Athletics West Club
In 1977, if you were a serious American runner fresh out of college you had nowhere to go. Even stars like Craig Virgin, the young Illinois athlete who had just obliterated the national record in the two-mile—a guy who by all accounts should have been leading the pack for America in international competition—faced bleak prospects.The two organizations in charge of cultivating talent were well intentioned, but essentially useless. Unlike East Germany and the Soviet Union, which plucked elite youth athletes and groomed them full-time on the government’s dime, young Americans had to finance their own training and travel for competition, a demand that was nearly impossible to meet. The irony, of course, is that distance guys tend to peak in their late twenties or early thirties, so by the time they hit their strides the university money and coaching were mere specks in the rearview mirror. Without an infrastructure of support, U.S. track and field, and distance running in particular, was getting equally left in the distance by their global opposition.The U.S. had medaled in distance events only nine times since World War I. It was getting embarrassing, and with three years until Moscow, time was running out if America was going to avoid total humiliation at the hands (or feet) of its Cold War adversaries on the world stage.
In the northwest corner of the country, a decision was made. That it would happen in Oregon was logical, the unofficial track capital of the country, where the state universities had produced the nation’s most exciting stars. Oregon was also home to Blue Ribbon Sports, the company behind Nike, the biggest producer of running shoes in the country. In 1977, Phil Knight, Geoff Hollister and Bill Bowerman, the men behind Blue Rib- bon, and all runners themselves, paused to consider the sorry state of their sport in America. Business was booming. Knight, Hollister and Bowerman who met when Knight and Hollister ran college track with Bowerman as their coach—had a little cash to play with. What if they funnelled some of their free enterprise profits back into the sport that had inspired their company in the first place?They could sponsor a small team of runners and train the hell out of them. It was either that or buy a year’s worth of advertisements on the back page of a magazine, and if the experiment went well, Nike would get the same publicity. “I believe in this,” Bowerman declared at the project’s outset. “It fills a void, and I’m worried about my sport.”
In August, their first move was to hire Harry Johnson, a high-school coach legendary for his blunt (some might use a different word), warden-like demeanour and rigorous training tactics—and for winning. In fact, Johnson was the winningest coach in Oregon high school history, having taken home 25 state titles in his career. “Harry Johnson has got the credentials,” said Bowerman. “If a fellow really wants to get there, he can get there with HarryJohnson.”Thecoach, for his part, was equally fired up. “This is an enormous challenge for the company, and an enormous challenge for me,” he said of the venture.
Johnson set up shop in Eugene and set to work looking for runners—not too many, maybe a dozen, max. And not just any runners. He was after guys who fit a certain profile: not hardened, cocky champions, but the guys (only guys, at first) next in line, malleable young athletes with something to learn and something to prove, and prefer- ably ones who were dedicated to winning. “The family man has mortgages, a wife who may not understand and other problems and obligations,” said Johnson. “We need more of a commitment than that.” With the support of the citizens and business owners of track-mad Eugene, the program could offer runners a plum arrangement: Nike would take care of travel expenses, provide gear and find them jobs, but the athletes would have to earn a living wage, working five-hour days in flexible local businesses in order to accommodate a full-time training schedule. “We’re not going to bring in a bunch of free spirits who want to reach into your pocket book,” Johnson vowed to the people of Eugene.
The first man to sign up was the aptly named Virgin, a runner who specialized in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters and had been considered the greatest high-school distance runner of his time. “Craig Virgin fits the mold perfectly: he has just graduated from college, he has no real roots, no difficult family situation and his character is such that he will be an asset to his employer,” declared Coach Johnson. The two men had similar opinions about the cause of domestic mediocrity in their sport. “American distance running has been killed off by the foreign runners,” said Virgin. “Clubs like this have been go- ing on in Australia, New Zealand and Europe for many years. That’s a reason we’re so damn far behind.” He promised to do his best to make sure the project was a success. Now the team just needed a few more guys and a name. Phil Knight wanted something that had both regional and national implications. “Athletics West” had a convenient double meaning—outside the U.S., “athletics” referred specifically to the events of track and field—and announced to the world a new American presence in the sport.
At Athletics West, Craig Virgin was soon joined by a virtual Dirty Dozen of speed demons. They included Jim Crawford, an Army vet who specialized in the 10,000 meter; Phil Kane, an accounting major and powerhouse in the 1,500; and seminary student and marathoner Jeff Wells, with Doug Brown, George Malley and Mike Manke rounding out the group, and more to come (discus champ Mac Wilkins and shot put ace Al Feuerbach signed on shortly thereafter). It was an eclectic mix of dudes—some clean-cut, others shaggy, with interests ranging from God to beer to carpentry—united by their determination to bring some pride back to the sport. Under John- son’s guidance, the boys began to train hard in five events: the 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 meters, the steeplechase and the marathon. Sometimes they hit the local track, but mainly they ran the rough trails and hills and bike paths in their own backyard.They ran in the mornings before work and in the evenings afterward. The Athletics West workout was varied and intense—a hard day followed by an easy day, on different terrains, with a long, moderately paced training run once a week.The clubmen could often be spotted bounding up Emerald Street Hill in Eugene in their European-style uniforms, which had been hand-sewn at home by the coach’s wife, Jody, who made each athlete three apiece (“I don’t see any reason to wear the same colours all the time,” she said. “We’re also working with one which includes the colours lime green, purple and black—it’s really pretty”). Expectations for the club were high, and they hadn’t even competed yet. As the team geared up for competition, the characteristically outspoken Coach Johnson was careful to control expectations. “We’re trying to avoid the ‘Dawning of a New Day’ overhype syndrome,” he cautioned.“We want to produce first.”
Johnson shouldn’t have worried. In the next few months the men of AW crushed in competitions, with Jeff Wells winning the marathon in Honolulu, Virgin running away with cross-country championships and the title in the 5,000 in Nashville, and George Malley placing first in the 1,500 at a meet back in Oregon.The team was saving its real energy for the summer, however, when they’d head to Europe for two months to have their first taste of international-level competition. Athletics West’s final American meet before Europe was the national championships, where they swept the steeplechase and Al Feuerbach won the shot put—a promising omen as they headed abroad.
In Europe, though, the team faced a new level of opponent, competing against guys who had benefited from years of state- sponsored training. They followed a gruelling schedule, with each athlete averaging ten meets in the brief tour. Jody Johnson cooked most of their meals, and there was zero time for sightsee- ing. “After a month and a half, my wife and I took one day to go to Lichtenstein from Lausanne, and that’s the only time I haven’t been directly involved with work,” said Coach Johnson.They lamented the warm beer (but drank it anyway) and tapped into a Finnish training secret: a 250-lb bald masseuse called Ilop who kneaded the runners so hard they jokingly called him “Mr.Tickle” (“The first time he got Kane he had him in tears,” laughed Coach Johnson).Though true meet victories were few, every single AW runner clocked personal bests on the trip—a staggering 80 re- cords all told, set by seven runners—including eight apiece by Craig Virgin and Doug Brown.
Though the original nucleus of the team disintegrated after Europe—he’d been one of the team’s best performers, but Craig Virgin had tired of butting heads with his coach and left to train elsewhere; George Malley departed for other reasons—the experimental opening season of Athletics West had proved a runaway success. “Everybody understands and believes in our approach now,” said Coach Johnson at the conclusion of that first year. “They realize the discipline and courage involved in taking a long-term approach to training. I think there’s a different perspective now.”
In the years to come, the Athletics West program’s legacy only grew stronger. During year two, they recruited more athletes, beefed up the regimen with doctors and medical testing, and built a state-of-the-art training facility—they even brought in a massage table for Mr.Tickle when he was in town. Soon they would include women (including superstars like Joan Benoit Samuelson and Mary Decker Slaney) and expand operations to the East Coast, eventually going global. And as it turned out, the United States ended up boycotting Moscow.This wasn’t a fairytale, after all, and Athletics West was itself a distance game. But by 1984 in Los Angeles, they were more than ready.