by Mark Cullen
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.’ “
* * *
The Windle Family Clan
Outside London Olympic Stadium
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.