The latest Olympic Games are now over, and as always they were a grand spectacle. While Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, and the entirety of the US women’s gymnastics team got the bulk of the headlines (deservedly) in Rio, I was most excited about the runners. In the 1990s I was a mediocre runner in high school and college, and during those years my role models were elite American distance runners who were getting totally obliterated by the Africans at all major competitions, to the point where it was exciting just to see an American distance runner qualify for a final.
In recent years American distance running has experienced a resurgence, and in the Rio Olympics the Americans absolutely killed it, bringing home seven medals, which is more than they’d won at the past four Olmpics combined.
After a generation in which American kids might have believed that the East Africans were literally invincible in distance running, today there’s a small army of Team USA runners to be inspired by. Clayton Murphy, a junior from the University of Akron who two years ago was only the sixth-fastest runner in the Mid-American conference, is now the 800m bronze medalist and owner of the fifth fastest 800m time ever run by an American. Galen Rupp, already the defending silver medalist in the 10,000m from London, earned a bronze medal in only the second marathon he’d ever run in his life. Matt Centrowitz won a surprise gold medal in the 1500m, becoming the first American in 108 years to win that event, and admitted that when he crossed the line he “literally was still looking at the board like, did somebody go by me? Did I really just win?”. Other medalists included Evan Jager in the steeplechase (silver), Paul Chelimo in the 5,000m (silver), Emma Coburn in the steeplechase (bronze), and Jenny Simpson in the 1500m (bronze).
Sport is one of the few opportunities in life to discover your limits, and in almost all cases it turns out that those limits are far greater than anyone believes possible. Every four years the Olympics offer a chance to see that principle on full display, and the Games in Rio, particularly for a former distance runner like myself, were an emphatic affirmation that humans are capable of amazing feats.