Olympians made here: Elite training groups in Northwest stocking Tokyo-bound teams with top runners

Jun 7, 2021

The Pacific Northwest is famous for churning out jet airliners, computer software and huckleberry syrup. The U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team Trials beginning June 18 in Eugene will showcase another local product: Olympic distance runners.

It's a safe bet that a sizable portion of the U.S. Olympic track and field squad bound for the Tokyo Olympics will have ties to the Northwest. This region is shaping up as a veritable factory of Olympians in distance running, thanks in large part to five thriving elite training groups.

To be fair, many of the top American distance runners who train in the Northwest aren't originally from the area. Middle distance runner Vincent Ciattei moved clear across the country to join Nike Oregon Track Club Elite in Eugene when he turned pro after graduating from Virginia Tech in 2018.

"Tracktown USA is like a mecca for running," Ciattei said, using Eugene's motto. "I knew that OTC and being a Nike athlete came with great resources, like great physio, good facilities to use. I knew that the new Hayward Field was being built, which was a big, big draw."

Ciattei, a Maryland native, said his decision to relocate to join OTC Elite was validated by subsequent performances that qualified him for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in the 1500 meters. At the Portland Track Festival on May 29, his time of 3:34.57 improved on his previous personal best by nearly two full seconds.

U.S. 1500 meter champion Craig Engels hails from North Carolina and competed in college for Ole Miss, but now calls Portland home. He trains with coach Pete Julian's group based at Nike headquarters in Beaverton.

"It's a tough adjustment if you come from somewhere else," Engels said in a trackside interview. "Like I came from Mississippi, where it's sunny. In the winter here it's real rough, but now I love it."

Nike sponsors two separate pro running teams at its main Beaverton campus. The group Engels trains with currently lacks a name, while the second one is called the Bowerman Track Club.

"Growing up since high school, watching them compete, it was something that was like, 'I really want to be there,'" said middle distance standout Elise Cranny, whom Nike and the Bowerman coaches recruited from Stanford in 2019.

"I feel like I will get the most out of myself because of the team atmosphere and everyone pushing one another," Cranny said in an interview. "I feel so grateful to be here and to be training with these women."

The background for how the Pacific Northwest became a magnet and finishing school for future Olympians involves several big personalities, and of course, the deep pockets of the shoe companies headquartered in the region. Foremost, that's Nike. Seattle-based Brooks Running sponsors a team as well, the Brooks Beasts Track Club. There's also Seattle sportswear company Oiselle, which sponsors the newest pro training group on the scene. It's a women's team based in Bend, Oregon, called Oiselle Littlewing, coached by Lauren Fleshman.

The Bowerman Track Club pro team coached by Jerry Schumacher has 22 runners on its roster, including 2016 Rio Olympics gold medalist Matthew Centrowitz and silver medalist Evan Jager. The Bowerman club's Nike campus neighbors, coach Pete Julian's unnamed group, supports ten runners. Oregon Track Club Elite's current roster shows 11 names. Brooks is feeding around 14 Beasts, while Oiselle Littlewing has seven women in its nest.

Track and field beat writer Ken Goe watched the rise of the elite training groups from his perch at the Oregonian, from which he recently retired.

"This all started because of Alberto Salazar," Goe recounted in a recent interview. "He was at Nike and was distressed to see no Americans who were medal contenders or threats at the international level in the distances. It had pretty much been taken over by East African runners."

Salazar, a top marathoner in his day, founded the Nike Oregon Project in 2001. The goal was to bring respectability back to American distance running using the best technology, sports medicine and advanced training techniques.

Salazar is no longer coaching because of anti-doping allegations lodged against him and an associate, though not his athletes.  Salazar received a four-year ban from the sport in 2019, which he is appealing. The Nike Oregon Project was disbanded, but many of its runners stuck around and continue to train as a group under the guidance of Julian, who was Salazar's assistant previously.

Another name Goe credits is Vin Lananna, a former coach and assistant athletic director at the University of Oregon. Lananna oversaw the establishment of the Oregon Track Club Elite branch in 2006 to help pro runners stick around Eugene and improve after college.

Goe said it was amazing to peek behind the curtain and see the resources the top training groups provided their chosen athletes.

"Oh, they've got everything," Goe said. "They have underwater treadmills, they've got weight rooms. They've got physiologists, psychologists, weight coaches. Whatever they want, whatever they need, they have. They spend months of the year training at altitude. They fly all over the world."

Brooks Beasts head coach Danny Mackey said the pandemic took a lot of those resources away temporarily.

"Every group was affected a little differently because the cities had different lockdowns," Mackey said in an interview. "Seattle was really restricted. So, there was a point where we talked about going to a state that was really open just to be able to have the training needed."

Mackey said even with things going smoothly at home again, he experienced stress from the feeling of having to catch up.

While there are rivalries between some of the stars on the different Northwest squads, Mackey said the current coaches of the top-level Northwest teams are friendly to one another. However, they are also competitors when wooing the brightest prospects within each year's new class of NCAA cross-country and track champions. Sports agents are also involved sometimes as matchmakers.

"One thing I have learned over the last eight and half years is that the NCAA is the best predictor of talent," Mackey said.

Mackey mentioned Nike co-founder and former CEO Phil Knight's financial support of competitive running as an explanation for why the elite training ecosystem flourished in Cascadia, and also credited the region's temperate climate.

"It's a little annoying when it is gray, but it is one of the only places in the country where all year round, you might have annoying training, but it's not stopped," Mackey said. "It's not too hot and doesn't get snowy in the winter."

At this point, the Northwest-based training groups are not only stocking the shelves of Team USA, but more than half a dozen foreign countries too. That's by virtue of admitting top runners from such places as Canada, Japan, Botswana, Portugal, the United Kingdom and Australia.

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