Aug. 17, 2008
BELLINGHAM, Wash. -
MICHELLE NOLAN, FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALD
On the night before Bellingham's Bill Roe flew to China to see some of the best athletes in the world compete in the Olympics, he was hoping to be able to delight in encouraging the likes of a 2-year-old sprinter or a 96-year-old discus thrower at his final all-comers meet of the summer in Washington.
Roe, the president of USA Track & Field and a longtime assistant coach at Western Washington University, calls himself "still pretty much a grassroots kind of guy" when it comes to his lifelong love affair with track and field.
On Wednesday, Aug. 13, Roe completed his 40th summer as director of a series of Seattle all-comers meets. He flew to Beijing the next day, ready to enjoy his first visit to an Olympic Games since 1972 in Munich, Germany.
"I'm really excited about getting the chance to go," said Roe, who began directing the all-comers meets while a student at the University of Washington. "I'll see six nights of track and field before I have to return for a workshop at our national headquarters in Indianapolis."
He is especially enthusiastic about getting the chance to cheer on the USA's Bryan Clay, the defending Olympic decathlon champion.
"But this really is a business trip," said Roe, whose second four-year term as USATF president ends Dec 7. "I'll be showing our new CEO, Doug Logan, around and making sure he gets the right introductions to everyone (in the track and field world)."
There aren't many people in that world whom Roe, who turns 58 on Sept. 18, does not know. He was a member of the founding USATF board of directors in 1979 and has served a record 20 years in one official capacity or another. He served as the organization's acting CEO for much of this year until Logan, a former Major League Soccer commissioner, was hired.
Roe may be leaving the officer's ranks of USA Track & Field, but he isn't about to give up coaching at Western, where he has assisted head track and cross country coach Pee Wee Halsell since 1987.
He first organized the Seattle all-comers meets when he was a student at the University of Washington.
"Those meets are a special pleasure," he said. "When you can see a 2-year-old runner or a 96-year-old discus thrower, like we have, it's all still pretty special."
About the only role in track and field that Roe has not filled is that of star runner, which he once dreamed of becoming.
"I realized early on that I was way too slow to be a good athlete," said Roe, who eventually tried to make up for his lack of speed by training for marathon runs a few years out of college. Numerous injuries ended that hope, however.
Roe has never forgotten the first day he turned out for cross country as a freshman at Seattle's Nathan Hale High School. He didn't know it at the time, but his entire career path was pretty much set on that fateful day.
"Our coach said, 'I need one guy to step forward as manager of our team,' " Roe recalled.
That guy, of course, was Roe.
"My sophomore year, I was meet director of a junior varsity track meet," he said with a laugh. "I guess I just always had a knack for it."
Roe still treasures the label "student assistant coach" one of his coaches, former UW shot putter Brock Hogel, had the yearbook staff place underneath Roe's picture during his junior year at Nathan Hale.
"I just got the kids out running," Roe said.
When Roe graduated from Nathan Hale, UW coach Stan Hiserman offered him a full scholarship to manage the track and cross country teams at UW.
"By the time I got there, Stan had been fired as coach and demoted to events director," Roe said. "But I learned a lot about directing events from him."
Roe learned so much, in fact, that he was named meet manager for the 1971 NCAA Track and Field Championships at Husky Stadium and the 1973 NCAA Wrestling Championships at the university.
Not surprisingly, Roe can rattle off memories and numbers in seemingly endless fashion.
When he moved to Bellingham, he snapped up the opportunity to serve as meet administrator for Ralph Vernacchia, Western's legendary men's cross country and track coach, and for Tony Bartlett, the women's coach.
When Halsell took over all four teams following the coaching retirement of both men, Roe was right there to assist. Their teamwork has helped athletes set 27 school records, earn 28 NAIA or NCAA Division II All-America honors and claim 16 national scholar-athlete awards.
The training programs Roe helped design led to Halsell winning regional cross country coach of the year honors in 1995 and conference honors in 1997.
Roe has led numerous international USA teams all over the world since 2001.
He also founded and formerly edited Northwest Runner magazine, covering the sport he loves and one that he said still has a "good, healthy base."
"We have 1.3 million high school student athletes in track and cross country," he said, "and some nine million people run road races and are out training at least 100 days at year."
Ironically, what keeps track and field from having an athlete as iconic as swimming's Michael Phelps is the very thing that makes track so appealing to athletes of different sizes and skills.
"You'll never see an Olympic track and field athlete win eight gold medals," Roe said. "In swimming, the skills in the various events translate pretty well, but that isn't the case in track."
In other words, a sprinter won't win the marathon and a high jumper isn't about to win the shot put.
Roe also said that athletes from 48 nations medaled in the most recent world track and field championships. In the days of Olympic legend Jesse Owens in the 1930s or the great sprinters and long jumpers of the 1960s, far fewer nations produced stellar athletes.
"Our iconic stars are the guys like Carl Lewis and Al Oerter who win in four Olympics," he said.