U.S. needs to go back into the forest to produce best results | TahoeDailyTribune.com

U.S. needs to go back into the forest to produce best results

For any South Shore resident like Anthony Davis who made the daily two-hour trip to watch the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Sacramento during the past two weeks, there must have been regret with each passing of the snow park exit at Echo Summit.

It’s hard to believe that only 32 years ago, the U.S. decided who would go to the Summer Olympics and who would stay at home on a track located in the remote forest of the Sierra.

What’s harder to believe is that the track didn’t remain at Echo Summit and that U.S. track and field teams didn’t train and decide future Olympic Trials at the final pass to Lake Tahoe. Sacramento hosted the trials that should have belonged to Lake Tahoe for years to come.

“It’s exciting to be back and disappointing to see the track gone,” said Larry Young, a bronze medalist in race walking in the ’68 Games who joined 11 other ex-Olympians for an Echo Summit reunion last Thursday. “That would have been wonderful if they could have kept the track, and it would be great if they could somehow, someday reconstruct the original situation here.”

After all, the U.S. had its best performance ever after spending two months training and competing at the unique 7,380-foot training facility at Echo Summit. The U.S. men’s track and field team collected 12 gold medals and set six world records at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

The hotbed of track and field – Eugene, Ore. – can’t even match Echo Summit for Olympic results.

“I knew this setting had a great deal to do with it,” said Payton Jordan, the men’s track and field coach in 1968. “They went to sea level and figured they didn’t need high altitude, but what they’ve lost was the team preparing together as a unit. We were the only one to do that and I think that was our great strength.”

Longtime resident Hersh Herschman, who was working at a Stateline casino in 1968, remembers the athletes returning in the years following the Olympics when the track was moved to South Tahoe Middle School. They knew exactly where to go to attain their physical peak.

“They were all here for the Indian Summer Games and they all had really great times,” Herschman said.

Ed Caruthers, who won a silver medal in the high jump at the ’68 Games, loved the whole atmosphere while training at Echo Summit and is sad to see it missing from its original site.

“It was a great facility here. It was the most unique probably in the history of track and field,” Caruthers said. “It would have been nice to have it here for other young track and field programs to come up and work out here.”

Today, too often prospective Olympians do their own thing and Jordan’s edge of team unity has been lost. With huge endorsement deals on the line only once every four years, it seems that the athletes are out for themselves.

After watching Marion Jones win the women’s 200-meter finals on Sunday, just one competitor came up to congratulate her. Jordan’s team thrived because of the support athletes gave each other.

“Whoever got first was secondary,” Jordan said. “It was my teammate, I’m going to help you. If I beat you, I’m the winner, but you’ll still respect me and we’ll love each other the same.”

There are other reasons the trials should return to Echo Summit. Sprinters Michael Johnson and Maurice Greene suffered heat-related injuries during the trials’ final day on Sunday. With Echo temperatures peaking at 80 degrees, athletes wouldn’t have to worry about pulling a hamstring or cramping.

Critics would say that Lake Tahoe wouldn’t draw enough of a fan base to support the costs of the trials. If 23,000 track fanatics a day could endure 100-degree heat for two weeks in Sacramento, they certainly could make a two- to four-hour drive up the hill to ideal conditions at Echo Summit.

“It was really a unique place,” Young said. “What was great here was that we were able to come out here and train anytime we wanted. And it seemed like every time you came out, the stands were always filled with the local people.”

Retracing the ’68 Olympians legendary steps in what has become a snow park and California Conservation Corps parking lot, it’s easy to picture the return of a track and field facility to Echo Summit.

Jordan can see it again, but he knows the powers that be can’t.

“I don’t know if there’s hope, but I would like to think it might come back here, because I think it could be something. But I don’t know that it will,” Jordan said.

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