Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Fri, 13 Dec 2002 19:21:37 -0500

The Graduate


Talent is everywhere. Sitting in almost any high school study hall in America is someone who could qualify for the state meet, if not win there. Taking almost any college P.E. class in the country is someone who could make that school's team, if not compete nationally.

The trick is discovering and developing that talent. It's finding the someone with racing potential and the will to mine it, then applying the training.

I caught a glimpse of such talent in my new-racers' class this fall. I didn't find her. She came to me on the recommendation of her older sister, who'd taken this class before.

Kim Gaviglio had played volleyball and tennis in high school, but had only dabbled in running on her own and then only recently. Now she'd come to the University of Oregon as an 18-year-old freshman, yet to run her first race.

Kim filled out my standard information sheet the first day of class. Asked her best times, she wrote, "7:30 mile" with a question mark.

I start the students in this racing class with a 5K test. Kim ran it in 20:07 -- about 6:30 mile pace.

When I praised her for this time, she asked, "Is it any good?" It's the best first-ever 5K that anyone, male or female, has run in my classes.

At midterm Kim ran her first 10K in the class. "I reached the halfway point in 20:05," she said afterward. "I thought that was going too fast and slowed down on the return."

She still undervalues her talent. Her goal in the final 5K was to run just one second under 20 minutes.

When I read her time, she asked, "Was that nineteen-FIFTY?" When I told her 19:15, the normally reserved young woman shouted, "I can't believe it!"

She's ready to go under six-minute-mile pace as soon as her next race. That degree of early talent caught the interest of Tom Heinonen.

He is the only women's cross-country coach the University of Oregon has ever had, and he started the track program. His resume includes three NCAA team championships, two in cross-country and one in track.

Tom has coached Olympians, national record-setters and Trials qualifiers. He recognizes talent and knows how to develop it if the runner has the interest.

He's retiring after the next track season. "I'm as excited about the actual coaching as ever," says Tom, who has served since the 1970s. "But I've long since tired of the recruiting."

No wonder. He has spent nearly every evening on the phone with a potential recruit, only to hear more rejections of his pitch than acceptances.

Tom is almost finished with recruiting (though not with coaching; he'll coach a club team for Oregon students and recent graduates next year). One of his last recruits is someone I know well.

I'd told Tom's wife Janet about Kim's instant talent and potential as a runner. Tom had heard about her second-hand, but I hadn't yet talked to him directly about this. Didn't want to seem pushy, either to the coach or the athlete.

Turns out Tom had seen her on campus, and had wondered: Who is this runner I don't know, going so fast?

They crossed paths on their runs one recent morning. Tom stopped Kim and introduced himself, then asked, "Do you have any college eligibility left?"

She asked in return, "What does that mean?"

Tom found this answer endearing. Here was a talent so raw that she didn't know the simplest concepts of college sports. He rephrased the question: "What year are you in school?"

When he heard "freshman," his eyes brightened. He took care now to explain what "redshirt" meant, and that she could ease onto the team this year and still have four years of racing later. "Interested?" he asked.

"You bet I am," she said without hesitation.

Kim asked me if I thought she was ready for this next step. Definitely. I trust Tom Heinonen not to overwhelm her with training and expectations.

She'll graduate to his team in January. My concern for her doesn't start then but when she comes back in the fall to face a new coach who might cut a first-year runner no slack. Most of them need it, but few college coaches have the time, or take the time, to give it.

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