Once a dominating Global force in the 80’s, American Distance running fell into a drought during the 90’s which bled into the next millennium. After keeping pace with the rest of the world, winning Olympic medals and setting World Records, the medals, records, and wins suddenly stopped. Eventually the US began celebrating a 6th place finish at the 2001 Boston Marathon.
Sitting across from Tom Clarke over lunch, Alberto Salazar asked “How could it come to this? How can we be so excited about sixth place?”
Salazar set out to change this mindset and get American distance running back on top, where it belonged.
Resurrection of a dwindling dynasty is never easy; such was the task of an American resurgence in distance running. Salazar was used to the challenge...famed for pushing his body to the limit as a runner, he applied that same tenacity to this goal.
After lunch with Clarke, the pair formalized a plan of attack: Salazar the coach with Nike technology and resources as a catalyst for improving biomechanics and abilities of current American athletes. The Oregon Project was born.
The early select few runners of today’s Global powerhouse that caught Salazar’s eye included: Dan Browne, Mike Donnelly, Marc Davis, Dave Davis, and Chad Johnson. Salazar’s recruitment didn’t hinge solely on talent but also on potential. These were runners who were accomplished but that had certain biomechanical weaknesses or other issues that Salazar knew he could fix which would make the athletes thrive. They worked and the momentum started.
But Salazar eventually realized he was hitting a stalling point. The athletes he was coaching were older, their habits and biomechanics already ingrained after years of running so many miles. He realized that he had to catch them younger, before the bad habits had had a chance to take over.
Galen Rupp was young; at fifteen and showing that raw talent at a nearby high school, Salazar had found his muse. "I explained to Phil [Knight] and Tom [Clarke] that I wanted to start The Oregon Project with the best available professional runners, but ultimately, Galen was going to be the star," Salazar wrote in his autobiography.
Coaching Rupp through high school the protégé had excelled, and as a senior, by 2004 had set a myriad of State and National Records, and collected multiple State titles in the process. At this time, two new runners had joined Salazar’s stable of athletes: Adam and Kara Goucher.
Both went on to lower their PR’s and named to World teams, but Kara in particular started a cataclysmic rise in her career. In 2007 she took Bronze at the IAAF World Championships; at last an American distance runner stood atop a podium. In 2008 she placed 3rd at the New York City Marathon and in 2009 was 3rd at the Boston Marathon.
The Oregon Project was starting to make some noise. The 2009 joining of Dathan Ritzenhein to the Project and his subsequent American Record for the 5k turned that buzz into an uproar.
The 2012 London Olympics are, as of yet, the pinnacle of the goal idealized by Salazar and Clarke all those years ago over lunch. Mo Farah, the British runner who joined the Project in 2011, completed the nearly incomprehensible double Gold with the 10k and 5k wins. Next to Farah on the 10k podium was training partner, and Salazar protégé, Galen Rupp. An American, with a Silver Olympic medal around his neck.
What started with just a handful of runners has grown into a new movement in American distance running. Salazar has already accomplished his dream from the on-set, the Oregon Project dominates the US across the distances; but what’s more, is he spearheaded a complete resuscitation of American distance running.