Olympic Touchstones Part II – Atlanta ’96 and taking the plunge

I wasn’t born a runner. All the way through college I didn’t even run for running’s sake. It was always a means to a different end, mainly that of making sure that I was in the best shape possible for many years of club, HS and eventually college soccer. I ran track in middle school – lots of unattended, unsupervised laps, just like any 11 or 12 year old distance runner in the making – and competed in a 10k the spring of 7th grade. There was a kid a year older than I that I remember running with (against?) late in the race. Obviously more clued in than I was, he asked me my age and explained clearly that he was two years older, putting us in different age groups. After the race, in which he had beat me, I found out the we were in the same age group after all. For his victory he got a cheap trophy while I won a free pair of running shoes – Etonics- as age group runner up. I thought I was the luckiest ‘runner’ there and the joke was on him. I had beaten all my friends anyway, and that was the real reason I was there that morning.

In any case, after my life as a brainwashed soccer player that took me right through my time at Wesleyan, followed by a period spent figuring out my next steps during a year and a half working in Mexico, I landed my first teaching job at Chadwick School in S. California.

Chadwick School

Part of my duties included coaching soccer, a winter sport there and a fact that left a void in my fall season. It was that first year at Chadwick that I met Scott Guerrero, one of the people responsible for pushing me down the running road. Scott had arrived at Chadwick a year before me to assume the unenviable task of breathing life into a cross country program desperately in need of bodies and direction, and he harangued me into hanging around and running with the team some, as well as dragging me along for training runs with South Bay running fixtures like Dean Lofgren, Jeff Atkinson, Ed Avol and others.

As was the case in my own story, I firmly believe that in many instances running ends up finding the runner. Over the course of my first few years at Chadwick, I resisted the opportunity to jump in with two feet and really affiliate myself with the distance program, continuing to coach soccer each winter even as I abandoned my own playing days, ran more, raced some and played a lot of pick-up basketball. In 1996, the Olympic Games returned to US soil in host city Atlanta, and I decided to figure out a way to spend part of the summer there despite the fact that I lived on a teacher’s salary and was still paying off student loans every month. In the end, I landed work through a temp agency that was hiring droves of people to help IBM greet, host and cater to their guests throughout the duration of the Olympics. I was a lot further from the pulse of things than the Pan Am Games in ’87, but a knack for being in the right place at the right time and a willingness to take any assignment available helped me find my way into the opening and closing ceremonies. Sandwiched around 40-60 hour work weeks we also were free to fly under the radar at IBM events, and extra tickets to events abounded if you were on hand when they were deemed fair game.

Little did I know at the time, but an Olympic head coach that year would end up figuring prominently into my life years later, although in 1996 we couldn’t have been more different in our roles at the Summer Games. I spent the better part of a month sleeping on a friend’s floor, keeping late hours and soaking in all that I could while feeling very far away from any real connection to track & field. I did have a seat high above the finish line the night Michael Johnson set the WR in the 200m and Dan O’Brien won gold in the decathlon, but I think I was equally focused on making sure that I had gold medal game tickets for soccer, and I never really watched any track from a coach’s perspective that summer. That soccer game, however, still stands as my one, and only, Olympic moment in Athens, even if it was only Athens, GA.

Before I jump years ahead, though, I still had to drag myself from Atlanta to NJ and then all the way back across the country for the year to come at Chadwick. That year Scott Guerrero had decided to pursue work in the real world, working market hours as an analyst at firm in LA, while also landing the cross country job (there was no track team) at Loyola Marymount. Weird choice, I remember thinking at the time. (If only I had a crystal ball to look into my own future.) Scott’s coaching replacement was George Ramos (who coincidentally emailed me out of the blue this evening), and after continuing to hang around George’s program that year he laid his bait in the summer of ’97 by convincing me to attend camp with the team.

Camp Cherry Valley on Catalina Island

After initially thinking a week of cross country camp would allow me to get some good training in over on Catalina Island, I ended up getting far more than I bargained for. Mark Celestin and the Runner’s Workshop crew of Ken Reeves, Bob Larsen, Tim O’Rourke, Steve Scott and others hooked me for good. A week of great runs, open ocean canoe paddling, cliff jumping and great conversations about running won me over. I also remember meeting a quiet UCLA grad name Meb Keflezighi and hearing about his Olympic aspirations, and one of Meb’s Bruin teammates worked camp that summer and now years later works alongside me at UC Davis (more on that later). Following camp week I caved to George’s patiently executed scheme and made the decision to officially call myself a cross country coach, a pivotal step that started a rewarding chapter in a journey that continues to unfold.

That summer, on Catalina Island, running had found the coach.

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About Drew Wartenburg

Director of Cross Country/Track & Field at UC Davis
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