Monday, June 18, 2012

Unadulterated Excellence

It might seem odd to have "unadulterated" in the title of a post that shows a mile race that took place three years before a test for EPO existed.  A race where no one has run faster than the top two runners since and that was 13 years ago next month.  A race where 16 men ran under 3:56.
First of all - I was there.  Don't believe me?  Here is a link to an interview with Kevin Sullivan from where he gave an account of the race.  "As the officials walked us from the call room onto the track at the 200m mark, and down the backstretch, I saw a familiar face. My teammate from Michigan Don McLaughlin, his girlfriend and Michigan runner Michelle Slater, and former Pioneer standout and current Loyola athlete Ben Ingrham."
Ok - they spelled my name wrong - but it's exciting anytime that a man who was once 5th in the Olympics and Canadian record holder (3:50.26) calls you a "former standout" - especially when Don and Michelle were much more impressive runners than me.  Don was on at least two Penn Relays DMR championship teams with Kevin - as well as being Big Ten indoor mile champ.  His then girlfriend - now wife - Michelle was an All-American at Michigan. 
Don and I were teammates in high school.  He is a year older than me - his senior year we won the cross country title for the state of Michigan and were ranked 3rd in the country ahead of the famous team from York, IL.  We also were on a state champion 4X800 (7:48) team that also had the 3rd best time in the country that year. 
Don, Michelle and I were on a seven week eurorail trip.  We traveled to Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin, Cologne, Interlaken, Rome, Barcelona, Pamplona, London - and probably a few more that I'm forgetting.  I'm not sure which one of us suffered most from our obviously bad idea of traveling for seven weeks as a couple and a single dude (who could be a little bit of a smart ass at the age of 22) but we have somehow remained friends.  I'm looking forward to running with Don next month at the Great Lakes Relay in Michigan. 
The first time I saw Kevin run was probably my junior year of high school.  It was an early year indoor invitational.  I can't remember if it was a DMR or a mile - but I do remember that it was the first time I saw someone run sub-4:00 up close.  He ran ~3:57.  What struck me as a high school athlete was how relaxed he was.  I remember the first time he came around - I thought there was something wrong with his jaw.  He almost looked like he had been given a muscle relaxer in his cheeks.  They shook with each step.  It was the first time I realized that you cannot run fast without running relaxed. 
I did get invited to walk-on to the Michigan team.  I even had a meeting with Ron Warhurst who brought in myself and my high school teammate and multiple-time state champion Todd Snyder.  Ron had probably heard that Todd and I were good friends because he mentioned that we could room together.  What Ron probably didn't know at the time was that Todd had been dating my sister for the last nine months - and the thought of waking up with the two of them on the bottom bunk wasn't exactly a draw.
In the end I decided to go to Loyola Chicago. 1) I loved Chicago - still do. 2) I got a little money which made the private school cost the same as in-state tuition for UM.  3) I knew that I wouldn't get any attention from the coaches at Michigan.  They had an insane amount of talent already - and Todd wasn't even the top recruit in his class - his roommate ended up being John Mortimer who was second at the 1994 Footlocker National Championship.
Even though I left Ann Arbor for college I was back most breaks and ran and hung out with my friends from high school - which meant I ran and hung out with the Michigan team.  I don't say this to name drop - but merely to say that I had as close of a view into a team as someone can have without being on the team.  My friend Don trained with Kevin 300+ days a year for at least four years.  If Kevin had been into enhancing his performance through illegal drugs - I would know.
Kevin is a freak of nature.  He still has world age-group record for 800m for 14 year olds - 1:53.03.  He also happens to be incredibly nice and giving person.  In my mind Kevin was and is what I true champion should be.  Given the time period he competed it's hard not to think about how he was most likely cheated out of a couple of Olympic & world championship medals. 
I haven't talked to Kevin directly about how he feels - but my sense talking to his teammates is that he tried to not let it bother him.  That rather than let it consume him he just did his thing and hoped that the dopers got caught.  That's why I cannot forgive or condone doping in any sport.  The people who get robbed are people like Kevin - and that really pisses me off.
I'm a believer that the only way to change the culture of doping is shaming people.  Maybe that seems somewhat unforgiving or cruel - but I think the current situation is cruel - that our most talented athletes have to either give in to cheating and taking unnecessary health risks or live the rest of their lives wondering "what if?"

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