Inspiring young people key to future of
track and field
By Steve Ritchie / TrackTown USA
PORTLAND, Ore. – One of the most famous lines of all sports movies is this classic from Field of Dreams: “Build it and they will come.”
The reference, of course, is to creating a baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield, which then attracted baseball legends of a bygone era.
The same line could also be used to describe the striking emerald green indoor track – first constructed in a vacant Portland warehouse prior to the IAAF World Indoor Championships Portland 2016 – and its effect on track and field athletes and fans. The banked 200-meter oval track is drawing many of the greatest athletes in the world to Portland for the four-day meet at the Oregon Convention Center, as well as fans from all across the globe.
But its powers of attraction are not limited to elite athletes and diehard track fans.
Throughout the build-up to the USATF and World Indoor Championships, and during both events, young people of all ages and abilities have responded in overwhelming fashion to a variety of opportunities to compete, receive expert coaching, interact with top athletes and experience the intimacy and thrill of indoor track and field at its highest level.
During the month-long period when the track was still in the warehouse, lovingly dubbed “The House of Track,” TrackTown USA put on a series of youth development meets on Saturdays, and opened the track for weekly youth practices. Following the first day of competition at the USATF Indoor meet and prior to the second day of competition, the Portland Indoor Track Classic was held, with 550 high school athletes from Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana competing.
This week, 350 middle schoolers from the Portland Public School District will be bused to the Oregon Convention Center for a special field trip. They will be escorted into the stadium, have a chance to hear from TrackTown USA President and U.S. Olympic men’s head track and field coach Vin Lananna, and a U.S. athlete, and then get to run a 60-meter sprint on the track with Portland Mayor Charlie Hales as the official starter.
On Thursday – the first day of competition at the IAAF World Indoor Championships – more than 200 high school pole vaulters from the Pacific Northwest will get expert instruction from some of the best vault coaches and athletes in the country at the Moda Center. They will then get a front-row seat to watch the top men’s and women’s pole vaulters in the world compete that evening at the Oregon Convention Center.
And, for the first time in IAAF history, there will be high school athletes competing in a series of 4×400-meter relay races during the World Indoor meet.
Lananna said the thinking behind this ambitious set of youth initiatives is simply to carry out an important part of the TrackTown USA mission.
“We are doing this is to inspire the next generation,” Lananna said. “One way we do it is by having the world’s number one team here competing one day, and then right after it we’ll have 550 kids competing on the same track. Hopefully, they will be inspired by Erik Kynard, Sam Kendricks, Ryan Hill, Michelle Carter and Galen Rupp and all the other athletes who are competing here. It’s not about hosting another track meet. It’s about the overall mission of our organization and that is to grow our sport.”
Chris O’Donnell spent countless hours as the volunteer coordinator of the Portland Indoor Track Classic (PITC) because of his belief in the TrackTown USA mission of inspiring the next generation of athletes and fans.
“Personally, for me,” O’Donnell said, “I signed up for this when Vin asked me about it solely because I believe in giving kids an opportunity to exercise and compete. And I have seen first- hand how they get inspired by being treated like rock stars. That was one of our goals in the PITC. Knowing we had the venue, from there, it was all about the experience.
“The response from both the high school coaching community and the student athletes was nothing short of amazing. With literally no marketing of the event, other than posting on Athletic.net and our website, we had over 1,000 kids sign up for the meet!”
O’Donnell adds that the chance to compete in the incredible IAAF World Indoor Championships venue, in and around the USATF Indoor Championships was a huge draw for the kids.
“On Saturday morning some of the officials and I were talking about the details of the day in the warm-up track area,” he said. “They had been working hard all weekend, and yet had volunteered to work more, just so we could put on this meet. Then one young athlete walked in and we heard him say ‘Whoaaa!’ And we all stopped talking. One of the officials remarked, ‘that is exactly why we do this.’
“In the world today, kids communicate everything through social media and we believed that if we could get 500 kids on the track this weekend, many more would know about it and perhaps be inspired themselves. If we can get a few more kids to be active, and maybe think about track and field as a cool option, then we were successful.”
University of Portland assistant track coach Chad Colwell is coordinating the high school 4×400-meter relays, which will take place during the World Indoor sessions. He echoes O’Donnell’s sentiments.
“The response to the high school relay races has been very positive and exciting,” Colwell said. “We will have 144 prep athletes from Oregon, Idaho and Washington competing. I think the high school 4×400 relay is an amazing idea to connect the young track athletes to the World Indoor Championships. It will serve as a wonderful legacy piece for the event, helping inspire the next great generation of Oregon track athletes. Also, for the middle school 60-meter event on Tuesday, we will have 328 kids from Portland Public Schools come see the track and run on it.
Build it and they will come?
For TrackTown USA and IAAF World Indoor Championships Portland 2016, this “Track of Dreams” is not a nostalgic fantasy, but a realistic vision of creating the next generation of track stars and enthusiasts.