Lieberman: Olympic Trials stand as unique experience in American sporting landscape

Through the rain and shine and early-morning wake up calls, they prevailed. Over the past two weeks at the U.S. Olympic Trials, a group of talented individuals came together, put their best efforts on the line and formed an elite team on a worldwide stage.

I’m talking about the student journalists at the Oregon Daily Emerald.

In all seriousness, it’s truly been an honor for our staff to witness some of the world’s finest track and field athletes in their quests to represent the U.S. in London. There have been a few groundbreaking performances that will be impossible to forget, including former University of Oregon Duck and native Oregonian Ashton Eaton setting a world record in the decathlon — in dramatic fashion, no less.

Yet, it’s unfeasible to pick a single moment — on the track or off — that encapsulates what we’ve experienced over the past 1o days. Unlike more mainstream events in the American sporting landscape, a track meet is best represented by a collage of images rather than a single endearing moment.

The confusing theater of a dead heat in the women’s 100-meter dash. The sudden collapse of a former Olympic gold medalist in the men’s decathlon. A proverbial passing of the torch in the men’s 10,000 meters, with hometown hero Galen Rupp breaking the storied marks of local legend Steve Prefontaine.

All of these moments — and many more — leave indelible marks on fans, athletes and coaches alike. It’s really up to the individual to determine their relative importance. Everyone has a favorite event, a favorite face, a personal history. It’s that unique context that ultimately decides where a record or performance lands in our psyche. If you asked each person in our newsroom to name a single lasting memory from the Trials, you’d be assured of a laundry list of responses.

I can’t claim to speak for our organization as a whole. But in my mind, what has made these two weeks so special is as much about ambiance as it is about world-leading marks and landmark victories.

As a sports reporter during the 2011-12 academic year, I’ve had the privilege of covering a number of high-profile events, among them the Pac-12 Championships in both track and football, the Rose Bowl and basketball’s National Invitational Tournament. Though some of those spectacles rank remarkably high in our nation’s consciousness, they can’t touch the Olympic Trials in terms of its scope and familial atmosphere.@@well, maybe it does to those who participated in the above mentioned [email protected]@

Rarely can one pinpoint the epicenter of an entire sporting community. Yet, over the past two weeks, it’s undeniable that anyone with clout in the track and field community has made their way to Eugene. It’s not as much a gathering as a complete and ruthless takeover.

Don’t get me wrong: Track fans are a courteous, fun and unassuming bunch. But during the Trials, it’s impossible to walk around campus for more than five minutes without seeing a spirited jogger trot by. The fraternal nature of the clan was evidenced in an email the Emerald received days before the Trials from a man named, of all things, Peanut.

Since 1988, Dwayne ‘Peanut’ Harms has been organizing, in his own words, “the people’s social focal point of the USA Olympic Trials.” A quick Google search proved that Harms is, in fact, somewhat of a social champion in track and field circles. Before inviting our reporters to join him for a beer at the Wild Duck Cafe (this year’s chosen hub), he offered some words of warning: “This is serious track geek stuff.”

A visit to the Wild Duck proved that it really was track geek stuff — in the best way possible. Athletes, fans and former greats commingling. Serious competitors dropping their vise in order to throw back a few with the good ol’ boys.

In short, track and field heaven.

At the same time, the past 10 days as a whole deserve the same label. Despite grueling morning-to-night shifts, it’s been easy for for our journalists to pick up on the vibe. And, it’s that endless reserve of energy that’s propelled us to producing great coverage on a daily basis.

As the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials come to a close, I can’t help but a feel a little nostalgic. A Monday afternoon run-off in the women’s 100-meter dash will put an exclamation mark on the Trials, but it doesn’t feel like the circus should be leaving town.

Yet, as budding journalists with uncertain futures, a sense of finality may not be appropriate. This party is over, but in four years, the festival will reunite. After one of the most satisfying experiences in my short career as sports journalist, I — for one — will do my best to be there.

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