AN OPEN LETTER TO THE RUPP-BASHERS
by Dave Milner | published 06.26.09
Aside from Kenyan import Bernard Lagat, Galen Rupp is arguably America’s best hope for a distance running medal at the World Championships, and is definitely the most exciting prospect to emerge from the collegiate ranks for quite some time.
With the exception of a couple of low-key under-distance races, after which he did full-blown interval workouts, the Portland, Oregon native won every race he ran for the University of Oregon in the last 9 months. Last November, he won the NCAA Cross-Country title, leading the Ducks to the team title. In March, he won the NCAA Indoor 3000m and 5000m, and also anchored the winning DMR quartet as the Ducks picked up the team title. And two weeks ago, at the NCAA Outdoor Championships, he won the 5000m and 10,000m easily. In fact, because weather played havoc with the outdoor schedule, he ran 20,000 meters in 45 hours and won the 5,000 despite having to come to a complete stop to replace his shoe after a competitor stepped on his heel. Oregon finishing a close 2nd to Texas A & M in the team competition, and probably would have won, had Matt Centrowitz not being injured. Anyway, count ‘em: that’s six individual NCAA titles and two team titles.
Rupp's success validates not only his own talent, determination and discipline, but also his coach Alberto Salazar's vision. Salazar, a former UO star and a 2:08 marathoner in his day, spotted Rupp playing soccer at Portland's Central Catholic High School, saw his potential, and has defied both convention and criticism in the way he has coached him. In retrospect, Salazar knew exactly what he was doing -- the last 9 months being undeniable proof - and the Oregon coaching staff had the good sense to stand aside and let Salazar do it. And the dynamic duo are far from finished. Their goal is to help U.S. distance running make a splash again on the world level. At this point, it would be foolish to bet against them.
Last night, Rupp, still just 23, added his first U.S National title, outkicking Dathan Ritzenhein with consummate ease over the last lap, in front of a raucous Hayward Field crowd. And yet, he still is the target of anonymous verbal assaults on message boards like letsrun.com. “Rupp runs like a chicken shit.” “Rupp is a pussy.” “Pre is choking on his beer right now.” These are reactions from some of the cowards hiding behind ironic screen names who are somehow bitter because the youngster didn’t lead the race and go hell-bent for the U.S record.
I think too many of these Rupp-bashers (most of whom – I’d wager – are teenage boys who would struggle to run a mile at Rupp’s 10K pace) have been drinking Nike’s Kool-Aid and have bought wholesale into the theory, championed by the late Steve Prefontaine, and fostered by the almighty Swoosh, that running hard and fast, out front, from the gun is the only way to race.
I’m sorry, but the last time I checked, the objective of a race was to get to the finish line first. Last night’s race was a National Championship; it was not a U.S record attempt. Rupp ran a smart race. He was not obliged to lead. He played by the rules, absorbed everything that Abdi Abidirahman (initially) and Dathan Ritzenhein (in the second half of the race) could throw at him, and then he simply showed that he is running at a totally different level from the other 25 men that were in the field.
Furthermore, in a tribute to his school, the fans, and to his coach, Alberto Salazar, Rupp wore the University of Oregon colors, despite the fact that a huge Nike contract is a foregone conclusion now his collegiate career is over. He postponed signing a pro contract so he could wear the Oregon uniform last night for a final time. He could have worn the same burnt orange singlet that Ritz, Abdi, and company wore, but wearing gold and green was a tribute to his alma mater and the Hayward Field regulars. Yes, I appreciate that U of O is essentially an extension of the shoe juggernaut headquartered 90 minutes up I-5, but that is beside the point.
The ongoing tug-of-war between Rupp's detractors and his supporters is a regular fixture of message boards on running web sites like letsrun.com and dyestat.com. The animosity that many harbor toward Rupp may well more to do with what he represents than who he is. The chief complaint, whether valid or not, is that he is the poster child for Nike's involvement with the University of Oregon, and that he has been allowed to cruise through college while training and living like a pro, with a private coach, and with little regard for the NCAA's eligibility rules.
But its not like he hasn't been going to classes. In fact, Rupp has excelled in the classroom. Just last week, he was named ESPN’s Academic All-American of the Year for Men's Track and Field and Cross Country - only the latest in a string of post-season honors. His accomplishments, on and off the track, all have come while retaining a soft-spoken, boy-next-door persona, and while carrying himself with confidence and no arrogance.
He has gotten a lot of flack. The last few months, however, the general tone of the message boards has softened somewhat. He has, it seems, won grudging respect from many with his consistent performances and willingness to make sacrifices for his team.
Compared to most college athletes, Rupp has taken a rather alternate path, led by Salazar (a Nike executive). Oregon head coach Vin Lananna has worked well with Salazar to monitor Rupp's training, a situation that sometimes sets him apart from his teammates (apparently did about 80 percent of his workouts with the team this year, the rest with Salazar). He also has benefited from an abundance of Nike resources and technology, not to mention Salazar's connections, in ways none of his peers have. But compliance officials within the Oregon athletic department have scrutinized him thoroughly, and rules and red tape have been carefully navigated without penalty.
Clearly Rupp is the best distance runner to emerge from Oregon – the university or the state (although he is a product of both) since Steve Prefontaine, and it is only natural to draw parallels between the two runners, but that doesn’t mean that they should employ the same race strategies. Prefontaine like to run from the front because it was in his abrasive, in-your-face nature, and also because he wasn’t exactly blessed with great finishing speed. Rupp, by contrast, is quiet and mild-mannered and has (or at least is rapidly developing) the kind of closing speed that Pre could only dream about.
Pre’s compulsion to lead early drove his coach, Bill Bowerman, up the wall. Consider the following exchange taken from the movie Without Limits [ click here to view the scene on Youtube - let it load and scroll to 7:00]:
Yes, I appreciate Rupp is still some way from vying for Olympic gold, and his performance was unlikely to send shockwaves through Kenya’s Rift Valley, but by the time the next Olympics roll around, Rupp will, if Salazar’s careful consistent approach is maintained, be three years stronger, wiser, and, hopefully, faster. And let’s face it: Kenyan imports aside, he is the best hope for a medal America has had at the 5K or 10K since, well, Pre.
So, consider this rambling piece a salute to the new U.S 10K champion, and his coach, and a polite request to the anonymous Rupp-bashers to either support Galen, or at the very least, stop and think for a second before bashing a guy who may be the very vehicle to market the sport to more viewers, sponsors, and aspiring kids, and also close the gaping chasm between America and East Africa.
TR editor DAVE MILNER attended summer school at University of Oregon in the summer of 1999, during which he dazzled onlookers (Maria Mutola, her coach, and two squirrels) with the one track workout at Hayward Field before he sustained a stress fracture. What he took away with him that summer is the fact that Eugene is the worst place in the universe in which to be an injured runner.