A runner in a University of Oregon yellow and green jersey raises his hands and smiles as he crosses the finish line of a track, with other runners close behind.

Oregon's Cole Hocker celebrates his win in the men's 1,500 meters, ahead of Notre Dame's Yared Nuguse during the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships, Friday, June 11, 2021, at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore.

Thomas Boyd / AP

The NCAA track and field championships took place this weekend in Eugene at the historic Hayward field, drawing collegiate athletes from across the country. Oregon’s Carmela Cardama Baez beat the current cross-country champion from Alabama to win the 10 kilometer race. We’re joined by former sports writer for The Oregonian Ken Goe and sports desk editor for The Daily Emerald Charles Gearing, who tell us how other runners fared and who came out on top.

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This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller.

There were no NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships last year, so the country’s top college runners had to wait two years before they could all compete against one another. They were finally able to do so last week at a renovated Hayward Field in Eugene. It was a rousing four days with plenty of new records and some thrilling individual wins in front of a home crowd for University of Oregon runners. Once again, Ken Goe covered the proceedings for the Oregonian, even though he is officially a retired sports writer, and Charlie Gearing was on hand as well, he is a sports desk editor for the Daily Emerald. They both join me now. It’s good to have both of you on the show.

Ken Goe:Thank you.

Charlie Gearing: Thanks, Dave.

Miller: So Ken, first, before we get to the results, can you remind us about the context here? With no championships last year, because of the pandemic, what was the feel this year?

Goe: I think all the athletes, and the coaches too, were more than ready to actually be able to compete in a meet like this, particularly at Hayward Field. For a long time, what had been known as Historic Hayward Field was the centerpiece of US Track and Field. That was torn down. It was supposed to open last year in 2020, remade as sort of the crown jewel of track stadiums in North America, so there’s this huge anticipation for that happening, and then it didn’t happen. So I think coaches, athletes, spectators, even the media was anxious to see it happen this year, and health regulations were relaxed just enough that the stadium could be half full, and I think everybody had a pretty good time.

Miller: Charles, what was the vibe that you saw at New Hayward Field?

Gearing: Like Ken mentioned, it was half full, but it really did feel full. The vibe was extravagant, a return of the fans, the players, the athletes, much anticipation, and it definitely met the bill.

Miller: Let’s turn to the competition itself. Ken, you wrote over the weekend “The Oregon athlete with the best performance on the final day of the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field championships doesn’t go to school in Eugene.” Can you tell us about Mahala Norris?

Goe: Yeah she’s a great story actually. She went to Roseburg High School, and then to the Air Force Academy. She’s planning to go into the new Space Force, so she’s not only talented, but smart. She’s 4′11″, which is almost unheard of for the steeplechase, which is a race in which you have to clear barriers, and one of the barriers, you not only have to jump the barrier, but then you have to clear the water hazard beneath the barrier. And she had only run the steeplechase I think four, maybe five times before this meet, competitively. She was really not regarded as anybody anyone else had to pay attention to. Strategically, she made an interesting decision. She ran in Lane 2 all the way through, which means she’s actually running farther than anyone else. If you hug the rail on the inside of the track, that’s the shortest distance. She didn’t want to get possibly tangled up with any other runners, so she stayed outside. But at the end she had the kick to win the race, and it was sort of a remarkable achievement, to have her win and have her win at home, and to be so totally unexpected.

Miller: And we should say that this was not just jumping over barriers and jumping over a water hazard, it’s also running about two miles. And then it was decided by a few 100ths of a second with this extraordinary sprint at the end. Charles, what was the end of that race like?

Gearing: It was unbelievable. As Ken mentioned, she chose to stay on the outside and not get tangled on the inside, obviously an unlikely candidate. And as I mentioned, it was half full, but the crowd was really roaring, really, really leaning into that. It was unbelievable.

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Miller: The two people who are covering the race, they noted something. Ken, you note that she’s 4′11″, they said another reason that she kept going to the outside, giving herself more time to actually run (they said instead of doing 3,000, she was maybe doing a 3,020 ft,) it was because it gave her a better shot of actually seeing the hazards before she had to jump over them with other runners near her. She literally couldn’t actually get a view of the jumps if she didn’t go outside a little bit.

So Charles, she was one of the real bright spots as an Oregonian, but not a University of Oregon athlete. Probably one of the best individual performances by somebody on the U of O women’s team was Carmela Cardama Baez, who won the 10,000, that’s 24 laps, about six miles around and around and around on a track. What was that race like?

Gearing: That was Thursday, and yeah, she won the thing at 32 minutes and 16 seconds. It was unbelievable. It’s the kind of Oregon running performance that fans have kind of come to expect. It really ended up being the highlight for the women’s team, for the women’s division from the Oregon side, it was really kind of a standout point, because on the final day of competition, Oregon women did fall off a little bit. They entered the day in second place and ended up falling to 11th, I think, overall. So this was definitely the high point for Oregon women’ track.

Miller: Charles, So what happened, why didn’t the Ducks women perform better than that?

Gearing: Well, it was a really weird day on the final day of competition, on Oregon’s behalf. They started out in the 4x100 relay, and they had a rough start right off the bat on Saturday, missed a handoff in the third leg, and they were DQ’d as a result. So that was a really tough way to start the day, and they couldn’t really get out from under that. Kemba Nelson ended up kind of adding their only points of the day with a 4th place finish in the 100m dash, but that was really it for the Ducks.

Miller: On the women’s side, but Ken, on the men’s side they did much better, coming in second overall as a team, with a number of first place finishes, especially for some middle distance runners, the 1,500 and the 5,000 in particular. Can you tell us about those two races?

Goe: Sure, in the 1,500, Cole Hocker has been one of the stories of college track and field this year. He’s either a freshman or a sophomore depending on who you talk to, I think that has a little bit to do with the fact last year there was no competition, so people didn’t have that year count against him. But he has been amazing, he won two events at the NCAA Indoor Championships. He’s a real talent. He showed that in the 1,500m, he ran a strategically perfect race and kicked home, and that’s one of those races where the 6,000 people felt like 12 or 15 [thousand], he said later that he felt like the crowd carried him home the last 100m.

Miller: Covering it over the years, does it seem like the Ducks have a home track advantage when they run these important national meets at their home course?

Goe: Yeah, they do. There’s no question. You hear that every year. The athletes joke about it, they call it Hayward Magic. It’s worth a lot for Oregon athletes. I think it helps other athletes too, because let’s face it, college track and field is not a spectator sport in most places. It is in Eugene. The crowd is not only a large crowd, but it’s a knowledgeable crowd. They know when to cheer, they know how to cheer, and they appreciate good performances, especially for the Ducks, but for other athletes and other teams too.

And the other event [that] I think really brought the crowd to life was the men’s 5,000m. Cooper Teare, who has been a good distance runner at Oregon for several years, took down a record that was probably the most hallowed record in Oregon men’s track history. Bill McChesney Jr, had held the record since 1982, which is a long time, so long that some of us here probably weren’t born then. But he, again, ran a strategically brilliant race and kicked home at the end. And the crowd, they knew as he was coming down the home straight at the record was going to be broken, and they responded accordingly.

Miller: Let’s turn to what comes next. TrackTown USA is once again living up to its name, the US Olympic trials are going to start on Friday and go for about 10 days. Ken, what races are you going to be paying the most attention to?

Goe: Yeah, I’d like to focus on Oregon athletes but that doesn’t narrow it down much at the Olympic Trials because the state really punches above its weight when it comes to high level track and field. I’m particularly interested in the 1,500m. University of Oregon graduate Matthew Centrowitz is the reigning Olympic gold medalist. He used to run for Alberto Salazar’s Nike Oregon project, he’s since switched to Jerry Schumacher’s Bowerman Track Club. They’re both headquartered at Nike, so he’s about as local as you get.

But there’s a number of really good entries in there and it’s going to be a real dogfight. Hocker and Teare are both entered in that race too, as University of Oregon. I don’t think either once turned pro yet though that’s a possibility. And there’s a high school athlete, who set the high school record in Portland last month, Hobbs Kessler, who a lot of people think is a real possibility to finish in the top three and make the Olympic team.

Miller: And on the women’s side, there is a phenom from Texas A&M, a freshman, Athing Mu, who set a collegiate record in the 400 after setting a college record in the 800, it makes me wonder, and for those for the University of Oregon runners as you mentioned too, including Cole Hocker, who is a freshman, what’s the path forward or the calculus for these elite runners? They’re the best at what they do at the college level. If they were playing college football, they would be able to go to the NFL and make a jillion dollars and get endorsements. Track and field is different. I mean, if you’re trying to maximize or capitalize on your perceived peak value, how do they think about this?

Goe: That’s an excellent question. The top level people, Hocker, Teare, people like that, they’re going to come into some nice money, Maybe not what Aaron Rodgers is going to make for the Packers or whatever NFL team he winds up at, but they’re gonna [be] making six figures, they’re going to live comfortably. But it’s the next level down that’s a problem. College athletes that are really good, just not quite at that next level, they struggle to make it professionally because it’s sort of a hand to mouth existence, and they’re largely dependent on a giant apparel company like Nike or Adidas or Brooks picking them up and being willing to sponsor them. The sponsorship comes at varying levels, and if you’re not really good, that sponsorship income is tough to live on.

Miller: Ken Goe and Charlie Gearing, thanks very much for joining us.

Goe: Thanks for having us.

Gearing: Thank you.

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