Belief and Perspective Lead to Medal Breakthrough for USA Distance Running

Sam Obitz / August 9th, 2012 / No Comments »

Leo Manzano and Galen Rupp of the United States Olympic team each won a silver medal in their individual events this past week in London. On the surface this may not sound too impressive, as Americans routinely bring home gold medals in track and field at the Olympics. However, in their respective events (the 1500 meter run and the 10,000 meter run) they are the first Americans to win a medal of any kind in those events since the 1960’s.

Manzano’s silver was the first medal for an American in the 1500 meter run since Jim Ryun’s silver medal in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City (one side note: another American, Matthew Centrowitz, was just two one-hundreths of a second away from winning the bronze medal in the 1500). Meanwhile, Rupp became the first American to win a medal in the 10,000 meter run since Billy Mills won the gold, in what is still considered one of the monumental Olympic upsets of all-time, at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

For the past several decades, Americans (and to a lesser extent, Europeans) bought into the notion that they could not compete with the East Africans, believing the popular myths that the Africans had bigger hearts, stronger will, and genetics made for distance running. As Alberto Salazar, the coach of not only Rupp, but also the Gold medalist in the 10,000 meters in London, Mo Farah of Great Britain, said “The Americans and Europeans had a defeatist attitude, they gave up.”

Salazar’s refusal to buy into the notion that Americans and Europeans could not compete with the Kenyans and Ethiopians, are what lead to this year’s breakthrough. Salazar took a three pronged approach to get here. First, he infused his athletes with his belief that the East Africans were human and beatable. Second, he took a long term approach, focusing on gradual improvement (no quick fixes). Finally, he remembered something he learned in college while competing for the University of Oregon, that the Kenyans ran as a team helping each other out in their races.

Now Salazar has a stable of top runners that train together, including Farah and Rupp who ran as a team to win their medals. Interestingly, when Salazar competed at Oregon he and teammate Rudy Chapa faced their toughest competition from Kenyans who were attending Washington State University and the University of Texas at El Paso. Soon they noticed in track and cross country meets that the Kenyans would speak in their native tongues during races, to keep their communication secret. Salazar was always a fierce competitor and rather than grow frustrated by the Kenyans tactic, he came up with the idea of fighting fire with fire, as both he and Chapa were fluent in Spanish; it worked.

Rupp has a chance to make history again this week as no American has ever won Olympic medals in both the 5,000 and 10,000, much less in the same Games. This quote from Rupp is why I think he has a shot at another medal this week: “I’m training with the best distance runner in the world right now. We do 99.9 percent of our training together. I’m right there with him in all that. So there’s no reason I can’t beat everybody.”

I always say, ‘it’s impossible to outperform your belief in yourself,’ and that is a large part of why the USA has gone without medals in these events for so long. It took a coach like Salazar to stand up to all the doubters and believe when no one else did. As Salazar said recently “I want kids to be able to look at American distance runners, guys like Rupp, and say, ‘I can do that.’” All great achievements start with belief, and thanks to Salazar and Rupp, believing in what seemed impossible just became a lot easier for future generations of American runners.


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