It was in the last 60-meter-dash of Wednesday’s Oregon Track Club All-Comers meet at Hayward Field that Karaline Glenn went astray.
The 2-year-old Creswell girl was barreling down the east straightaway with a smile on her face roughly the size of the Nike swoosh on the nearby video scoreboard and display.
Suddenly, she veered right, going from Lane 5 to Lane 4 to Lane 3. It was like watching a drink slide sideways on the galley shelf of a heeling sailboat.
About 10 yards from the finish line – her stride, smile and course unwavering – Karaline crossed from Lane 2 to Lane 1.
Then, with true childlike faith, she leapt into the air, only to be caught by her father, Tim, who celebrated her passionate, if not quite complete, race with a hug.
Watching one of OTC’s Ages 1-though-12 All-Comers Meets is like eating a fresh fruit salad on your back deck: bursts of alluring flavors that, thrown together in a single place, say “summer in Eugene.”
When Bill Bowerman started such meets for grade-school kids at Hayward Field in 1949, 15 people showed up. Wednesday night, there were some sprint heats with that many entrants, though, in one case, a kid literally got lost en route to the finish line, later being tearfully reunited with his parents.
(With athletic trauma like this, who needs the agony of defeat )
“In the ‘diaper dashes,’ as we call them, kids make up their own races as they go,” says Liz James, a former University of Oregon runner who coordinates the 50 volunteers. “It’s kind of up in the air whether they’re going to make it to the finish line or not.”
The meet is the taste of comedy, community and competition, all of it playing out in a venue where track and field history is imbedded as indelibly as the spike marks in the steps of the 91-year-old East Grandstand.
It is the sound of “runners to your mark, set, go.” Of Danette Bloomer, a volunteer official in the Age 1-3 softball throw, announcing a competitor’s distance thusly: “About 14 feet!” Of kids, between events, showing off with cartwheels on the well-trimmed grass of the infield.
It is the sight of 3-year-olds proudly waving orange “Participant” ribbons, not knowing exactly what they mean but based on gone-wild parents, figuring it’s something pretty darn good.
Oh, the meet isn’t perfect. Here and there, you see a spark of parent-child tension. And you see the little boy who, braced to throw the softball, freezes like a statue, no amount of parental coaxing getting him to release that ball.
But what makes it special is as much about what you don’t see as what you do. Unlike at too many Kidsports baseball games I’ve seen, there are no parents screaming at officials over what they think is a bad call.
No exclusivity among the 500 kids who have shown up on this near-perfect summer evening, all skill levels treated equally.
No win-or-else coaches forgetting that it should be about learning, improving and having fun.
Indeed, the story is told of a 7-year-old boy who, years ago in this meet, finished fourth in the then-220-yard dash.
“How fast did you run?” an adult asked.
Eyes wide, he replied: “As fast as I could!”
If the meet is well-organized, the feel is still laid back, from the barefoot long jump official to a family settling down for a quick dinner of rice cakes on the infield. (A menu reminding you that, no, this isn’t baseball.)
“With all the volunteers, you can see that ‘takes-a-village’ theme to run the meet,” says James.
One of the long-jump officials is former UO women’s track and field coach Tom Heinonen, who’s been around long enough that he’s marking the sand splashes of children whose parents he once did the same for.
The kids’ all-comers meet is part picnic, part 17-ring circus, part Olympics.
For the older kids who know the stories of Steve Prefontaine, Annette Peters and other Olympic athletes who’ve left their marks here, competing at Hayward Field is pure magic.
For the younger kids, the meet would be no less fun were it held in a Harrisburg grass seed field.
I see Miguel Huhndorf-Lima throw the softball – while wearing baby-blue rain galoshes, known as his “super boots.” “I wanna throw it again!” he immediately says.
I see 9-year-old Madelyn Hubbs of Eugene tumble to the track after hitting her final hurdle, then get up and still win. Inspiring stuff, that.
I see grandparents cheering from infield lawn chairs and Gen-X and New Millennial parents following their toddlers down the track with cameras and encouragement, some fathers later showing iPhonian instant replays.
But mainly what I see is a delicious slice of summer, served up in a way only Eugene can.