The Salazar Effect: A lasting impact?

By Jim Vermeulen, guest columnist
February 28, 2013 Editor’s Note: We received the following piece unsolicited from NY high school coach Jim Vermeulen after it was rejected by another website for being ‘too delicate.’ Considering we’ve never been afraid of upsetting potential advertisers, we immediately became interested. We read it and thought it was interesting and asked the author for a bit of clarification as to what his main point was. He responded:

My short essay is merely meant to pose a few questions in light of the excitement over the accomplishments of Salazar’s coaching arrangements and the affect of such arrangements on the development of scholastic distance running in this country. It’s not just the Oregon Project, of course, but the OP is creating the buzz currently. We ought to questions the trends, whether we are cheerleaders or skeptics. My central question is whether the trends toward greater scholastic runner visibility (via meet sites, Flotrack, Milesplit,etc) and the increased potential of scholastic runners opting out of school programs is ultimately positive for ALL of scholastic running? I believe that’s an open question, and I will, with all due respect, disagree that “the talent rises to the top….”  It does, given the right support and/or expertise, but we all know that there are very talented runners out there who, if they chose to no longer compete for their school, would certainly not have the finances to access quality coaches and to bankroll big meet travel. No knock on Mary Cain, but if most high school stars decided they could not compete for their home programs, their parents likely could not afford to hire a private coach and jet them to big meets about the country. My point is that Nike (and others) could, if they wanted, support aspiring programs and/or athletes in innovative ways, this in addition to financing the elite athletes. As I said, it’s a topic worth discussion.

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On the long drive home from the recent Millrose Games, I decided something for myself about Alberto Salazar and the Oregon Project he currently directs. I decided I am an Alberto Salazar fan—though a qualified one. Innovators such as Salazar do what innovators are prone to do. They push the envelope in searching for solutions, in this case an answer to the underbelly softness of American distance running in the 80’s and 90’s. Innovating usually means irritating those content with–or invested in–the status quo. Salazar and the Oregon Project have certainly raised eye-brows and ruffled feathers in the past decade, and American distance running is the better for it. So good for him, and good for Nike for plumping down money to build a hyperbaric house and for financing various methods of improving the training and competing of American distance runners. Sure, Nike is padding their bottom line, but runners benefit. And as the saying goes: “what isn’t tried, won’t work.” Of course there are those who do not agree. Salazar certainly has his detractors, but whether you applaud or criticize him and the Oregon Project, if we expect to advance the overall ‘health’ of scholastic running programs in this country, then loving or hating Salazar’s practices and achievements with young prodigies such as Mary Cain is not the central issue.

Many are agog at the emergence of [insert your adjective here] middle-distance runner Mary Cain. With Cain now withdrawn from her scholastic school programs, breaking national records at a dizzy rate, serving the focus of NY Times articles and being “advised” long distance by Coach Salazar, the running media is conducting its required love affair with this extraordinarily talented young lady. And a lot of scholastic coaches already speak of her in extraterrestrial terms, as though describing a runner no longer one of ‘us.’ This is how the star system works in the other ‘popular sports,’ and so scholastic running can pat itself on the back for having finally achieved that level. Good for us. I suppose we deserve it, though there is always that gypsy curse which goes something like “may you get what you want.”

Driving home, however, I wasn’t thinking much about another Mary Cain record or the supposed belief that a scholastic/collegiate superstar system will revitalize American distance running and improve the medal count at the next Olympics. I was thinking about other things. Using the quiet travel time, I was anticipating the fast approaching outdoor track season and whether Kristen (not her real name) would summon herself beyond recent disappointments and graduate with a season to remember, not another one to rationalize or forget. As the passing mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania framed my car windows, I was wondering whether Colleen (not her real name) could, with a slight shift in attitude, see herself as the superior runner she can be—and then become one. And I was thinking about Kyle (not his real name).

Kyle arrived at our district this past Fall, the latest stop along his dysfunctional foster care placement tour, the fourth or fifth (I’m not sure) district he’d known in the past three years. Coach Delsole and I didn’t need to have the full details of his background; we didn’t care about any of his labels or so-called special needs; we merely wanted to coach the guy who showed up every day with enthusiasm and desire, the one who, by season’s end, added ten feet to his shot put PR. Despite some rough patches, Kyle had, we’d come to believe, finally found a home for the remainder of his scholastic career. He deserved at least that much, and we were glad home would be us. But two days after his final meet of the season, he was gone, whisked abruptly away to yet another ‘home’ in yet another district following a disagreement with his foster parent, one that almost any other parent would have handled better. And so now I was thinking of where to send his Most Improved team award.

As the miles drifted by, I was, in other words, absorbed with what the majority of scholastic coaches tirelessly devote themselves to—trying to make our sport work for the vast spectrum of young adults we confront season after season, year after year, almost all of whom will never compete at Millrose. Their connection to Salazar, Rupp, Cain et. al. is at best tenuous, so the pertinent question, it seems to me, is this: can Salazar and all those others provide a positive ‘trickle-down’ effect for American scholastic distance running? I certainly hope so—and we should expect nothing less for all the attention and opportunity they enjoy.

But it is just as possible that the publicity gush about the latest high school prodigy will merely fuel stratification between the haves of the distance running world—those with access to elite coaching, programmatic and technological benefits–and the have-nots. American culture, we know, too often tips that way, erecting its modern versions of the medieval cathedrals that the rest of us are expected to stare up at and adore. Star worship, though, is typically a poor substitute for systemic innovation, support and change.

Here are my hopes: that Nike and others like them are willing to spread their wealth more widely and sponsor not just elite athletes and programs but some broad coaching initiatives that will foster more of the talent which resides out there in urban and rural districts alike. There are ways to do that, and it’s patently obvious that superior talent requires superior coaching and programing. I also hope the growing media coverage of running will take at least some occasions to swing the cameras away from the top of the heap and focus occasionally on ‘the others.’ The surging popularity of track and field allows them to take those chances. And I hope we all seize opportunities to build the base as well as the pinnacle of the scholastic running pedestal.

American distance running has recently taken some important steps toward mainstream popularity. There need to be more.

Biography: Jim Vermeulen is the head track and cross-country coach at West Genesee in Camillus, N.Y. His article, “Managing Teams With A Big-Tent Philosophy” appeared in the Fall 2012 edition of Track Coach. Comments? Email us and we’ll forward them to the author.

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