July 18, 2016
BELLINGHAM, Wash. -
He earned the nickname "King" during a decorated four-year career at Western Washington University while helping the Vikings extend a string of National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) District 1 crowns in men's track and field to six.
Then Allen James went on to become the nation's top race walker for nearly a decade in the 1990s, and was one of just a handful of former Vikings to compete in the Olympic Games, which he did twice.
At Western, James was a four-time NAIA All-American. He placed second in the 10,000-meter race walk at nationals in 1985, third in 1984, and fifth in 1983 and 1986. A NAIA National Scholar-Athlete in 1985 and 1986 and a four-time NAIA District 1 champion, James was named WWU's men's track & field Athlete of the Century for 1900 to 1999 and was inducted into the school's Athletics Hall of Fame in 1996.
After graduating from Western in 1987 with a degree in business administration, James took it to another level in his athletic career. He became the leading figure in United States race walking. In his Summer Olympics appearances, he placed 24th (4:01:18) in the 50-kilometer walk in 1996 at Atlanta, Georgia, and 30th (1:35:12) among 52 participants in the 20K walk in 1992 at Barcelona, Spain.
"I remember watching the 1972 Olympics on TV ... That was my first inspiration," said James in a 1992 interview. "I knew then that no matter in which event, I wanted to be in the Olympic Games."
James was a four-time national champion in the 20K walk and a three-time national champion in the 50K event as well as a three-time national champion in the 5000-meter indoor walk. He was a three-time World Walk Cup U.S. Team member and winner of the United States Amateur Track & Field Captain Ron Zinn Memorial Award.
The 6-foot-3, 185-pound James, who worked with Athletes in Action during those years, set American walk records in the 20K, 25K, 30K, 50K and two hour events. His personal bests were 1:24:26.9 (1994) in the 20K and 3:55:39 (1994) in the 50K.
James' best 50K time of 3:55:39, accomplished on March 13, 1994, at the USA Championships in Palo Alto, Calif., took more than a minute off the American record and still ranks fifth nationally. He is just one of nine Americans ever to have posted a time under four hours, which he did twice.
In 1990, James reached the Top 10 rankings for the U.S. at 20K and from 1992 to 1995, he held the No.1 spot in that event.
James competed in four U.S. Olympic Trials. He was 18th in the 20K walk in 1988, won in 1992, placed fourth in 1996 and was sixth in 2008.
"Allen established an amazing record as a race walker over the course of his athletic career at Western and as an elite USA track and field athlete and Olympian," said Ralph Vernacchia, who coached at WWU from 1973 to 1987. "It was a privilege to be his coach and to watch him excel both academically and athletically, while at Western. His athletic accomplishments are only exceeded by the quality of his character.
"Not many people can appreciate how demanding the race walk can be, especially when the event is contested over 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) and 50 kilometers (31 miles). Allen's teammates and our coaches admired his dedicated efforts to excel at his event; he was an inspiration to us all and was a team leader throughout his time at WWU.
"I was fortunate enough to be at the 1992 Olympic Trials in New Orleans to watch Allen make his first Olympic team. It was a very special time, especially for those of us who realized how much he and his family had sacrificed to reach this very special goal."
How James became a race walker and more
Considering his upbringing, it would have been hard for James not to have been a track standout. He was the son of an Air Force colonel and a Seattle store owner, Laurel, who owns the Super Jock'n'Jill running store near Green Lake.
Living with the family while James was growing up was distance runner and coach Pat Tyson. Tyson got James interested in track and the youngster started running age group events as a fourth grader. Three years later, he started race walking.
"I had just won the 1,500-meter run at an age-group meet," James recalled in a 1986 interview, "and my coach ran over and asked me to enter the walk. No one else was entered. I beat the other guys who entered the same way ... I continued with distance running, but I also began doing some walking on the side."
While growing up, James, the youngest of five brothers, met internationally acclaimed distance runner Steve Prefontaine, a roommate of Tyson's at University of Oregon; Olympic 20K walk champion Ernesto Canto, who stayed at James' home with the Mexican walk team for an event in the 1970s; and coaching legend Arthur Lydiard, a Thanksgiving guest one year.
At Shorecrest High School in Seattle, where he graduated in 1982, James competed in cross country, soccer, track and swimming (also played in the school's bagpipe band), focusing on race walking during the summer. He attended two U.S. Olympic development camps at Colorado Springs and Berkeley where he received expert coaching.
After his freshman year in 1983 at Western, James went on an international trip to Sweden as part of the U.S. Junior National Track Team.
James went to WWU, at that time a NAIA member, because no NCAA schools had race walking, something that is still true today. Many collegiate coaches refused to help race walkers or even allow them on their teams. But that was not true of Western coach Ralph Vernacchia, who welcomed them. His acceptance and support was a key reason James decided to attend Western and pursue race walking more seriously.
At the time, NAIA schools were the feeder schools to the Olympic team. Now few colleges, even in the NAIA ranks, offer race walking, making it tougher for the U.S. to stay competitive.
In fact, race walking was nearly not a NAIA national meet event during James' senior year in 1986 when the organization's coaches voted to abolish it. As it turned out, the coaches' vote was overruled by the NAIA administration as the qualifying standards were retooled and interest rejuvenated.
Race walking's beginnings are traced to the British military. When documents needed to be shipped quickly from one end of a large complex to another, messengers would walk quickly to get them there since it was improper to run through the building.
The basic rule of race walking is that you can't break into a running stride. Your lead leg must be straight, no bent knees, when the foot touches the ground and one foot must be in contact with the ground at all times.
Judges watch the racers throughout an event to make certain they maintain correct form. A competitor is disqualified if judges issue him three violations.
Walkers may not receive the media attention that the sprinters, jumpers and milers get, but race walkers have been a part of the track and field scene at the Olympics since 1908, 116 years.
James is currently a sales representative for Toth's Sports in New York, a company that sells and installs scoreboards and electronic message centers locally to schools and other venues.
James also worked for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation where he became the Director of Marketing and Special Events at Niagara Falls State Park and the Niagara Region. He and his wife, Laura, have three children, Teisha, Denae and Axel, and live in Sanborn, New York.
Six consecutive district crowns for Vikings
From 1981 to 1986, the Western Washington University men's track and field team won six straight NAIA District 1 championships. Prior to that the Vikings had not captured any kind of team title in that sport since a Washington Intercollegiate Conference (Winco) crown in 1939 - 42 years before!
An event that the Vikings dominated in the 1980s was the 10,000-meter race walk -- led by four-time NAIA All-American Allen James, who placed among the top five nationally from 1983 to 1986 (finished as high as second in 1985); Herm Nelson, who was 10th in 1986 and third in 1987; Torry Lingbloom, who finished among the top 10 nationally from 1981 to 1983 (second in 1981); Colin Peters, who was fourth in 1984; and Tony Engelhardt, who finished among the top five nationally three times (second in 1989).
Both James and Nelson, who was a marathon runner before switching to race walking while at WWU, competed in the Olympic Games in 1992 and 1996.
Western began its six-year streak with a six-point victory over Central Washington in 1981 and a 10-point margin over the Wildcats in 1982. The Vikings again won by 10 points in 1983, this time over Pacific Lutheran, when the race walk was added as an event.
"The first championship is always the most challenging to win, and our narrow win over Central in 1981 on their track was especially rewarding, somehow we found a way," said WWU coach Ralph Vernacchia. "This win set the tone for the teams to follow ... It took eight years to build a championship program. Many of the teams and athletes (1974 to 1981) that came before us provided the foundation for our winning streak."
Western dominated over the next three years, winning by 47 points over Simon Fraser in 1984, 56 points over Pacific Lutheran in 1985 and 36 points over Simon Fraser in 1986.
Among the other Viking standouts of the period were hurdlers Trey Cummings and Dave Woodward, 3,000-meter steeplechasers Bruce Cyra amd Rick Buckenmeyer, marathoner Mike Dubuc, pole vaulter Murray Giles, high jumper Kurt Hanson, triple jumpers Jerry Hopper and Jay Wangsmo, shot putter Kim Nix, hammer thrower Rod Ritter, decathletes Jeff Neubauer and Blake Surina, and sprinters Fred Pulphus and Garron Smith.
Vernacchia was named District 1 Coach of the Year five times during that six-year stretch.
"Each team had its unique character and personality, but there was no secret to success for every team of this era: hard work, dedication and sacrifice were the keys to our success," said Vernacchia.
"Participation was the real key to the success of our program. We had large teams which resulted in great depth and allowed us to fill all the events for a championship meet. Our athletes were encouraged to be versatile and to compete in several events ... Several of our wins came down to narrow margins so every point counted."
1984 WWU Men's Track Team - NAIA District 1 Champions!
By Paul Madison who served 48 years as sports information director at WWU from 1966 to 2015