Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Beyond Fair Hope

by Mark Cullen

for Andrew and Tessa

Copyright 2019. Mark Cullen/Trackerati.com. All Rights Reserved.
Olympiastadion, Berlin, August 13, 2018, 12:30am
photo by Yujia Dou
In year of blessings beyond fair hope

It’s not a momentous decision to retire

It’s not kind farewells

It’s not an epic 5-week track and field trip in Europe

It’s not “Why Germany?”

It’s not Olaf and Thomas and Dave and Yujia and Michelle and Phil and Matt

It’s not French sportswriters to my left in Berlin

It’s not standing on a dais in Coos Bay with Billy and Linda

It’s not old pictures with a new friend

It’s not IAAF the night before USATF

Not Mondo Mania

It's not even “Carma”

Or Carla

Not the Weltklasse and the Van Damme at long, long last

It’s not LeBron and Robert

Not Shalane, Tshepang, or Blake

It’s not even the night of uncommon kindness at Safeco Field

It’s who was there with me

My new friends, my new neighbors

In a year of blessings beyond fair hope

These are the greatest blessings of all.

Beyond Fair Hope

In year of blessings beyond fair hope
I could never have asked more of a year. As the good rolled in, I held my breath - time after time - and waited for the crash to come.

It didn’t.

In any single year, any one of the people and events referenced here would have been the signature highlight of a memorable year.

It’s not a momentous decision to retire
It was just another Sunday evening in March. I was at my dining room table correcting a stack of essays – something I always enjoyed. In my 41st year in education (in various incarnations: teacher, coach, athletic director), I had gone to a ¾ time contract, which meant two things: I had more flexibility for appointments, and I baked Christmas cookies for the first time in decades.

I had been working with the school on a half-time contract for the next year, and thought I might well teach for several more.

Halfway through the assignments I looked up and said, “You know what you need to do.”

To make sure, I gave myself this task: “Write down what you’re going to.”

That was easy. My future couldn’t have been clearer.

“It’s time.”

We had an inservice day the following Friday; I had decided that’s when I’d tell our Head of School. But Tuesday at lunch he sat down across from me. The Middle School principal was at the end of the table, and the Academic Dean – the one who’d been so helpful with the contract discussions – showed up moments later.

The administrative harmonic convergence was at hand.

Deep breath and I changed my life.

It’s not kind farewells
The school couldn’t have been more gracious on my way out, and at two separate events, longtime friends and colleagues Karen James and Deb Playter gave the kinds of speeches that left little doubt as to what likely would be said at my funeral. I can’t imagine two people better qualified to put the ‘fun’ back into funeral.

It’s not an epic 5-week track and field trip in Europe
This is the future I imagined.

However, the launch (first, a plumbing emergency in my house five hours before my plane was to leave – without me, as it turned out; and, as I arrived two days later, the Frankfurt airport closed and in chaos due to a security breach) wasn’t quite the joyful beginning I had in mind.

Nonetheless, after a 23-hour travel ordeal, I was in Olympiastadion in Berlin for the European Championships. Never more tired or, surprisingly, more focused, two of my articles that week soared into my top six most-widely read out of over 200. Apparently, I should write while exhausted more often.

My grand tour took me to Zurich for the Weltklasse and Brussels the next day for the Van Damme Memorial. Thank you, scheduling gods, for putting a few days between these events in 2019.
Letzigrund Stadium
Home of the Weltklasse
Zurich, Switzerland
Then, back to Berlin for the ISTAF meet and 2012 Olympic discus champion Robert Harting’s farewell. Who knew I’d encounter not only Harting but a certain US basketball player, too?

I was never more in the writing zone. In my five weeks on the road, readership for my website more than tripled, and six of my top ten articles bear the copyright date of 2018.

The last stop on my tour was the Continental Cup in Ostrava, Czech Republic, where I met with IAAF Heritage Director, Chris Turner, at the site of IAAF Hertitage's first public exhibition. We discussed how my running shoe and memorabilia collections could be helpful in telling Eugene’s track and field history at the 2021 World Championships. 

As we concluded, he said, “And I’ll be in touch regarding Doha.” There a more extensive display will be mounted in conjunction with the 2019 World Championships.

Sometimes the trip is about more than the writing.

It’s not “Why Germany?”
For a dyed-in-the-wool distance devotee from the University of Oregon, who knew that I’d take such an interest in the throws?  

I have an ongoing conversation with two of Germany’s javelin greats, 2016 Olympic Champion Thomas Rohler and 2018 World #1 Andreas Hofmann, about why Germany is the dominant throwing country in the world right now. 

“Why Germany?” became a theme of our summertime interviews.
Colin Jackson interviewing Andreas Hofmann and Thomas Rohler
Letzigrund Stadium, Zurich

August 29, 2018
It’s not Olaf and Thomas and Dave and Yujia and Michelle and Phil and Matt
The most wonderful part of this new life is, of course, the people, and these writers – and many more - enrich my life more than they know. 

It’s not French sportswriters to my left in Berlin
I didn’t get to know the French sportswriters very well, but there they were - all five of them - to my left on press row at the European Championships every night. Even though we didn’t speak much, we always acknowledged and welcomed each other as we occupied the same air space. 

It was on the last night I realized they – all easily half my age – were looking out for me. As they got ready to leave after midnight, they asked if I'd be OK. Gracious farewells, but they didn’t leave until they knew I had a stadium exit plan. I was writing “Mondo Mania” and wouldn’t leave until 2:30am, well after the trains stopped running.
With Yujia Dou
Olympiastadion, Berlin
August 13, 2018
Photo was taken by one of the French sportswriters referenced above.

As Yujia Dou is from China, three continents were represented in the creation of this image.
It’s not standing on a dais in Coos Bay with Billy and Linda
Linda Prefontaine brought Billy Mills to Coos Bay, Oregon, in October, and the 1964 Olympic 10,000m gold medalist thrilled every audience he engaged with.  I let drop that I had introduced Mills at an event in Everett, WA, in 2005, and Linda gave me the distinct honor of introducing Billy Mills in Steve Prefontaine’s hometown. 

This was not the only memorable moment brought my way by Prefontaine this year. She also invited me to accompany her to the inauguration of her brother into the National High School Track and Field Hall of Fame in New York in February. 

Livin' the dream.

Billy Mills and Linda Prefontaine
Steve Prefontaine Murals
Coos Bay, OR

Linda Prefontaine introducing Billy Mills
Marshfield High School
Coos Bay, OR

It's not old pictures with a new friend. 
The single-most time-intensive project of the year was bringing to light Joe Head's photographic treasures of a 1968 meet at the Echo Summit (CA) High Altitude Training Camp. A classic example of how the internet can not only give this historical record new life, but of how it can link two people together who otherwise would likely never have connected. 
Jim Ryun 
wins the 1500m
Echo Summit, CA
August 31, 1968
Joe Head photograph
It’s not IAAF the night before USATF
Earlier in the year I had submitted a profile of US 800m runner Drew Windle – silver medalist at the 2018 World Indoors – to IAAF. I knew they would publish it at some point, but had no idea when. After the USATF press conference in Des Moines, Iowa, the day before outdoor nationals began in June, I drove to Ames to visit my brother, Matthew, and his family. It was only after everyone had turned in for the evening that I checked my social media - and it had exploded. IAAF had published the story as their lead-in article for US nationals.

Not Mondo Mania
My friends at IAAF’s Spikes Magazine got ahold of this article and sent it out to the athletics world. Over 400 people responded to it directly, and it reached almost 600,000 people on Twitter. It was boosted by the retweet of a certain Olympic pole vault gold medalist; when Renaud Lavillenie retweets a link to your article, over 300,000 followers receive it in an instant. http://www.trackerati.com/2018/08/mondo-mania.html
Mondo Duplantis scaling the pole vault heights
in winning the European Championships
in the = #2 outdoor vault ever.

6.05m/19' 10 1/4"

Note how high Duplantis is over the bar.
Photographer Jeff Cohen captured the magic moment
in my choice for track and field photo of the year.
It’s not even “Carma”
I took some lumps on this one as the humor in my post was misunderstood by some. I wasn’t making fun of the safety issue involved when the screening around the USATF hammer throw venue in Des Moines was inadequate – not even close. I was, however, interested in how the universe responds when you park illegally near that venue and a hammer gets loose (the hammer bounced and added a chapter to an already well-storied vehicle). My short photo essay of this event enjoyed a vigorous 24-hour life online.

Or Carla
The support staff of these meets make all the difference in how we experience them, and when it seemed all was lost when it came to finding a media souvenir backpack at the Van Damme, Carla worked some wonders and one magically appeared. I still fear that she gave up hers for me; nonetheless, there is Seattle smoked salmon in her future this summer.

Not the Weltklasse and the Van Damme at long, long last
If ever I felt I paid an unnecessary price (in track terms) for working so many years, it came with the Weltklasse (Zurich) and Van Damme Memorial (Brussels) meets. These iconic single-day events always fell during the first two weeks of school. It was painful to know these were taking place as I was 10,000 km away in what were similar school meetings for the 37th – 38th – 39th times. Though I had been to nine World Championships and two Olympics, I hadn't been to these. It was high time to close the gap.

Few people on the planet have ever arrived at these meets as joyfully as I - and the waits were worth every exhilarating moment these two meets had to offer. This year, they were held within 28 hours of each other. Never was there a more fun train trip than the 6:00am from Zurich to Brussels after we all were writing until 1:00am earlier that morning.

Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that my stats-based report on the historic Brussels men’s 5000m soared to my #1 most widely read piece. My joy and excitement in being there, and my wonder at the performances, was reflected in an article I hadn't anticipated writing. The magic of the unexpected - 18 year-old Selemon Barega's 12:43.02 5,000m is #4 all-time - was thrilling to watch.
Selemon Barega after winning 2017 U20 3000m title.
Photo credit: Getty Images for 2017 IAAF
It’s not LeBron and Robert
Only I could inadvertently photobomb LeBron James and 2012 Olympic discus champion, Robert Harting, at the ISTAF Meet in Berlin.
Duo with Dufus
Matt Lynch photo
Matt Lynch, my new writing mate from Australia, recorded this for posterity.
Not Shalane, Tshepang, or Blake
I came to appreciate - in a way I hadn’t before - the relationships I’ve built with athletes over time, including athletes I met well before I began my website five-and-a-half years ago.
Shalane Flanagan winning the
2017 New York City Marathon
photo credit: New York Road Runners
One of those who came back this year was Blake Preece, who I had featured in my 2017 story about Linda Prefontaine’s Tour de Pre. I met Blake – now all of 20 – in the Hayward Field stands just before the start of the Prefontaine Classic. 

“It feels like you’re jumping off the pages of my website,” I said.

Before I left he asked me to stay for an extra moment.

“I want to show you something.”

He turned on his phone and my article popped up – as it does every time he turns on his phone.

You never know where it lands.
Mark Cullen and Blake Preece
Prefontaine Classic
May 26, 2018

It’s not even the night of uncommon kindness at Safeco Field
It’s who was there with me
My new friends, my new neighbors
In a year of blessings beyond fair hope
These are the greatest blessings of all.

A tumultuous day was over – my retirement day from school. Andrew Schneider, new to our school, and I were in the group office. I was decompressing and looking forward to a quiet evening at home. My style is the quiet and the internal, and I looked forward to catching my breath.

It was a Friday in June, however, and it was hard not to notice that the Red Sox were in town.

“I’m thinking of going,” I said.

“I could do that…”

It was the first time I met Andrew’s wife, Tessa - they’re both over half my age younger - and in four hours they pulled off quite a surprise. Andrew had said they would ‘get the tickets’ – did they ever.

First base side.

First row.

Their memorably generous treat.

Andrew was colleague and co-teacher, and by the time I decided to retire, a good friend - one who lived only three blocks away. Already I had lived in the same house for 41 years; now with friends in the next generation in the neighborhood, I felt more anchored than ever.

Andrew and I shared teaching duties for 6th grade geography; little did I know this would turn into a double-edged sword. I came to realize early in our work together that his talent would make it easier for me to retire, as the 6th grade geography curriculum I care so deeply about would be in such imaginative and creative hands. 

Ironic that just at the time I worried considerably that my extended family would contract as I went from seeing so many people every day to far fewer, it expanded.

My work on the Echo Summit story caught Andrew’s eye one day.

“Tessa and I met at a camp nearby,” he said of the Stanford Sierra Camp.

When Thanksgiving hosts asked what it’s like to be around two Stanford graduates, I said that I hung in there and tried to hold my own, but they were right to perceive a problem.

“Their dog’s a genius, too,” I said.

“Now that’s rough!” they replied.

I wrote the front page in November, and since then, there have been some wonderful life changes. By far the most joyous is that Andrew and Tessa are expecting their first child. Already they’ve moved to a house that will accommodate their new future far better than their beautiful, hip, urban apartment would. It’s the second time in a year we’ll have to be intentional about this unlikely friendship of ours; while they have moved, our friendship has not.

In my experience, we don’t get many years like the one I just had. It’s time for me to hand off the baton to Andrew, Tessa and their child, and share the wealth.

It’s their turn for a year beyond fair hope. 

Billy Mills (left)
walking down the hallway of Marshfield High School

Coos Bay, OR
October 30, 2018

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Where It Lands

2018 Reunions with Three of the Sport's Finest:
Shalane Flanagan, Julius Yego, 
and Tshepang Makhethe

Copyright 2018. Mark Cullen/Trackerati.com. All Rights Reserved.
Continental Cup Celebration
Ostrava, Czech Republic
"You never know where it lands," I said many times during my 41 year career in education. Students I thought might return vanish, and ones who surprise me  come back and repeat what I said in class one day 30 years ago. So it was in 2018 as I encountered Shalane Flanagan (13 years), Tshepang Makhethe (4), and Julius Yego (3) some considerable time after our first memorable meetings.

Julius Yego, Kenya
2015 World Javelin Champion; Africa Team Co-Captain, 2018 Continental Cup 
Africa Team Co-Captain Julius Yego
2018 Continental Cup
Ostrava, Czech Republic

photo credit: Mark Cullen/trackerati
My path had crossed in person with Julius Yego only twice. The first was when he won the World title in Beijing in 2015, notable for the fact that an African won the javelin for the first time. I ran some stats to put this historic event into a global and cultural context in Watching History:

Two years later, at the Prefontaine Classic, I ran into Yego in person - almost literally at first - as we were both leaving the athletes' hotel. I worried for him as he left at dusk for a nearby shopping mall.

It was - and remains - a time of intense concern for the safety of young black men in America, and I was deeply concerned for his; Dusk on America:

I waited for him to return to his hotel and would not leave until I was assured of his safety. Athlete and writer no more; instead, two people looking out for each other.

On Friday in Ostrava, at the captains' press conference the day before the competition began, I spoke with Yego for the first time since that evening.

He looked me in the eye and our eyes didn't budge.

"Yes, I remember."

Shalane Flanagan, United States
2017 New York City Marathon Champion, 2008 Olympic bronze medalist at 10,000m, 2011 World Cross Country bronze medalist
Shalane Flanagan
Winning the 2017 New York City Marathon
photo credit: New York Road Runners/TCS New York City Marathon
Flanagan was fresh off her memorable NYC Marathon victory when she ran the 3000m at the Husky Indoor in Seattle on January 13.

I had not interviewed her directly, but was part of many mixed zone interview scrums over the years. I very much wanted to talk with her now, yet it was not clear to athletes that they were to go to an interview area – much less where that interview area was – as soon as their competitions were complete. 

After a strong 3rd place in the 3000m, Flanagan disappeared to the other side of the arena. I watched a number of runners put on sweats and exit outside for a warm down run.

It was close to 5:00pm and I had been on my feet much of the day. I was ready to eat and had nothing with me. A wave of fatigue came over me.

Flanagan was nowhere to be found, and suddenly it dawned on me.

"That’s it," I thought - Flanagan must have been with them. I couldn't have been more disappointed than to miss her. The reward of this long day was supposed to have been a minute with Flanagan – then I’d have the capper to my story.

I looked down, arranged my backpack and got ready to leave.

My inner voice. “Dude. Look up.”

“Hi, Shalane.”

She’s 5 feet in front of me.

It’s awkward. Her runner's duties are done. A child is climbing all over her.

“Do you have a minute, please?”

A gracious yes, but a minute would be a good idea.

“I remember the last time we spoke,” I said.

I have her attention.

“On the ferry from Talinn to Helsinki the day after the end of the 2005 World Championships.”


And the interview was on.

It took me awhile to realize just how valuable it is to build relationships with the athletes over time. Our Gulf of Finland meeting took place a full 8 years before I began Trackerati. I realize now that having been in and of this track and field world as a spectator and fan for over 40 years before I began Trackerati is its own reward, one I never expected.

The interview lasts 2:04.


I got double-time with Shalane.

Tshepang Makhethe, South Africa
Hammer Throw, 2018 Africa Continental Cup Team

Tshepang Makhethe
2014 World Junior Championships, Eugene
photo credit: Mark Cullen/trackerati
I didn't tell Tshepang Makhethe that I'd be at the Continental Cup. In fact, I didn't know for certain that he'd be there until final entries were confirmed.

Four years ago, just a year after starting this website, I covered my first World Championships - the 2014 Juniors - in Eugene, OR. I met Makhethe when I was taking photos of athletes who were looking at their names on display boards in the fan zone.

I wrote one of my earliest stories, and my first of what are now many about hammer throwers, in As Good As Gold:

Four years later, as I was readying my "I hope you remember..." introduction in Ostrava, both Makhethe and Sean Donnelly (US) came into the Continental Cup's interview area at the same time. A welcome smile and handshake from Donnelly, while Makhethe was his exuberant self and almost flew over the barriers to greet me.

Donnelly looked quite surprised and, on a day that hadn't gone well for him, we had a brief interview in which he said how pleased he was with the entire season - "I rewrote my top ten list" - in spite of a disappointing day in Ostrava.

"You either win or you learn," he said, ruefully.

Donnelly and I were joined forever by an errant hammer throw of his at the 2018 US National Championships. My photo essay, such as it was, went crazy online and he shrugged his shoulders the next day at his sudden infamy; Scene of the Hammertime Crime:

I gestured to Makhethe and said to Donnelly, "In case you're wondering, Makhethe was my first hammer article."

"Ahhh..." A knowing nod and he leaves us to our reunion.

Replied Makhethe to me, "And you were my first international article."


We never know where it lands.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Riff on a Friday Night Track Meet in Berlin

A Good Night for the Home Team
and a 
Prodigy from Norway

European Championships
Olympiastadion, Berlin
August 11, 2018

copyright 2018, Mark Cullen/trackerati.com, all rights reserved

December 27 - Many thanks to my friends and colleagues at AIPSEurope, 
the European sportswriters association for all sports, for sending this out on Twitter on Boxing Day - what a present! This night was one of the highlights of the entire 2018 track and field season. 

Have you noticed a lot of Germans walking around with their arms in the air? 

They're smiling and laughing and crying and jumping up and down. They’re clasping their hands to their faces in stunned disbelief. They're lying on the track waiting for a mascot to help them up. They're holding black, red, and yellow flags across their backs and they’re jogging, ever so slowly, around the track.

You wouldn't want this moment to end, would you?

They're grasping onto fellow competitors and teammates and looking for support, even when they're 6'7"/285 pounds. They're human, after all, even when we think their athletic wonders exceed anything we might have expected from such human superhuman heroes.

So it was for Germany on Friday night at the European Championships. So it was, at least in part, for a trio of accomplished brothers, each of whom has now won a European crown. It took the third one 17 years to win his title, though in his case, we count the 17 years since birth.

The Friday night crowd is much larger than prior weekday nights. A realistic estimate from the press tribune is that the stadium is filled to 70-80% of capacity. We can hear the full-throated difference.

As we head into this night, we have a number of intriguing questions that will be answered as the evening unfolds.

Will Norway’s Ingebrigsten brothers sweep the podium in the men’s 1500m?

Will Karsten Warholm pull off the historic 400m hurdles/400m double? Will his attempt at history be waylaid by a bevy of Belgian Borlees?

Will Christin Hussong win the javelin in front of the rabid home crowd?

Will the star studded men’s 110m high hurdles live up to its advance billing?

Most of all, which Germans will surprise and in which events? Who will do something so unexpected that it will release the energy of the sporting gods of this historic stadium?

With two days left in these championships, the defining performance has been given. 25 - no, 50 years from now - when people speak of these championships, they will always say: that’s when the 17 year old won the 1500m. Displaying a confidence and a maturity of athletes twice his age, Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigsten unleashed a powerful sustained finishing drive to win in 3:38.10.

It was a mesmerizing performance. 

Going to the lead with half the race left seemed like an exuberant youthful indiscretion. It was until it wasn’t when he crossed the white line into history.

Alas, his brothers did not share in the glory as Henrik finished 4th and Filip 12th. One can only wonder what it’s like to be an Ingebrigsten parent.

Meanwhile, surprise 2017 400m hurdles world champion Karsten Warholm ran a lap too far. Now 22, he won the hurdles title on Thursday in a stellar 47.64 – a European U23 record – and then doubled back in the 400m. But his 3rd round of 400m racing proved too much and his dream of a double lasted 240 meters. After a too-fast start he began to fade and he was jogging – if that – by the time he crossed the finish line.

Speaking of brothers, twins Kevin and Jonathan Borlee finished 2nd and 3rd, with Great Britain’s Matthew Hudson-Smith the victor in 44.78.

A stellar lineup in the men’s 110m hurdles left one wondering how on earth they could separate themselves from one another. Russian Sergey Shubenkov is two-time European and 2015 World Champion; in fact, he owns a complete set of gold, silver, and bronze World medals. Spain’s Orlando Ortega won 2016 Olympic silver, and coming into tonight’s final, France’s Pascal Martinot-Lagarde had a treasure trove of bronze and silver medals.

He’ll now need to make room in his display case for gold.

It was no surprise that it was so close - but this close? Martinot-Lagarde and Shubenkov both ran 13.17, but M-L had the faster version of that time by two one-thousandths of a second.


It takes .30 to blink.

Meanwhile, the Germans. 

Carolin Schafer won heptathlon bronze, while Kristin Gierisch took home triple jump silver with a personal best 14.45 (47-5) – never a better stage for a PB than a major championship at home. She did so into a negative wind of .5 meters per second. After being a finalist in the 15-16-17 World and Olympic championships, this was her time at last to stand on the podium.

Laura Muller won her Friday morning 200m qualifying heat and then advanced to Saturday’s final as a time qualifier. Even Gregor Traber’s 5th place in the men’s high hurdles was plenty of reason for an ovation.

But no one received it more – or deserved it more – than Christin Hussong, who nailed a championship record 67.90 (222-9) on her first javelin throw to win by an astonishing 6.05 meters (19-10¼).

Now, before we move on to tonight’s many more opportunities for bedlam in the stadium, I’d like you to try something.

Feeling down? A little depressed?

Stand up.

Put your arms in the air.

Keep them there.

Walk around.

Start jumping up and down.

Start cheering.


It works, doesn’t it?

Plans for the evening?

Please come over to my house – we have room for 75,000.

Henrik, Jakob, and Filip Ingebrigsten
Three European Champions in the Same Family

Carolin Hussong
Germany's Javelin Champion

with her arms in the air

photo credits: Getty Images via Berlin European Championships

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Christmas in London

     by Mark Cullen

This story of how I found Christmas in London on the top of a double-decker bus early one morning in August 2017 is about US 800m runner Drew Windle and his family and was first published on 2/11/18. 
Drew Windle and Family
London Olympic Stadium
August 6, 2017
Windle went on to win the 800m silver medal at the 2018 World Indoor Championships in Birmingham. A revised version of this article, which focuses on the story of World Indoors, was published by IAAF in June:

Here is the original.

Christmas came early last year.

August 7th at 1:10 am.

On the top level of a double-decker bus in London.

Apparently I had not read far enough in the World Championships media guide to learn that London shuts down its subway system before midnight on weeknights.

More likely, I passed over that section as it never crossed my mind that one of the world’s great cities would close its subway system overnight, most especially not during a track and field world championships that set a record in selling over 700,000 tickets.

Possibly people needed a way to get home when events finished after 11:00 pm and the subway station was a mile away?

Further proof that I’m not in charge.

I arrived at the closed station at 12:30 am. Natives were ever helpful in guiding me to the multiple bus stops outside the other end of the massive Westfield Stratford City shopping mall.

Transformed from an upper middle class shopping mecca to an overnight shelter for homeless people – this thorough transformation was striking, the scale of it startling.

No daytime hint of this facility’s unexpected nighttime purpose.

I made my way past the dozens of homeless and exited the mall to find extensive street lighting, but otherwise, it was deserted.

“Well,” I thought to myself of London’s penchant for filming every moment of one’s life, “if I get taken out, at least my demise will be recorded.”

I waited, and waited, and waited for my bus.

At last it arrived.

“Right number,” the driver offered. “Wrong direction. Your stop is over there.”

I finally boarded my bus at 1:10 and climbed to the second level.

It was hard not to notice a man wearing running shoes bearing the image of the Union Jack.

        *                                         *                                        *

“The singing was never better,” said Jamie Snell of the 34th annual Christmas carol singalong held at his and his wife Sara’s home in Seattle in mid-December – Sara, class of ’79 at my school, and yes, I taught her. The Snells learned of my affinity for Christmas music and have graciously welcomed me ever since.

Ever, now, is measured readily in decades.

While I am not particularly religious, the holiday season has always held deep spiritual meaning for me. In a family of seven, my Irish Catholic father and Dutch Calvinist mother fought the Reformation at the dinner table every night.

It was not remotely a healthy place for five children.

Peace came for us a few days every year as my parents declared a Christmas truce and showered us with makeup presents.

There was no event more compellingly beautiful to me than the Christmas Eve candlelight service. Held in the white clapboard church that was the social center of our Western Massachusetts hilltown, we’d gather there before heading out for caroling all over our far-flung village, seeking out those of the 235 residents whose Christmas Eve we could brighten with sung surprise.

After a service of what we impish Cullen kids called the greatest hits – which of the traditional carols would we sing this year? – one was always guaranteed: “Silent Night.”

All the lights inside the church were turned off. Reverend Frank Carey would light a single pillar candle, and each of us would march to the front and light our own handheld candle.

Time stood still as we lit 100 candles.

As we ringed the outside walls, the glow from our candles grew brighter. When each of us had a place, we sang - a cappella - all three verses of Silent Night.

I know them still, by heart.

I found a greater sense of family in that church every Christmas Eve than I ever did at home, and the candlelight service became a comforting constant for a family that moved so frequently that one brother went to five different schools five years in a row.

People wonder why I’ve lived in the same house for 41 years.

        *                                         *                                        *

“Dear," she said, "he’s interested in your shoes."

“They’re a special edition Launch made by Brooks for the London Marathon,” he explained.

Brooks? The Brooks headquarters is four blocks from my home in Seattle.

“I’m Kenny Windle, Drew’s dad, and this is his mother, Karen. Drew’s up there.”

Several rows up, Drew turned around and gave me a welcoming wave.

Earlier that night, Windle’s remarkable 2017 string had played out in the World Championship 800m semi-final in which he finished a non-qualifying 5th.

I got out my phone and showed the Windle clan photos of my Bowerman waffle iron shoes. Mine are among the earliest Bowerman ever made, and Kenny was fascinated.

Karen, a teacher, asked if I know the Orton-Gillingham approach to teaching students with learning disabilities, and I replied that our school has an Orton-Gillingham program.

We instantly had a point of unusual connection.

Drew’s brother, Kyle, and his girlfriend, Kayla, were sitting right behind me. Kyle was in the process of becoming certified in Orton-Gillingham.

If you had told me I’d meet the family of a world class athlete in London, I’d never have guessed that so much of our conversation would revolve around this method of teaching.

Not surprisingly, teaching it takes extensive daily preparation and discipline.

Sitting next to Drew were his sister, Kaleigh, and her two year old son.

“There are more downstairs,” said Kenny.

You need a double-decker bus to hold this family.

        *                                         *                                        *

January in Seattle.

“I love my family,” Drew Windle said. “It means everything, really. My family has been super supportive not only of my running but anything I’m passionate about and have wanted to do with my life.

“The family name and everyone in it have shaped me into who I am. I was really happy that we were able to get them out there and watch me on the biggest stage and one of the most important parts of my life so far.”

Perhaps Windle’s toughest competition in London came from within his own family. Not to be outdone by a World Championship semi-finalist, by the end of the week the gender of his sister’s forthcoming baby had been announced, and the boyfriend and girlfriend sitting behind me on the bus were now husband and wife to be. (Windle's older sister and her family were unable to attend.)

Three adult children in London, three major life events. 

All in a week for the Windles.

“Their passions aren’t as public as track and field is,” said Windle, “but as soon as my brother got his teaching job and my sister had her first and second babies – well, everyone’s just super excited and wants to see really good things happen to everyone.”

So often the stories we write are about the hard luck kid, the one who overcomes seemingly insurmountable obstacles to reach the highest heights of the athletics world.

Drew Windle’s story is of the good luck kid, the one blessed by family – the one who knows it, appreciates it and wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

Gold? The good luck kid won gold the day he was born into this family, eight of whom came from across the US to support him and his London dream.

If only they could settle on a name.

“My birth name is actually Curt Andrew,” said Windle. “I’ve always gone by Drew, but I don’t think my parents have called me Drew since elementary school.”

In 2nd or 3rd grade his class was in the library where they learned about the Dewey decimal system.

One of his classmates noted that ‘Dewey’ was pretty close to ‘Drew’ and so he became ‘Dewey’ at school. But Windle never told his parents.

“My friends all came over one time and they were calling me ‘Dewey.’ ”

His surprised mother pointed out that Drew’s great-grandfather was named Dewey Hubbard.

“My Mom obviously loved the name and it stuck.”

With his own hashtag already in hand – “#RunLikeTheWindle” comes from an article title written by Ashland University in his early years on the team – Windle recently registered an LLC in that name.

“My parents, especially, took that and ran with it - it’s nothing that we created, though.”

They did, however, create the #RunLikeTheWindle buttons.

“I think they handed out probably a hundred buttons while we were in London.”

Add his own promo code for tickets for last summer’s TrackTown series and you have a young star with a considerable social media presence.

Of his two London races, Windle said, “Normally I would expect to be pretty disappointed but I was just happy to be there. It was a great experience that will prepare me for hopefully more experiences that are similar to that where I can do better next time and maybe end up with a medal.

“Sure I wish I had made the final, but it wasn’t until I watched the final and the way it played out – oh, man, that’s when I was disappointed because I realized how, if I had just run the race I had been running all year up to that point - how possible it would have been to end up with a medal.

“I was burning a little too hot for a little too long and I started to tail off by the time I got to Worlds.”

The July 21 Monaco Diamond League Meet was Windle’s first major international meet.

Windle said that while he felt grateful to feel minimal pressure, there were, nonetheless, some tactical errors he made.

“I was behind Amel Tuka for most of the race and he let this little gap form. It was probably the difference between 2nd and 4th for me,” said Windle, who tied for fourth in 1:44.72, just off his personal best of 1:44.63.

“There have been two races in my life when I’ve been taken out of my element because of events going on during the race and the first one was at Monaco and the second one was in London. Coming down the straightaway of the first lap in Monaco flames start shooting up going into the bell lap and I said ‘what the heck is going on here?!’ ”

Kyle Langford, the British athlete, was in Windle’s World Championships semi-final, “and the crowd erupted coming down the home straightaway and my ears were ringing it was so loud. At that point I knew it was going to take a lot to get up into 2nd place and I was hoping to get into 3rd or 4th and have a time (qualifier) – but it really caught me off guard.

“I think if I had gotten into two more races like that before London I would probably have been a little more prepared for the semi-final type of race - with a little more confidence as well, which never hurts.

“Hopefully I’ll get more chances like that this year.”

Windle’s big splash came in the furnace that was US Nationals in Sacramento, where he unleashed track and field’s 2017 Kick of the Year to fly from last to 3rd over the closing 200m and land a coveted spot on the World Championships team.

“I get a lot of flak about the way I race sometimes, but it’s very entertaining at the very least when it goes well. It gets people’s attention, which is a good thing to have.”

Windle compares his Sacramento race to a race his junior year in college at the 2014 Grand Valley Big Meet in Michigan when he blew apart his personal best with his unexpected and other worldly 1:46.52.

“To me it’s such a cool moment because I feel like a lot of people can look back and say ‘this is the moment that changed my life.’ I realized in that moment: this has a lot of potential to get me to that next level in my running career.”

Windle cites a Hoosiers-esque moment as being influential in shaping his approach to running.

Trent Mack, his coach at Ashland University said, “Here it’s 400m, in Oregon it’s 400m, it doesn’t matter where you are, it’s a 400m track no matter where you go.”

“It’s really simple, really,” said Windle. “You don’t have to make running any harder than it is.

“You’ve just got to work hard, stay healthy, and believe in yourself, and if you do those things really well you’re going to run fast.

“I think I have the work hard and stay healthy parts down really well and last year the belief in myself part is what kicked in.”

The most important lesson of 2017 was confirming that he belongs.

“It’s belief in the program, belief in your coach. I was a (NCAA) Division II guy who hadn’t gotten to race people like this and I was still trying to figure out if I belonged.

“I got frustrated with it and I said, ‘You know what? I belong, and even if I don’t I’m going to tell myself that I do. I finished 3rd and it was a good feeling and now – now you can take it where you want to go.’ “

        *                                         *                                        *

Windle’s family reunion took place after his semi-final late at night outside the stadium.

“They were patient enough to wait – I hadn’t seen them up to that point since they had gotten into London.

“I finished my semi-final and,” he said, wryly, “was ‘lucky’ enough to be chosen for drug-testing. It took about two hours to get through all that. I was really excited to get out of drug testing and see my family.

“We walked around looking for food – a lot of places were closed so we ended up finding a McDonald’s, grabbed some dinner real quick and then…”

Then their late-night odyssey began.

They, too, encountered the closed subway system.

“Around the time we met you, I was starting to get pretty tired, I was starting to feel the long day, the race, and all of that.

“Our night got more interesting once we got off that bus that we were on – we were still pretty far from where we were staying (in Teddington)… then we got on a different bus.”

“We got taken,” he said, cryptically, “not in the direction of our Airbnb. We were just trying to figure how to get back to the place my parents were staying.”

        *                                         *                                        *

It grows quiet on the bus.

Kyle and Kayla doze off behind me, never a more contented, peaceful pair.

For twenty blessed minutes I sit in the comfort of this remarkable family.

I don’t want to leave the privilege of being in their double-deckered ark.

Ahead, Tottingham Court Station lights up the night sky, and I hesitate as I prepare to disembark.

I say my multiple goodbyes, and as I exit the first level, Windles I haven’t even met yet bid me farewell.

I think we are headed for separate destinations, but we are not.

At the end of this landmark day, the magnificent athlete on the second deck is son, brother, uncle, and friend – a member of a family cradled on a bus which lumbers from stop to stop deep into the London night.

Tonight’s star of the Windle family sits in wistful reflection with his young nephew in his arms - his nephew’s head a mass of curls, bobbing up and down and rocking gently on Drew’s shoulder as this bus delivers them to their ultimate destination.


Special thanks to Drew Windle for an engaging, discursive interview, and to Karen Farley Windle for permission to use her photographs.