Anthony Armstrong watched the Olympic final of the men’s 10,000 meters alone at home in Kennewick, Wash. on Saturday afternoon and by the end of the race he was bouncing up and down on the couch.
Surely Armstrong, who won last fall’s Washington 3A cross country championship, was not alone.
Galen Rupp, 26, raced to the silver medal in the 10K, punctured holes in the theory of East African long-distance superiority and became the first U.S. male to medal in the 6.2-mile race since Billy Mills in 1964.
“My heart was pounding like I was in the race with him,” Armstrong said. “It was very inspirational. I’m still a little bit shocked by how well he did, but his hard work paid off.”
As high school runners across the U.S. begin the process of getting ready for the upcoming cross country season, there is a new wellspring of inspiration to draw from in Rupp’s silver. He was half a second behind race winner Mo Farah of Great Britain, his training partner under long-time coach Alberto Salazar.
In the state of Oregon, where distance running has a proud history, Rupp’s achievement carried a little bit more significance. He is a product of Central Catholic High School in Southeast Portland and broke Steve Prefontaine’s hallowed state record in the 3,000 meters as a senior in 2004. Rupp finished 13th in the 10,000 at the 2008 Olympics.
Pat Tyson, who has criss-crossed the country this summer to speak at numerous camps, was on an airplane to Charlotte, N.C. on Saturday during the race and missed seeing it live. He landed to find his cell phone filling up with messages and missed calls. Tyson coached the 1990s Mead dynasty in Spokane, Wash. and was the college roommate of Prefontaine. He also had a brief role overseeing Rupp at the University of Oregon in the spring of 2005.
“Frickin’ awesome!” Tyson typed into a text message that he sent to his contact list.
Reached over the phone, Tyson didn’t mince his words when he attempted to put Rupp’s performance into perspective for young U.S. runners.
“Rupp has always had hero status with kids,” Tyson said. “He’s now the living Prefontaine. I don’t mean that to put that pressure on him, but he is.”
Prefontaine was fourth at the 1972 Olympics in the 5,000 meters three years after he broke the high school two-mile record. And he was killed in an auto accident before he could try again in 1976.
In Portland on Saturday, Dr. John Howell, who operates an integrated health and chiropractic clinic, held an impromptu 10K watch party at his office with a group of 15-20 people.
“We’re all serious runners so we were a little bit frustrated by the commercials because it made it hard to get the splits,” Howell, a former college steeplechaser, explained. “People started getting excited on the last lap and the final kick. Everyone was yelling ‘Let’s go Rupp!’ Everyone was ecstatic when Rupp blew by (Tariku Bekele) and into second place.”
Howell said he thought Rupp could finish in the top five but wasn’t so sure about a medal.
“I thought if he had a great run he still might finish fourth or something and out of the medals,” he said.
Central Catholic cross country coach Dave Frank was at home with his family watching the race. He was there, along with Salazar, when Rupp was in high school.
“I was sort of just sitting there watching and being in awe of the whole journey,” Frank said. “This one day is fantastic but I think back on a skinny kid who came to school every day (as a freshman) wearing a soccer jersey (Manchester United). To go back and say ‘This kid’s going to medal at the Olympics someday’ … so many things had to go perfect along the way.”
Frank’s Central Catholic boys are the reigning state champs in Oregon 6A cross country. On Sunday, he will lead the team to a preseason camp in the Cascade Mountains and spend the week there getting ready for the season.
“It would be neat to say (Rupp’s medal) will foster some big spike in American running,” Frank said. “Lots of people watched it but I’m not sure a lot will change. But maybe a lot more young will have a reason to believe that no matter how high their goals are, they’re possible.”
Armstrong, who graduated from Kamiakin High this spring, said he can foresee a big impact. Rupp's success builds on recent distance medals by Shalane Flanagan (bronze in the 10K in 2008) and Jenny Simpson and Matthew Centrowitz (1,500 meters at the 2011 World Championships).
“People talk of Pre and what he did, but now (kids) have another now generation runner they can look up to,” he said. “(Rupp) shows everyone that hard work pays off.”