By Graham Pearsall
BU News Service
Hundreds of young, frantic fans who had swarmed the edge of the track for the penultimate event of the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix on Jan. 28 were instructed by meet officials to back up, allowing a quartet of American female Olympians to jog to the starting line for an attempt at the distance medley relay world record.
The super team, made up of Olympic bronze medalists Emma Coburn (3,000-meter steeplechase) and Jenny Simpson (1,500 meters), World Championship bronze medalist Brenda Martinez (800 meters) and 17-year-old world junior record-holder Sydney McLaughlin (400-meter hurdles), represented a who’s who of female track celebrity.
The foursome did not disappoint, bringing a packed Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center to its feet en route to its new world record, which eclipsed the old mark by more than two seconds.
Amid the throng of jubilant track teens was Elena Oberle, a high school freshman from Needham, Massachusetts, who earlier in the meet had the opportunity to race around the oval before her track idols.
“It was really cool to see them. They’re so fast,” said Oberle, who raced the 800-meter leg of her team’s sprint medley relay.
She said racing before a much larger crowd than her typical high school meet was her favorite part of the Grand Prix, but that once her race was over, “it was really fun to chill out and watch them go.”
“I was on the homestretch,” she said of watching the American women set the new world record and collecting three of their four signatures. “I got really close to them, so I sort of briefly talked to them, and that was really cool. They’re real people.”
Mark Wetmore, the meet’s director, said creating an opportunity for track’s youth to connect with the sport’s biggest stars is one motivation for organizing the Grand Prix.
“Anytime we can give young athletes the chance to get close-up inspiration from the best, we’re proud to do so,” Wetmore said via Facebook message. “It wasn’t long ago that our Olympic gold medalists were high school athletes themselves.”
Of the meet participants, 13 were Olympic medalists and three have won the gold: Matthew Centrowitz (1,500 meters in 2016), Ekaterini Stefanidi (pole vault in 2016) and Jenn Suhr (pole vault in 2012).
Olympic silver medalist Paul Chelimo (5,000 meters), who won the meet’s 3,000 meters, emphasized the impact that meeting a professional runner can have on an aspiring track athlete. “Meeting professional runners in person is a great thing,” he said in a Facebook message.
He added that interacting with pros can be a “confidence booster to most high school runners” and a great opportunity for young athletes to gain “motivation and [to learn] what it takes to be a great runner.”
Perhaps mindful of this, it was Chelimo who was the first athlete to take a lap around the track after his race, giving his victory flowers to a toddler, slapping high-fives with spectators and speaking briefly with teens who lined the track.
“It was very inspiring to be in the presence of all of the world-class athletes,” said high school senior and junior mile participant Tia Tardy of Mount Desert Island, Maine. “Being able to just have a casual conversation with them was amazing. They were all so humble and happy to be there and to interact with us.”
For Tardy, the experience only fueled her desire to compete at the highest level.
“Being able to watch all of the amazing athletes was an experience that I will cherish forever,” Tardy said. “It’s always been a dream to be able to compete at that level, and being able to go and experience that atmosphere makes me even more determined to get there.”
In 2007, it was Centrowitz who was in Tardy’s shoes, competing at the Grand Prix as a high school athlete in the junior mile. He finished second but saw Alan Webb win the New Balance Men’s Mile with a time of three minutes and 55 seconds. Webb was at the pinnacle of American middle-distance running at the time and would go on to set the American mile record that year, which still stands today.
In the decade since, Centrowitz has gone from watching track’s biggest stars compete to making track history of his own. He has represented the United States at the past two Olympic Games. In 2016, he became the first American to win a gold medal in the 1,500 meters since 1908.
Fittingly, Centrowitz would star in the meet’s grand finale, the men’s mile. He won easily, matching Webb’s time of three minutes and 55 seconds from 10 years ago. Like Webb, his performance inspired the young runners that lined the track.
To the meet’s young fans, a small, human moment, a high-five or a nod from Coburn or Suhr or McLaughlin, made the dream of competing at the highest level all the more accessible.
Centrowitz is proof.