The Long (Distance) Goodbye
EUGENE — With a smile and a wave — not to mention a win — Galen Rupp bid goodbye to college and started a new chapter in his career.
Rupp easily won the 10,000 meters on the track at Hayward Field at the U.S. Track and Field Championships, his last race representing the University of Oregon. On Saturday, Rupp planned to interview agents, and then he'll likely ponder endorsement deals while preparing for the world championships in Berlin in August.
And he will continue on his quest to chip away at Kenya's domination of the middle distances.
Rupp is perhaps the most accomplished track athlete from Oregon since the late Steve Prefontaine, and the two couldn't be more dissimilar.
Rupp, who is soft-spoken, is waiflike and graceful, while Prefontaine, an Olympian who died at age 24 in 1975 in a car accident, was barrel-chested and gregarious.
But like Prefontaine, Rupp started grabbing attention early.
He was discovered by marathoner-turned-coach Alberto Salazar at Portland's Central Catholic in 2000. A soccer player, Rupp was convinced by Salazar to give track a try.
He excelled from the start, breaking U.S. junior records in the 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000 meters.
Not surprisingly, Rupp decided to attend Oregon. There was never really any question, since Salazar is employed by Nike and the shoemaker's co-founder, Phil Knight, went to Oregon and is one of the Ducks' most prominent boosters.
Rupp steadily improved, then took time off school to train with Salazar for a shot at the Olympics. At the trials last summer in Eugene, he earned a spot on the U.S. team with a second-place finish to Abdi Abdirahman in the 10,000 meters.
In Beijing, Rupp came in 13th as the top non-African finisher of the race.
Rupp returned to Eugene to finish his career as a Duck in grand fashion. In his senior season, he won an unprecedented six national titles. At the NCAA championships earlier this month in Fayetteville, Ark., Rupp won the 5,000- and 10,000-meter titles.
His last race with the Oregon "O" on his chest was Thursday's 10,000 meters.
"You can talk about legacy and last race all you want, but if you don't perform, that doesn't mean anything," he said.
Rupp handled Dathan Ritzenhein over the last 600 meters for a six-second victory. He smiled and waved to the cheering Hayward crowd before he even crossed the finish line. And he crossed himself.
"It's just magical. I couldn't have been asked to be blessed with a more perfect situation," he said.
Rupp's rise on the international stage has coincided as Eugene's re-emergence as "Track Town USA." During the days of Prefontaine and Oregon coach Bill Bowerman, who co-founded Nike with Knight and led the "Men of Oregon" to four NCAA titles, Eugene was a hotbed of track activity.
While the sport never died in Eugene, in later years it did not enjoy the popularity it had in Prefontaine's day. But recently, interest has returned as Hayward Field landed last year's Olympic trials and several other key events, including this year's national championships.
Rupp leaves proud to be part of that new legacy.
"This has been so fun for me to be part of this rejuvenation of Oregon track and field," he said. "It is special to be a part of — it's hard to put into words."