“Can I get a little luck?” shot putter Ryan Whiting asked, searching for a couple high-fives from two young girls near the circle. The girls held back smiles and nervously tapped his calloused hand.
“Come on, you can hit harder than that,” said the hulking two-time world champion and former Olympian.
The high-fives must have worked, given Whiting hurled the shot 21.14 meters, a meet best. He and Philadelphia Force teammate Michelle Carter, the “Shot Diva” and Olympic gold medalist, finished first in the shot put relay at the Portland leg of the TrackTown Summer Series.
A few hundred track and field fans gathered at Mt. Hood Community College Saturday for the second of three stops on the Summer Series. The nascent track series expanded this year from one meet in Eugene to three meets in three cities across the country.
Kameko Gay was there with her mother, Beverly. Several people in their family compete or competed in track and field, so they try to make it to meets whenever they can.
“I love coming out to track events. Our son competed on this track,” Beverly said, pointing to the MHCC track behind her. “I like going down to Eugene, but this is good because it’s close to home.”
The Summer Series is in its second year and is part of broad efforts to increase the sport’s U.S. popularity in non-Olympic years. It’s comprised of teams representing four cities — Portland, San Francisco, New York and Philadelphia — managed by track stars Bernard Lagat, Nick Symmonds, Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards-Ross, respectively. General managers held a fantasy-sports-style draft to fill team rosters in May at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.
Ken Martinez and his wife, Dianne, are huge track fans from Beaverton and attended the Portland meet. Ken followed the draft on Twitter and also went to the San Francisco meet.
“It’s fun to see not just individual runners get their times, but run for their team, too,” he said.
And that, in essence, is what the Summer Series hopes to capture: the team aspect. What other sports have that track and field lacks (in non-Olympic years) is ties to place. A person from Portland may not care about basketball but may cheer for the Blazers because the team is part of their city.
You could hear cries of “Go Portland” or “Go San Fran” from the field and from the stands.
“It’s a whole new dynamic to the sport, really,” said Chad Wilker, a fan who also coaches at Centennial High School in Gresham.
Track and field can be hard for casual fans to follow. With multiple events happening at once in different areas of the venue, watching a track meet can be a good workout for the neck and the brain.
Kameko Gay said she liked the format of the meet, compared to others. She was a thrower at the University of Washington and said the Summer Series structure seemed like a good appetizer for fans who didn’t already know the sport.
“I thought they did a great job of getting people [in the crowd] involved — the announcers and the organizers,” Gay said. “If you were new to this sport, you’d probably want to come to this again.”
Jeff McNeal is a track fan who lives in Gresham. He sported a T-shirt from the Pre Classic, a prominent track meet in Eugene.
“If I wasn’t looking up events around the Pre, I wouldn’t have known about this,” said McNeal, who hopes the Summer Series is promoted better in coming years. “Most of these athletes are Olympic-level athletes. You’re not gonna get that [anywhere else] for 10 bucks.”
The New York Empire won the Portland leg of the Summer Series by one point over Philadelphia.
The series now swings to the final meet in New York City on July 6, which will be broadcast live on ESPN at 5 p.m. PST.