times in the 1980's and said no both times, resulting in two in hires of Larry Brown, a North Carolina grad and Roy Williams, who coached as an assistant under Smith.

The two schools, Kansas and North Carolina, owe much to each other.  The coaching legacy between the schools is so intertwined between head coaches and assistants that only the hardcore fans see the links.  What is important to remember is that Dean Smith but Kansas basketball back on the map.  Larry Brown brought a luster back to the program that had slowly faded away under Ted Owens. 

Larry escaped Lawrence after winning a miracle national championship in 1988 and after Dean said no to the job a second time, he recommended Roy Williams.  As hard as it is to believe, Williams took Kansas basketball to even greater heights, even though he didn't win a national championship.  Roy elevated K.U. back into the holy trinity of college basketball.  He put it there with Kentucky and North Carolina and for that Jayhawk fans should always be grateful.

I only saw Dean Smith coach once in person.  He brought a team that would go on to win his first national championship to Kemper Arena in Kansas City to play K.U.  Much to my surprise the Jayhawks upset the Tarheels.  Nothing about Smith or the game really stands out except for getting to see Michael Jordan play as a freshman.

I'm sad in a way that I didn't get to see Dean implement his famous 4-corners offensive scheme.  It's a fixture of a bygone era, rendered almost useless by the shot clock.  It still stings when I recall how a top-ranked Notre Dame used that same offense to hold off an upset minded Kansas in double overtime back in 1974.  I don't know whether to blame Smith, Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps, or Irish freshman sensation Adrian Dantley for that difficult loss.

It shows how Smith's influence stretched across basketball, not only through his great players and the outstanding coaches like Brown, Williams and George Karl that stem from his tree, but what he brought to other schools and the game as a whole.