By Jonathan Gault
August 3, 2020
On, the Swiss running brand that sponsors the Mammoth Track Club and ZAP Endurance, is making its biggest move yet in the professional running game by launching a professional team in Boulder. The group, known as On Athletics Club, has already begun practicing and will be coached by three-time US Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein. OAC will be centered around 23-year-old Joe Klecker, a recent graduate of the University of Colorado who finished second at the 2019 NCAA Cross Country Championships. Seven other runners have signed on as part of the team; the full roster will be unveiled August 10.
“We have selected the finest athletes in our inaugural roster for On Athletics Club, some of whom already hold national and international records,” says Olivier Bernhard, co-founder of On. “Our world-class founding members include a diverse and multi-national group of top ranked athletes from the NCAA who have proven to be among the best in their field. Under the tutelage and leadership of our professional management team, On Athletics Club is committed to supporting talented and disciplined individuals in their quest to become champions in their sport. We are excited to announce this significant milestone for our first residential program in talent development that will also bring some unique and exciting content for track fans to follow.”
To this point, On, which Bernhard founded in 2010 with David Allemann and Caspar Coppetti, has been best known for sponsoring triathletes such as five-time world champion Javier Gomez of Spain and 2012 Olympic champion Nicola Spirig of Switzerland — a nod to Bernhard’s past as a professional triathlete.
In April, On Global Head of Sports Marketing Feliciano Robayna hired Steve DeKoker, former head of sports marketing at Brooks, with a mandate to do more in track & field, particularly in the US. DeKoker began by signing Jake Riley, who will head to Sapporo next year as part of the US Olympic marathon team, but DeKoker was thinking bigger; he felt the best way for On to invest in the sport and tell the stories of its athletes was through a professional team. It’s a model both DeKoker (with the Brooks Beasts) and On sports marketing specialist Andrew Wheating (the two-time Olympian and 3:30 1500m runner who began working with On in August 2019) were familiar with. Bernhard gave him the go-ahead.
On’s significant investment — every athlete has signed a multi-year deal with no reduction clauses — carries significant risk. Until this week, Penn’s Nia Akins was the only 2020 college grad to announce a professional deal, signing with Brooks in June. Many brands have been wary about signing athletes during a period in which few competitive opportunities exist. And with the fate of the Tokyo Olympics remaining uncertain, brands may have to wait up to four years until their athletes compete on the biggest stage of all.
But DeKoker says On’s position as a specialty running company has allowed them to invest even during a global pandemic.
“Running is kind of experiencing this second boom,” DeKoker says. “We’ve got all these folks at home who are struggling with different issues, but running is a viable activity for them. Whereas if you’re Nike, and you’re in 50 different verticals, running might be a positive one, but you’ve got a bunch of other sports that are hemorrhaging right now.”
Then there’s the upside of signing athletes this year: a flood of collegiate talent just hit the market, and there’s less competition to sign them than during a traditional summer.
“On is investing in the sport right now when nobody else is,” DeKoker says. “…There’s just really limited offers out there, if any. So there was obviously an opportunity, and On, to their credit, saw it and said let’s invest, let’s double down here.”
On, however, already sponsors two US-based groups. So where does this deal leave them?
“We’re committed to ZAP through 2021, so that’s great,” DeKoker says. “Mammoth, I think their contract’s up [at the end of this year], so that will be a discussion that we have with Andrew Kastor and that team. I can’t really talk about contract negotiations but we would hope to continue to work with them as well.”
Another risk: building a group around Klecker. Though his credentials are impressive — pbs of 7:47/13:30 and top finishes of 2nd (’19 indoor 5k), 2nd (’19 XC), and 3rd (’19 indoor 3k) at NCAAs — Klecker did not have the opportunity to prove himself at NCAAs in 2020; both the indoor and outdoor championships were cancelled due to COVID-19.
But when DeKoker and Wheating were looking to sign athletes from this year’s graduating class, Klecker stood out. They liked his pedigree (his mom, Janis, was a 1992 Olympian in the marathon and won that year’s US Olympic Trials; his father, Barney, once held the world best for 50 miles) and that he had improved every year while at Colorado. But what sold them was Klecker’s attitude; they were convinced he was a guy they could build a team around.
“Andy and I kind of joke that he’s the Burt Reynolds of track and field — he doesn’t say a lot, but he’s this good-looking guy that just takes care of business on the track and has a little bit of an edge to him,” DeKoker says.
Klecker was surprised at just how badly On wanted him. Though he had never heard of the brand before this year, On won him over by demonstrating an uncommon level of commitment. When DeKoker and Wheating told Klecker they wanted to build a team around him, they asked where he would want the group to be based. Klecker said Boulder, and they agreed. They also inserted a clause in his contract that they would not hire a coach without Klecker’s approval. Within a month of NCAA indoors being cancelled, Klecker had signed with On.
“I don’t know of any other runners who had that, being able to not only join a new pro group, but also have a say in who’s going to be coaching it,” Klecker says.
Klecker is taking a risk, too. A “huge” risk, in his own words. Shoe technology is rapidly evolving, and his college coaches, Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs, stressed that Klecker needed to seriously examine the product when considering which brand to sign with. So far, he says, On has stepped up to the plate.
“At the time, [On] didn’t have a spike out, didn’t have a carbon shoe,” Klecker says. “And I was on a video call with the owner and founder, Olivier, and he basically reassured me that they’re gonna develop spikes based off our input and carbon shoes. By building this group, yes, they want to have top track athletes, but they want to use us to develop the best product they can.”
On still doesn’t have a spike available for sale to the public, but they have made some available to their pros and plan to go to market “soon,” according to DeKoker.
With Klecker in place, DeKoker set about finding a coach. Ritzenhein, whom DeKoker knew from the former’s time with the Hansons-Brooks Original Distance Project, was one of the first names he thought of. Ritzenhein, 37, knew he wanted to coach ever since serving as a volunteer assistant under Andy Powell at Oregon in 2014, and had begun coaching several athletes during his final years as a pro, notably Leah O’Connor (now Falland) and Parker Stinson. When the opportunity with On came about, Ritzenhein, who dropped out of the Olympic Marathon Trials in February, took it.
With coach Kevin Hanson‘s blessing, Ritzenhein announced his retirement in May, freeing him from his Hansons-Brooks contract and allowing him to take the job with On (once Klecker signed off). Ritzenhein says On is allowing him to continue coaching some of his current athletes — such as the Saucony-sponsored (but Boulder-based) Stinson — for the time being, but OAC is now his top priority.
The hardest part, Ritzenhein says, was leaving his home state of Michigan, where he and wife Kalin lived within five miles of both of their parents.
“When I thought about what place would I want to go to, there was probably no other place other than Boulder,” Ritzenhein says. “I went to college here, I trained here, a lot of my friends live here still.”
The Ritzenheins moved to nearby Niwot in mid-July, which has become a haven for runner families. His children, son Jude and daughter Addison (entering fourth and seventh grade, respectively), will one day attend Niwot High School, which has churned out some serious talent in recent years: 4:00 miler Cruz Culpepper, 2020 US indoor runner-up Nick Harris, and the Bowerman Track Club’s Elise Cranny are all alums. Edna Kiplagat‘s family also resides within the district.
“I tell them that they have some pretty hard school records to follow,” Ritzenhein says.
Between OAC, Tinman Elite, and Team Boss, plus T.E.A.M Boulder (Riley’s group, coached by Lee Troop) and Roots Running Project, Boulder has become, in Ritzenhein’s words, “a thriving mecca of professional teams.” When he surveyed the broader landscape of US pro groups, DeKoker found a spectrum.
On one end: the erstwhile Nike Oregon Project, where personalities were flattened and results were all that mattered.
DeKoker said Wheating experienced a similar frustration during his time with OTC Elite.
“I think he was always a little frustrated, like, why aren’t we being more fan-centric and reaching out and sharing the human side of our team here?” DeKoker says.
On the other: Tinman Elite, which doesn’t have the same talent or results as NOP but has built a cult following by sharing everything through YouTube and social media.
“You’d be lying if you weren’t a smidge jealous of what they’ve created with, really, a lack of pro-level talent,” DeKoker says. “They have a following that doesn’t really reflect the talent on the team in my opinion, but it’s a great thing. It’s what you want as a marketer — you want fans and you want people that are engaging with your athletes.”
DeKoker’s aim is for OAC to find a happy medium between high performance and engagement: put athletes on Olympic teams, but make sure those athletes are interacting with fans to allow their personalities to shine.
One of the ways DeKoker believes OAC can accomplish the first goal is by making the team an international group. In American distance running, Olympic berths are a zero-sum game — if you earn one, that’s one fewer spot for your training partner to shoot for. Moreover, in recent years, many of those spots have been hoarded by the powerhouse Nike groups in Oregon, which have the financial muscle to pay a premium for top American talent. By featuring athletes from across the world, OAC gives itself a better chance of getting its athletes to the Olympics.
The plan — COVID permitting — is for all of OAC’s healthy athletes to debut at the Music City Distance Carnival on August 15 in Nashville. It’s an opportunity Klecker has been waiting months for. He was in Albuquerque for the NCAA Indoor Championships in March, ready to race as the top returner in the 3k and 5k, when the meet was cancelled. He has not raced since.
“The great runners who’ve come through CU, seeing them on our wall in Boulder, what titles they’ve won and everything; the last guy to win an NCAA title at Boulder was actually Dathan,” Klecker says. “And so I see that gap, of like, 15 years or something, and I was so ready to put my name up there.”
Klecker is hoping whatever he accomplishes as a pro will overshadow the lack of an NCAA title — “It’s like in high school, if you never won a state title, no one cares [anymore that you didn’t win a HS title] if you go to college and win a title there.” And both he and Ritzenhein believe he’s ready to run fast right now. Klecker has upped the volume of his track workouts since Ritzenhein began coaching him, and the result is what Klecker says is the best training of his life.
One workout stands out: a set of 6 x mile with 3:00 rest in which Klecker averaged 4:21 on a hot day.
“I did that exact workout at sea level a month before I ran 12:56 and broke the American record,” Ritzenhein says. “Some of [my reps] were on grass, but he did it at altitude. So he’s doing the kind of quality work that I was doing at my best.”
Klecker believes that if he were to race a 5,000 in perfect conditions right now, he could run close to 13:00. But with weather and pacing in Nashville unpredictable, he said he’ll be happy if he can run under the Olympic standard of 13:13.50, which would still be a big improvement on his 13:30 pb (even though it wouldn’t count for Olympic qualifying purposes).
Where Klecker’s journey takes him beyond Nashville is uncertain, but it will be worth following, one Colorado legend fronting a team coached by another, trying to stake a claim in the running world.
On will be announcing the remainder of the On Athletics Club roster on August 10:
Talk about the new group on the LetsRun.com messageboard/fan forum. MB: Breaking: On is starting a new training group in Boulder coached by Dathan Ritzenhein and headlined by Joe Klecker