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Building A Track And Field Empire In Oregon


Close to 1,000 middle and high school students from the Northwest competed in track and field events throughout the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Portland.

Close to 1,000 middle and high school students from the Northwest competed in track and field events throughout the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Portland.

Emily Haugbro/OPB

Emmett Bailor writhed as he paced around the corrals guiding athletes back to the warmup area at the Oregon Convention Center.

He and his teammates seemed unaccustomed to the post-race media scrum. After all, the members of the 4x400 meters relay squad were all high schoolers. International press isn’t what they’re used to.

But the world’s stage and spotlight were theirs this past weekend, if only for a few minutes. More than 30 boys and girls relay teams from Oregon and Washington competed throughout the IAAF World Indoor Championships for track and field in Portland — the first time in the history of the meet.

Increasing youth participation in track and field is part of the Northwest track elite's efforts to make the region a destination for the sport.

Increasing youth participation in track and field is part of the Northwest track elite's efforts to make the region a destination for the sport.

Emily Haugbro/OPB

Brendan Van Voorhis runs for McNary High School in Salem. He learned of his opportunity to run at worlds two weeks before the competition.

“I got pretty excited about it,” Van Voorhis said. “To be on this track with all these great athletes and be able to run on the same track as them, that’s pretty cool.”

Van Voorhis watched the world championships with his father over the weekend and came to Portland for the USATF Indoor Championships the week prior.

The national and international indoor competitions are two in a lengthy list of marquee track and field events in Oregon in the coming five years.

The insertion of youth events into the weekend’s big show is part of an effort by state and local organizations to revive track and field in Oregon.

“The USA is historically the powerhouse of track and field,” said Sebastian Coe, a former Olympic gold medalist and current IAAF President. “Yet the US is still a country where the general perception of track and field is low. It’s great that that regeneration should be taking place here in the state of Oregon and this city of Portland.”

Several of the sport’s superstars hail from or make the Beaver State their home.

Liam Pickhardt, who ran for Crook County High School on Saturday, said Oregon’s reputation for developing some of the world’s best track stars makes that rejuvenation a possibility.

“The top distance athletes train in Oregon and people like [distance runner] Mo Farah traveled from Britain just to live in Portland to train, to be with the best,” he said.

The high schoolers navigating the press corrals spoke of stars like Farah and American sprinter Barbara Pierre like others might speak of LeBron James.

High school students compete in the 4x400 meters relay during the IAAF World Indoor Championships for track and field in Portland on Friday, March 18, 2016.

High school students compete in the 4x400 meters relay during the IAAF World Indoor Championships for track and field in Portland on Friday, March 18, 2016.

Emily Haugbro/OPB

That level of enthusiasm for track and field, as well as high participation rates among children and adults, drive the track elite in the Northwest to try to grow the sport. (Take a look at the astonishing array of billboards at a major international track and field competition and you’ll understand the sport’s financial allure as well.)

Top athletes from around the globe were on display in Portland throughout the weekend, which pointed lots of bright lights and television cameras at the Rose City and the greater Pacific Northwest.

The sold out crowds at the Oregon Convention Center may have been there to see the superstars of international track and field, but they also got a peek at some who may be tomorrow’s champions.

In addition to the high school relays, more than 500 athletes from the Northwest competed at an invitational at the Oregon Convention Center in the days leading up to worlds. About 350 Portland middle school students held events at the venue also.

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