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Freeze column: Olympians come to Salisbury

I always enjoy reading Ronnie Gallagher and Mike Londonís columns about local athletes who have gone on to achieve significant status in college or professional sports. It is fun to hear about famous athletes who come here too, but seldom do they get to compete on the local stage. One of my favorite memories is of the Sunday afternoon that baseball great Mickey Mantle came to Salisbury and sat in the stands at Newman Park while his team of ex-professional athletes and current media and entertainers played a local all-star team. It didnít matter who won, because the demand for Mantleís autograph never ceased that afternoon. The fans came out to see him. One of the worldís most famous athletes, though past his prime, still made a very special visit to Salisbury. Mantle wore his baseball uniform, but never played. We all hoped he would hit at least once, but he didnít. Mantle just kept signing those free autographs for anyone who wanted one.
On Jan. 29th at Catawba College, many of the regionís best runners will come here to compete in the Road Runners Club of America 8K State Championship. The event is the 2011 Winter Flight 2011, the oldest 8K and the 4th oldest road race in North Carolina. The race has a rich history in its 28 years of existence.
I recently came into possession of the race history, compiled for many years by Judy Zirt, who along with husband Bob, were the mainstays and backbone of the local running club for more than 20 years. The other day, while flipping through a running magazine, I thought of how many times Olympic hopefuls had come here to compete. Some I knew, a few I raced against, but mostly I was just in awe of their abilities.
The 8K female course record was established by Joan Nesbit in a time of 26 minutes and 48 seconds in the 1992 race. Nesbit is arguably the most famous of these and is considered a living legend among runners. Nesbit was a collegiate All-American and competed in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics in the 10K event. Her personal is best is 32:04, a spectacular time. She currently lives in the Carrboro area, still running and coaching others. Male course record holder is Hans Koeleman, a Dutch steeplechase champion. His time in Salisbury was 23 minutes and 35 seconds, set in 1988. That record is 22 years old and has not been approached since. Koeleman participated in the 1988 Summer Olympics in the steeplechase event. Runners leap over a tall hurdle and water stop while racing around a track during the steeplechase. Koeleman was the first Dutch athlete sponsored by Nike and became a VP with Nike later. He has been a consultant on many of the new running models, most notably the Air Max line.
Other Olympic hopefuls included Jim Cooper, another steeplechase competitor from Charlotte. He was a favorite for the Olympic trials in 1988, but did not win. Cooper actually had the fastest time on record for a 5 mile race in Salisbury, but it was not on the current Winter Flight course. For two years in the early 80s, Winter Flight had both a 5 mile and 10 mile race. The course moved to Catawba College and itís current 8K course in 1986. Five miles is just over 3 one hundredths of a mile longer than an 8K. Other Olympic hopefuls were Julie and Mary Shea, who finished 1st and 2nd in the Olympic Trials 1,500 meter race and earned guaranteed slots for the 1980 Olympics. America boycotted that Olympics so the Shea sisters did not get to compete. Betty Springs, who married her coach and became Betty Springs Geiger, was 6th in the 10,000 meter trials for the 1988 Olympics. Only the top three qualify.
This year, former winner and runner-up last year, Ryan Woods of Boone will return to try to retain the title. Woods is a former All-American and Olympic trials qualifier in the 1500 meter race prior to the 2004 Olympics.
I hope I didnít miss anyone, and better yet I hope that there will be a future Olympian competing this year. Several times I competed in a 10 mile race called the Virginia Ten Miler, annually held in Lynchburg. Once in that particular race, Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers were entered. Shorter and Rodgers are the Richard Pettyís of road racing. The chance to run in the same race as these guys is a special memory of mine. The same has applied here in Salisbury for many of our local runners when some of the worldís best have competed.
This yearís event will be special once again. Start time is 9:30 for the half-mile fun run for kids 12 and under. The 8K run and the 5K Health Walk both kick off at 10 a.m. All events are at Catawba College, and will use the surrounding roads and streets. All proceeds for the event will go to Rowan Helping Ministries. The Winter Flight 8K is founded and operated by the Salisbury Rowan Runners Club. For more information, go to www.salisburyrowanrunners.org or call 704-310-6741.

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