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Athletes warm to TrackTown Series experiment
The TrackTown Summer Series is an ongoing experiment, but Vin Lananna is hardly a mad scientist.
Lananna, president of Eugene-based TrackTown USA, Inc., and the 2016 head men's Olympic coach, brought the summer series to the Portland area for the first time Sunday.
With major financial help from a pair of investors and the knowledge that comes with conducting the biggest meets in the U.S., Lananna is doing what he can to broaden the profile of the sport of track and field in America.
The latest step is the TrackTown Summer Series, which staged the second of three meets Sunday at Mt. Hood Community College.
Most of the biggest names in U.S. track weren't there. Many of them were in Europe, competing in Diamond League meets at Paris on July 1 and at Lausanne, Switzerland, on July 6.
Eight members of the U.S. team that will compete at the World Championships in London from Aug. 5-13 were on hand at Mt. Hood, though, adding some luster to a competition that wouldn't have been available a year ago.
Last year's inaugural TrackTown Summer Series was a single meet at Eugene. This year's version is a three-meet series that began June 29 at Palo Alto, California, and moves on to the finals Thursday at New York City, which will feature 20 events, double what was scheduled in Palo Alto and Portland.
A Sunday crowd estimated at 1,300 enjoyed lovely weather, decent competition and unusual access to the athletes and the track itself.
A beer garden in the infield allowed spectators to imbibe in adult beverages while enjoying a unique view of the affair. Fans were right on top of the action during the first event — a mixed men's/women's shot put competition. Observers piled onto the track for the final race, the men's 1,500, leaving the inside four lanes to the runners.
Afterward, athletes and youngsters enjoyed a half-lap race together. It made it a party-like atmosphere that fans and competitors alike seemed to enjoy.
"I like high-fiving little kids before I throw," said Ryan Whiting, who teamed with Michelle Carter to win the shot put competition. "It makes it more fun. Having them be more excited about it makes me more excited about it."
"It's nice when the fans are able to come close to us," Carter said. "To have that feeling of an intimate crowd that can see everything we do makes it more exciting for us — and adds a little bit of pressure, because we know they can really see us."
The TrackTown Summer Series is set up as a team competition, with athletes representing four cities — Portland, San Francisco, Philadelphia and New York. Only one athlete competing for the Portland Pulse emerged a winner during Sunday's 10-event card — Drew Windle, who prevailed in the 800 in a time of 1 minute, 46.21 seconds.
It will take some time for fans to warm up to the idea of rooting for the local team. Sunday's crowd seemed to cheer for all the competitors. But Windle thought he might have had a little edge in terms of support.
"I got a pretty warm reception when they announced my name," said Windle, who finished third in the USA Championships a week ago in Sacramento and will compete in the World Championships. "I've always taken energy from the crowd, whether it's for me or for somebody else, and used that to my advantage.
"Coming down that home stretch, it seemed they liked what they saw — a Portland guy at the front."
Scores were tight Sunday, with the New York Empire winning with 86 points, one more than the Philadelphia Force. The San Francisco Surge finished third with 80 points, with the Portland Pulse bringing up the rear with 78 points.
On a 9-7-6-5 basis for the Palo Alto and Portland meets, team standings heading to Thursday's New York meet have New York and San Francisco tied with 15 points apiece, and Portland and Philadelphia with 12 each. Point awards will double for the New York meet, making it an 18-14-12-10 distribution.
Team points matter, because members of the winning team at each meet pocket an extra $1,000 apiece. That's on top of winners of individual events at Palo Alto and Portland earning $2,000, and winners of each event at New York reaping $4,000.
Investors paid the freight for the athletes who competed at Portland.
"TrackTown is first-class," said Michael Rodgers, who while competing for New York won Sundays 100 in 10.16. "They took care of us. They're taking care of going to New York, too — transportation, hotels, food. No complaints here."
"It's nice to have an American meet putting up great prize money," Windle said. "They put us in a nice hotel, made sure we're taken care of. It's good for the sport."
Competitors in the TrackTown Summer Series think it's good for them, too.
"I had a choice to go to Europe or to stay (in the U.S.)," said Carter, the reigning Olympic champion and American record-holder won won the women's portion of the shot Sunday at 62 feet, 3 inches. "I decided to stay home, because I could train more. I don't have to worry about a long flight and jet lag. It's a great benefit for us."
Whiting, a 2012 Olympian and silver medalist at the 2013 World Championships, could have competed in Europe, too.
"I'd much rather be over here," said Whiting, who won the men's portion of the shot at 69-4 1/4. "I have two young kids. I get to spend more time with my family and just train. I'm from Pennsylvania, so my family can watch me in New York.
"I wish I could have done this my whole career. We don't like going (to Europe). The Europeans have a huge advantage not traveling, though we still go over there and beat them."
Said Rodgers: "I love competing in the U.S. I'm tired of getting on the plane and eating nasty food at (European) meets. It's great to get to stay home, get in an American hotel with American television. I hope we get more meets like this so we can stay home and track can get more popular here."
Former Oregon standout Phyllis Francis, competing for the Philadelphia Force, won the women's 400 in 50.65.
"It was a great atmosphere," she said. "I always enjoy coming (to Oregon), especially around this time of year. It's beautiful, not raining a lot, and it's warm."
The TrackTown Summer Series, she said, "is a good way to promote track and field in the USA. It always gets promoted in Europe, but never here. It gives an athlete incentive to stay here in your own backyard instead of going over to Europe."
Kyree King, who competed for the Oregon Ducks this spring, placed second in the men's 100 in 10.29. He enjoyed the team aspect of the meet.
"It's fun," he said. "I'm coming from collegiate (track), so I'm used to it. Team-first was instilled in me. I was happy to get our team some points today."
"It brings me back to my college days," said Rodgers, who competed at Lindenwood and Oklahoma Baptist on the NAIA level. "I miss college. Miss the per diem."
"The team part is really cool," said Windle, now competing for the Seattle-based Brooks Beasts. "The Beasts already have a team. We experience that on a day-to-day basis. I can see people who train alone and don't get that team atmosphere, how this would be fun for them."
Windle, who finished third at the nationals to write his ticket to London next month, also enjoyed the chance to re-focus in a less-challenging environment since his big performance at Sacramento.
"I did some training runs, did a mental re-set and ate some crap foods this week," he said with a smile. "I've been well-behaved for two or three months — like really disciplined. I just needed a week to re-set both physically and mentally."
If there was a disappointment Sunday, it was in Robby Andrews' failure to earn a qualifying time for London. Andrews, who won the U.S. title but had yet to meet the world qualifying standard of 3:36.00, dropped out in the final lap of a 1,500 won by Oregon Track Club Elite's Ben Blankenship in a photo finish with Nike Oregon Project's Craig Engels. Both were timed in 3:37.43.
"I didn't quite have my legs today," Andrews told reporters.
The TrackTown Summer Series is a new venture for both athletes and the country's track and field fans.
"It's going to go over well," Carter said. "It's going to take some time for people to pick up on it. just because of how track and field has been going in the U.S.
"But this brings a whole 'nother element to it. It brings people who are not familiar with the sport up close and personal, where they can learn more. The more we do this, the more people get to know. It's only going to go up from here."
That is what Lananna is hoping for.
"We have to do our best to rally the troops around the sport of track and field," he said after Sunday's meet. "This is the kind of stuff that does it. Overall, it was a good meet. It's good to have the athletes enjoying it, interacting with one another. The team concept is good."
Lananna's chief investors are heavy hitters. Greifeld is chairman of the board of NASDAQ, Inc., in New York City, an also serves chairman of the USA Track & Field Foundation. Johnson is a retired venture capitalist in the Bay Area.
"Right now, they're on board again for next year," Lannana said.