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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Just a wimpy kid’: Gerry Lindgren’s self effacing style prepared him for track greatness

Gerry Lindgren didn’t think he had a chance to beat the Soviets in 1964.

“Why would I?” he asked Wednesday. “I was just a wimpy kid.”

But in 1964, at the height of the Cold War, Lindgren stunned the world – and himself – when he did just that. A recent high school graduate barely 18 years old at the time, Lindgren beat a pair of older, bigger, more experienced Soviets at the U.S.-USSR track meet in front of more than 50,000 people at the Los Angeles Coliseum. The meet was part of the lead-in to the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Not only was it the first time an American had beaten the Soviets in distance running, but it was only the second time Lindgren had run a 10,000-meter race.

Memories of that effort, plus countless others, flowed during “A Legend’s Homecoming,” a celebration of the 60th anniversary of Lindgren’s historic feat, at the Rogers High School auditorium featuring Lindgren and Tracy Walters, the famed track coach at Rogers.

Joining the pair on stage were Len Long and Steve Jones, teammates of Lindgren at Rogers, and Rogers Athletic Director Aaron Brecek, who moderated the question-and-answer session.

“It’s a little bit overwhelming, but it’s nice to be back in the city with old friends again,” Lindgren said before the event. “The school has really changed a whole bunch. It’s just not anything like it used to be. But it’s a beautiful place now.”

Lindgren spent much of the evening poking fun at himself – but never at his accomplishments. He worked in a few sly digs at the expense of his opponents as well. Recounting an indoor meet in San Francisco earlier in 1964, he explained how a taller runner tried to intimidate him by “throwing an elbow on one side of me, then pulling up on the other side and doing it again.”

Lindgren got the last laugh, as he did often that year.

”The guy ended up finishing last. He must have gotten tired by elbowing me so much.”

Lindgren was already acclaimed by the time of his showdown with the Russians on July 25. But you wouldn’t know it to hear him talk.

“I was intimidated. When we were walking down into the Coliseum for the race, I thought, ‘I’m going to disappoint so many people.’ I felt so bad. I was so nervous. It was really hard for me standing on the starting line. But when the gun went off, I had a job to do, and all of the queasiness disappeared.”

But again, the last laugh. He countered the Soviet pair’s “fast lap” then just kept going, soon putting both well into his rear-view mirror.

“I broke the tape, and I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘How could I, when they were they were supposed to eat me alive?’ And I turned around and looked back down the track and there was nobody on my side of the track.”

Even reliving his glory, Lindgren was self-effacing .

“I was out of control the whole way,” he said. “I had no idea what I was doing. But somehow, I was able to survive.”

The list of national records Lindgren set his last year of high school and the summer after graduation is long.

He set five American high school national records (300, 1,000 and 5,000 meters; 2 miles and 3 miles) and he ran the second-fastest mile in history. He set five more collegiate and American records, including a world record in the 6-mile race.

Lindgren won 11 cross country or track titles at Washington State and his only loss at an NCAA championship was to Jim Ryun in the 1968 indoor 2-mile race. He was one of only two people to defeat Steve Prefontaine in an NCAA championship.

Lindgren is a member of just about every running hall of fame, including the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association state hall of fame and the inaugural class of the National High School Track and Field Hall of Fame.

Some of those records held for 40-plus years, and Wednesday’s program highlighted those achievements, of course. But the program served more as a reunion for Lindgren, his teammates, and their coach – who shared the stage and nodded occasionally, but allowed the others to do the talking.

Lindgren allows himself the luxury of reminiscing on those days, and the impact he had in turning the sport of distance running into something of a national obsession.

“I think back about it all the time. I can’t imagine it’s been that long because it seemed like it was only a couple, three years ago,” he said.

“When I started running, I never wanted to win a race because I never thought I could. I never wanted to get into a hall of fame, or win a championship. The only thing I wanted to do was influence other people. But the influence has been so much greater than I ever thought it could be.

“We started a running revolution. The whole world runs now, where before it was only done by a few people. So, it’s really changed the lives of a lot of people.”