Spikes24 Sep 2020

Opportunity Lost


Ben Blankenship

by Ben Blankenship

To me, it’s a sham.

The explanation for cutting the men’s track and field team at the University of Minnesota makes no sense. It was announced a couple of weeks ago in a statement that hid the real reasons behind a lot of fluffy words.

The financial hit of the pandemic was one reason given; another was Title IX, a US law that ensures gender equality in collegiate sports. But, like most alumni, I believe the decision was made internally for reasons we don’t yet know.

Honestly, I’d respect it so much more if they just said the university needs to operate as a business and that they were cutting anything that isn’t making money.

They didn’t do that.

There’s been a lot of uproar these past two weeks, but the college has doubled down and is showing no signs of a U-turn. That’s a huge shame for the sport – given how many Olympians came through the program – but it’s the athletes themselves I feel for most.

They’ll miss out on all the things I experienced.

I arrived at the University of Minnesota in 2008, transferring there after a year at Mississippi State. Growing up in Stillwater, about a half hour from the campus, I looked up to a lot of the guys on the team while in high school.

It was a great culture and I knew very quickly that I made the right choice. We hadn’t been the top high schoolers in America, but we were a team of guys who wanted to make big things happen, who worked really hard to make sure they did.

Our coach, Steve Plasencia, had run for the Gophers in the 1970s and I looked up to him, a guy who showed us the path in coming from a small town and representing your state with pride on the national stage.

Ben Blankenship

My three years as a Gopher were an absolute blast. The team was close, with all of us living and training together.

We hit some great highs, but like any runner I had plenty of lows. I’d get excited, set these big goals, and believe the only way I could achieve them was by working harder.

Then I’d get exhausted, or hurt, doubling down one too many times. Every athlete has points where they have to look into themselves and ask: ‘Do I want to keep doing this?’

My body sure doesn’t. But I do. So, how do I make this work?

Those years at Minnesota helped me figure that out, shaping me into the athlete, the person, I am today.

As several colleges cut track programs in recent months, many are highlighting how it’s a sucker punch for diversity at these institutions. Few sports bring together a team with a wider range of backgrounds.

In high school, I came through a program that was pretty much all white. In college, I became great friends with guys like Hassan Mead and Harun Abda, and those relationships are still strong today.

I’ve learned way more going out for an hour run with these guys than I ever have sitting in a classroom. I’ve learned different experiences, heard different perspectives, and swapped stories that taught me so much.

For a lot of young athletes who come from small towns around Minnesota, the loss of that track team will mean missing out on those same experiences, the ability to learn a new culture through somebody else.

I’ve known Hassan since my sophomore year in high school. We were teammates in college, teammates at the Oregon Track Club, and teammates on the US Olympic team in Rio.

Ben Blankenship

That’s one thing people behind this decision probably don’t truly appreciate: track is the cornerstone of the Olympic movement and the NCAA system is a feeder system for that. It’s the stepping stone to bring you from high school to the professional ranks, and if it’s lost we’ll lose out on so much talent.  

In recent weeks, the Gopher alumni community has come together. We’ve been expressing our anger in email and text chains, working out ways we can help reverse the decision.

We had a Zoom call with graduates from as far back as the 70s, each of us talking about our experiences as a Gopher. The thing you quickly realize is no matter which era you went through the program, the stories are much the same.

Maybe we didn’t have all the best stuff, but we cut our teeth with what we had and did everything we could to get better.

I remember my first year there.

I came into what was already a successful program and I looked up to the other guys, getting my ass kicked in workouts every day. I loved it. Then, in later years, I had to be one of the leaders and show the young kids the way. I was never much good in that position.

I liked to show up, get beat up, then come back stronger the next time. When I think back on my NCAA career, a lot of that races that spring to mind are the bad ones, but they were also the races that taught me the most.

In 2011, I got my first chance to step into the post-collegiate world by racing at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene. I was redshirting that outdoor track season and my coach was keen for me to get a race so he called Tom Jordan, the meet director, who found me a spot in the international mile.

I finished third, running 3:54.10, and it was the perfect introduction to the world of pro running. Competing at Hayward Field, I felt like I was representing not just myself but my coach and teammates back at Minnesota.

Ben Blankenship

It was an awesome experience, one that fuelled my journey. It makes me angry to think that same pathway won’t be there for the next generation.

They say the program costs about a million dollars a year to run and, while that’s an amount I’m not going to scoff at, I don’t understand why it can’t be found for a program that’s been around for 100 years and has supported countless Olympians.

The university has an endowment of $3.9 billion, and if that can’t be tapped into this year – during a pandemic – when can it?

It’s hard for me to believe that a few phone calls to alumni couldn’t pull in those donations. It’s hard to understand how people who represent the university didn’t have the forethought to say they were in trouble and to reach out for help.

It’s hard to understand how they can let something so special just slip away.

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