Ohio’s marathon man, Craig Leon, barely misses Olympic cut

Craig Leon winning the Eugene Marathon. (All photos used with permission of Craig Leon)

As he made his way through the scenic town of Eugene, Oregon and up through the gates at famous Hayward Field at the University of Oregon, Craig Leon had to marvel at what he just accomplished.

“It was a weird feeling,” he said. “At no point during training did I think I was going to win that race, I just wanted to finish.”

Not only had Craig Leon just completed his first marathon, he had completed his first marathon in first place, and was just four minutes off U.S. Olympic trial qualifying pace.

Bobcat Lineage

Craig Leon is not the first athlete in the family to go to Ohio University. Bob Leon was a four-year letterman basketball player from 1975-1978. Craig grew up playing basketball, and it was his first love. Basketball is a winter sport though, and his mother, Marilyn, also a Bobcat, wanted Craig to be involved with something in the fall.

“They didn’t have a golf program at the junior high level, or I would have done that,” he said. “So my mom said why don’t you give this cross country thing a try, I think you’ll like it.”

Leon believes he would not have lasted long as a junior high cross country runner if it wasn’t for how the first practice played out.

“The very first day of practice we started at this park and then we ran two miles to Dairy Queen and we had ice cream, I thought we were going to do that every day. We never went again,” Leon said.

When Leon got to high school, he was an above-average runner, continually placing in the top 5 on a talented Van Wert High School cross country team. His junior season, he joined the track team which helped him to shave off a full minute from his personal best in the 5k and he placed 11th in the Ohio State High School Championships in both cross country and track.

Leon as a late bloomer, had limited scholarship offers, but he always knew he’d be an Ohio Bobcat. He walked on, joining Ohio’s cross country team. He was raw, but he improved as he made the rolling hills of Athens his newest friend. By the time Craig’s career was over, he was the team’s top runner, a MAC Cross Country runner-up and an individual qualifier to the NCAA championships. His biggest accomplishments lay in front of him, however.

The Internship

Leon graduated in the fall of ’07 with a degree in education, but he decided to stick around Athens in order to pursue a master’s

Craig Leon with one of his heroes, world champion Bernard Lagat. (All photos used with permission of Craig Leon)

degree in athletic administration in the College of Health and Human Services, as well as help out coaching OU track.

Leon also applied for and won an internship at the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon thanks in large part to OU alumnus Mike Young, a sport scientist with USA Track & Field. Leon’s responsibility was to film all the action at Hayward Field, so the athletes and their coaches could go back and study their mechanics frame by frame.

Leon was in a lame-duck phase in his running career at the time. He was still running but not training for anything. He was at the point in his life where he had to decide if he was going to run professionally. The internship helped him make a decision that would shape the course of his life.

“Being out there re-energized me,” he said. “It was the turning point. It made me decide I wanted to do this. Had I not done this (taken the internship) I do not think I would still be running.”

Leon met the athletes he idolized on this field. Just two years later, coincidentally, he would be a champion on this same field and would call these athletes some of his best friends.

Still the Boy Who Wanted Dairy Queen

To pursue his dream, Leon didn’t have to watch his diet.

“I’m like a garbage disposal,” he said. “Actually travel portions aren’t big enough for me and I’m not going to pay for two dinners. There are some runners that literally count the number of calories they eat, I tell people I’m on a see-food diet, I see food, I eat it.”

While he does not sacrifice on food, he sacrifices a lot socially.

“I’m at the point of my life where I’d love to go out with my friends and live it up,” Leon said. “As a runner you’re so reliant on your body, you can’t really abuse it, like say a golfer.”

The sacrifices are ultimately worth it.

“I have traveled to 40 of the 50 states in the last 8 months,” said Leon, who answered this question in the heart of Piccadilly Circus in London.”It’s a pretty sweet gig.”

Marathon Man

When Leon arrived at Ohio University, he had never run for 60 straight minutes in his life. He had a successful collegiate career running times between 23 and 27 minutes. As a pro, however, he decided to focus on the marathon.

Craig Leon running for Ohio University. (All photos used with permission of Craig Leon)

“Ultimately, the marathon is where I’m going to have my most success,” he said. “There are about 5 or 6 guys who have separated themselves, but then the difference between 8 and 40 isn’t much. If we were going to run a 5k on that track I wouldn’t even be in that top 40.”

Leon is admittedly not a world-class sprinter, but he makes up for it by honing the skills that the best marathons need to be elite, skills that have little to do with your athleticism. The key skill is patience, he said.

“Patience in training (because) you won’t see return on investment tomorrow. It will be months, years. Patience even in the race (because) it’s a 26 mile race. If you get too excited, too early, you can really get yourself in trouble the last three or four miles. There is a certain blue-collar toughness, running twice a day, running twice a day on Christmas, running twice a day on Thanksgiving, I also think there is this element of confidence, a belief that you can push your body farther than maybe it would go. I don’t think we were put on this Earth to run as hard as we can for 26 miles. I feel awful for 10 days after it. It hurts to walk.”

Enjoying Running

Growing up playing basketball, Leon understood that the only way you get better at running is through practice. Now, he mixes speed and strength training into his regimen, but at the end of the day there is only one way to improve as a runner.

“When you go to the gym to play basketball and you work on your dribbling, shooting, different drills,” he said. “With running, you go running. There is not another way to become a better runner than to go running, so you have to find a way to make it fun.”

Most people cannot wrap their heads around running for fun. Leon somehow makes a career off of it.  Competing and goal setting are the only ways to enjoy it.

“You’re going to have days where it’s not fun, but every once in awhile you get these runs that just bring you back, whether it be a nice day or if it’s a crappy day and you make it through it and it’s not that bad,” he said. “The thing for me with running is, this is what my next big goal is and knowing that every little thing I do from now until that time whether it be a month, three months, six months, a year, working toward that goal and makes it so much more meaningful and fun for me.”

Minnesota and the Olympic Trials

After Leon realized he was just four minutes away from qualifying for the Olympic trials, he set that as his next goal. He attempted to do that at the 2010 USA Marathon Championships, held in Minneapolis.  To accomplish that goal, Leon needed to run under 2:19:00 or finish in the top 10.

“At mile 25, I was in 10th place and I knew no one was catching me and that I was way ahead of the time I needed,” he said. “For a mile I got to truly soak in what I did. It’s very rare in any sport where can you soak in what you have just accomplished and all the work you put in as you’re doing it.”

Next up for Leon was the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston, Texas, where he finished 26 of 121 racers, 26 of which did not finish. Leon ran a time of 2:15:42, almost three full minutes faster than his time in Minneapolis. Oddly enough, that same time would have placed him 22 at the 2012 London Olympic Games.

What’s Next?

When just three men can qualify to run the marathon each Olympics, and the Olympics come around just once every four years, Leon has to wonder what will define his career.

“If I stopped running today, and asked myself from where I started would I ever accomplish this much I’d say no, but I know I can do so much more,” he said. “There are certain things I think about that are top things. I want to have top-10 finishes in the major marathons. I’m doing Chicago in the fall or the Boston marathon or the NYC marathon and the US championships. And at the end of the day, I don’t know how I will quantify, but those are the races that are important to me. And if I can continue to do well with that, and I like to think I can continually improve, and as long as I see that improvement over the last few years, then I’ll say hey you did it right, and you had fun.”

Sending love from London one final time, Cheers

It’s hard for me to begin this post. There’s a lot I want to say that I know words won’t do justice. I’ll give it a try.

We’re done, goodbye, peace out or as the Brits would say, Cheers. It’s been absolutely unreal. I have really appreciated the hospitality from everyone here. They have been nothing but kind, approachable, and genuine, well, some of them anyway. There’s always that choice few that hate “you Americans” and can’t wait until you get out of their precious city. However, London really is precious, it has so much to offer to so many different cultures and backgrounds. I could most certinaly see myself here someday. Maybe. I hate that there are no free refills, and I’ve probably heard “mind the gap” enough to last a lifetime.

Scripps London group touring around the UK during the first week.

Our men’s and women’s basketball teams were tremendous these past weeks, both winning gold. Also, Coleman Scott, the wrestler I interviewed and did a story on, won bronze. I am so happy for our athletes, and I am so blessed I got to meet so many of them. It is something some journalists work their entire careers toward.I got to meet with THE Debbie Antonelli this week! Before USA played Australia on Thursday we met outside of North Greenwich Arena, and speaking with her was one of the highlights of my trip. She has worked very hard to be where she is today. She does it all, and with three boys! You go girl! It encouraged me to be my absolute best and as a women, never take no for an answer. I would love to have her job, so would many. Check out what we talked about and the story I did on her on our site. http://scrippslondon2012.com/2012/08/former-bobcat-goes-from-business-to-broadcast/

(L to R): Kerry Crump, myself, Jenna Stenger, Katie Grady, Megan Hickcock

We even got to tour the USA House on Friday morning! It was very cool to be able to see where all the athletes chill. It was so beautiful inside. They have a free yogurt bar, waterproof televisions on Budweiser-themed decks, and unlimited Olympic apparel! An OU graduate student even gave us our tour.

Honestly, I can’t even believe I was here for all of this. It was like a dream. This trip really made me realize the struggles of a journalist. It also made me realize if I didn’t have those struggles, it wouldn’t make the job worth it.

USA Olympic Team

This is for me, this is what I want to spend my entire life doing. Whether I make one million dollars a year or can barely make an honest living, it doesn’t matter to me. The things that matter to me most are more than just money, more than just material things. Family is everything, people are everything, happiness that you can maintain is everything. Everyone is so blinded by so many flashy and extravagant things, they can’t see that anymore. I use to always wish I would win the lottery, or something. I pray to God that I never do (and I won’t because I don’t play and because I’m not lucky).

All of the USA athletes that have medalled

I just want to work hard, make enough, surround myself with great people, and possibly help someone or change their life with my work. That’s what I think a journalist does — they help people. I know it doesn’t always directly seem that way, but they do, they impact people’s lives. They can tell a story someone is too afraid to tell or can’t by themselves. They help get information to people that really need it.We’re more than just press, we’re story tellers. We are here to be strong for others that are weak. As I journalist, I promise to always do that and to be someone that someone else can count on for consistency and realness. I will always wake up and try to be the best person I can be. I know i’m not perfect nor will I ever be, but I promised myself to always make a conscious effort. London has really reiterated these feelings for me. After traveling to a different country it really made me appreciate the way I was raised and the outstanding family that I have. They are the reason I try to be the best I can possibly be, as a daughter, a student, and as a friend to others.

Last time the Olympics were in London

My family are the best people I know (I said best, not most normal or sane). In all seriousness though, they are great. They are the kind of people that would welcome you into their homes and make you feel special. They are the kind of people who would give you the last piece of pizza or the last dollar out of their wallet. They are the reason why I am who I am today and for that, I am forever grateful. I’m on the journey to chase my dreams because of them. My pap has always said, “hold on tight to your dreams,” and I promised him I always will. I even got my wallet stolen yesterday (don’t want to talk about it). Who wired me the money? My wonderful mim and pap. They are indescribable.

Just weeks ago this was me at opening ceremonies. Now it’s closing ceremonies and the Olympics are over. The love and passion that came out of people these past weeks has been amazing to see. The Games are more than just sports — they are a way people from different cultures come together.

Me at Opening Ceremonies

It’s beautiful to see, to say I was apart of it is something I will forever cherish.Thank you Ohio University and the E.W Scripps School of Journalism for making this possible and for making this girl’s dreams come true. Also, thanks to my family for paying for it … $$$

I hope those that have followed my blog have enjoyed reading it, somewhat. I appreciate all the support and kind words most have given me.I’m headed to the airport tomorrow morning, let’s all cross our fingers that I don’t miss my flight, again.

With all my love from London,

xoxo Mel

 

Parents see Olympics as good teaching tool for children

More than five millions fans have flooded into London over the past two weeks to watch the Olympics first-hand, which doesn’t leave much room for the smallest of spectators.

Despite the congestion and claustrophobic crowds, children aren’t getting lost in the Olympic shuffle. In fact, they are enjoying the free events on London streets and in London’s parks along with their parents.

“We’ve done OK,” said father Martin James.

James and his son Reuben lined the triathlon route in Hyde Park on Tuesday afternoon with thousands of other fans to catch a glimpse of the athletes. In order to see the competitors as they cycled past, James lifted Reuben onto his shoulders, an act mirrored by other parents up and down the boulevard.

Two little fans are given a boost so they can watch the triathlon event in Hyde Park on Tuesday afternoon in London.
Photo by Jillian Fellows

“The way we can access [the events] without needing tickets has been not bad at all,” James said. “I think they’ve been very patient with the children. Routes like [the triathlon] we’ve been able to see what we can.”

Dawn Schmidt and her two sons also took advantage of the free events at the Olympics. They journeyed to London from Peterborough for the triathlon.

“I think it’s brilliant, excellent,” Schmidt said. “Very child-friendly. The atmosphere, the cheering, the flags, the sports people, watching it on the television, watching the medal ceremonies, it’s been absolutely brilliant. I didn’t expect it to be as much fun as it was.”

To prepare her four-year-old son Lucas for the triathlon, Schmidt said she briefly explained to him what the event was about.

Dawn Schmidt’s two sons play with their Union Jack flags at the triathlon event in Hyde Park on Tuesday afternoon.
Photo by Jillian Fellows

“I told them about the triathlon, explained to him about what they’d be doing today and who’s who,” Schmidt said. “I think it’s very important. They get enthusiasm for sport and I think it’s a life-changing experience for them at a young age.”

Mother of two Heidi Kitson also introduced her children to the Olympics in simple terms, although she said it’s difficult for young children to get a full understanding of the games.

“My husband and I explained that the best athletes from all the countries in the world — it is really hard for a three-year-old to understand just how many countries there are — come together to challenge each other and see who is the best between them,” she said.

Kitson used the Olympics as a teaching tool for her oldest son, three-year-old Liam.

“I think that the Olympics is a good opportunity to talk about good sportsmanship, working hard to reach your goals, and with how young my children are, it is a great chance to talk about different countries and where they are.”

James also said he saw the educational benefit to the games. He praised broadcasters for giving in-depth explanations about the events to the television audience and is glad his son is getting to experience so many different sports and cultures.

“For children to see all these different events and to see people at the top of their game is just amazing,” James said. “The Olympics try to teach the children about the different kinds of sports and why certain countries are better at some than others. There’s a lot of tourists in London of all nationalities and it’s great to see them cheering on their team in their national colors.”

Not every element of the Olympics is child-friendly, James said. Spectators with young children may want to avoid attending viewings at public screens in the evening.

Martin James and his son Reuben enjoy the triathlon event in Hyde Park on Tuesday afternoon.
Photo by Jillian Fellows

“We went to Hyde Park last Sunday for the 100m final but we left a bit early before Usain Bolt’s race,” James said. “That was around ten in the evening and there were a lot of people drinking and smoking, so that wasn’t very child-friendly. My son said he wasn’t having a good time so we took him home, but generally during the day it’s quite a good atmosphere.”

Even with a bad experience behind him, Reuben enjoyed watching the triathlon from atop his father’s shoulders.

“I think it’s really, really good because it’s always exciting,” he said.

Once in a lifetime opportunity

As a soon-to-be sophomore in college I have learned about professional journalists and their experiences in many of my classes. Some of these writers worked their whole lives to get to where they are today.

Some journalists who are in the sports writing field have only dreamed about covering the Olympics and only a few do. Never in a million years would I have thought that I would be given that experience at such a young age.

Meeting Candace Parker at Team USA’s practice on Saturday, Aug. 4.
Photo By Jillian Fellows

Coming into this program we knew what was expected of us for the program, but it hadn’t hit me that I was going to be meeting and interviewing professional and Olympic athletes. These are really the best of the best in the business.

So far this experience has been a whirlwind. From learning the train and tube systems, to speaking with organizations to gain access to the athletes and practices has put my head on a continuous spin.

However, this is a spin I never want to end. This trip was really a test for me and how I was about to see my future in journalism. I am officially convinced that this is my path for what I want to do with my life. All the hustle and bustle of emails, meetings, practices, and late nights of writing and editing is what I am passionate about.

Being so driven once I stepped foot onto London ground has made me grow up and mature in a journalist’s sense. I know the hardships that professionals go through to get their contacts and stories out on time just by experiencing the difficulties that I have had here thus far. I know this is only the beginning of my journey, but I am very lucky to say that I have been in those situations and worked through them to get my job as a student journalist accomplished.

Interview with forward Maya Moore from the Minnesota Lynx at Team USA’s practice Saturday, Aug. 4.
Photo By Jillian Fellows

I have met with professional athletes I grew up watching on TV and have even grown close with some of the families of central Ohio who have children competing in the events.  On some days here I have forgotten that I am a young college student from Ohio University, and when it hits me I can’t help but smile. I am following my dream of being a well-known journalist.

This is one of the first “big steps” I will take in my career path and even though growing up playing sports I wanted to be the one competing in the games, I am now the one covering them and that is one of the best dreams come true.

 

The London Lowdown Podcast: Episode 2

 

Crowds enter Old Trafford stadium to see North Korea take on the United States.
Photo by Holly Moody

The London Lowdown Podcast: Episode 2

Scott Hutchinson and Tim Dix are back for a second installment of The London Lowdown podcast. This episode features updates from Scripps students Megan Hickok and Christopher Longo, who discuss their experiences covering an array of Olympic events over the past week.

Metro News journalist to Scripps London: I owe everything to Scripps

LONDON – Ohio University 2007 graduate, Cassandra Garrison, told Scripps students Friday that she will forever be grateful for her Scripps education.

“I owe everything to Scripps,” she said.

She told student how she got her current job, how she’s covering the Olympics alone and without full media credentials, and how to get the most out of their trip in London.

After four years broadcasting at a television station in Erie, Penn. Garrison chased her dreams to New York City where she began as an online journalist for Metro News.

At Metro, she convinced her boss to let her come to London and cover the 2012 Olympics. While in London she had breakfast with Michelle Obama, toured the USA house and interviewed high-profile athletes such as Tyson Gay.

“Don’t underestimate the power of a bobcat,” she said.

Photo slideshow by Kerry Crump:

Olympics: Transcending Global Conflict or Highlighting it?

Watching the action between the U.S. and North Korean women’s soccer teams led many fans to contemplate the effects of the Olympics on global affairs.

The match on Tuesday night at Old Trafford in Manchester ended with the U.S. women emerging victorious in the 1-0 game, Abby Wambach’s 25th minute goal being the deciding point, but fans in the stands, such as Jennifer McPartlin, had other questions than the final score.

U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe makes a move along the sideline against DPR Korea’s Choe Yong Sim during Tuesday’s game in Manchester, U.K.
Photo by Jillian Fellows

McPartlin and her boyfriend, who traveled from New Jersey to watch the games, had a political debate prior to the match. Knowing the histories of the other competing countries is important for spectators, she said.

“I just think you need to know the back story of North Korea and if you don’t know it, then you’re an idiot,” McPartlin said.  “We came in here and he had a lot of questions, like is it a dictator(ship), but they call it a republic.”

Other fans saw the game as an opportunity to put aside whatever diplomatic tensions exist between the two nations outside of the Olympics and focus on the match.

“I think it’s a great game (because) it brings countries together and we can just enjoy being together as a world and put all the political things aside,” said Krista Coupe of Colorado.

Sneha Reddy from Connecticut, who watched the match with her two children, enjoyed the presence of the Olympic spirit.  She said she thought  the Olympics transcend global conflict.

Sneha Reddy and her son, Krishna, cheer on the U.S. team during the game against North Korea on Tuesday night in Manchester, U.K.
Photo by Holly Moody

“I think it’s bringing people together,” Reddy said.  “I think it’s important. Games like this is one of the few ways we can bring people together.  It’s definitely sending the whole world a message.”

Cycling through the trends

DORKING, SURREY — All of Britain’s recent cycling success has made the sport the country’s new national pastime, organizers and spectators at the women’s cycling road race said Sunday.

“I think because of our success in GB, but also it’s very dramatic, even though you only see them briefly, the speed they come by you, you realize how fast they are going.” Robert Collis, a Games Advisor from Luton, Bedfordshire, said “And it brings all the people together, masses come out because you are seeing your champions in your streets.”

The men failed to deliver on Saturday, and it was with nervous hearts and dampened clothes that the spectators returned to line the Surrey Hill roads that made up the 140 km race on Sunday. British rider Lizzie Armistead didn’t disappoint, capturing the silver medal in a furious sprint at the end. Marianne Vos of the Netherlands won the gold, while Olga Zabelinskaya of Russia took the bronze.

Justin Bush, Dorking, Surrey said he was not going to let the stormy weather and the disappointing results from the men stop him from watching the women’s race in his hometown.

“It’s so exciting to have something this big come through our hometown.” Bush said. “Overall, we make quite a bit (of an) effort to get out of here for this sport (cycling).”

Zabelinskaya forced some of the group to breakaway from the peloton when she made her move at Headley, approximately 40 miles away from the Mall. As they came down the final stretch in London, Zabelinskya faded back into third, while Vos and Armitstead sprinted for gold.

Tony Frede of Dorking, Surrey, who was wearing spandex biking gear, a helmet and biking gloves, summed up cycling in the U.K.

“You think I’m a cyclist?” he asked. “I only have two bikes; most have six.”

Q & A with a Bobcat at the Olympic Trials

Lauren Funk, a senior swimmer at Ohio University, is at the Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska preparing for one of the biggest races of her career. Funk will compete in the preliminaries of the 50 meter freestyle on Sunday morning, 11 A.M. EST. If she should advance, the semifinals would be that night and the finals would be on Monday evening. The Trials ultimately take 52 athletes (26 men; 26 women) when the eight days of competition are completed.

Funk will swim on Sunday at the Olympic Trials in the 50 Meter Freestyle.

Funk was named a College Swimming Coaches Association of America Honorable Mention after her performances this season. She hails from Springfield, Ohio and racked up five top-10 finishes at this years MAC Championships.

Lauren took some time to sit down with us a couple of days before her race and talk to us about her preparation and mindset going into the race.

When did you start to swim competitively and what got you interested in the sport?

“I swam in a summer league ever since I was nine, but then I started swimming year-round in the eighth grade. When I first joined a club team I was average, but in my second year doing club I shot forward and qualified for all these meets that kids training for 10 years hadn’t even qualified for. I got good at it and figured I would see how far I could go. I really enjoy it and it’s really fun.”

How did you get the opportunity to compete at the Olympic Trials?

“There is a certain time standard that you have to meet for each race. I got my time this Spring at Ohio University at a swim meet.”

What has your training regimen been like leading up to the Trials?

“Training has been kind of the same, but slightly different. We are training like it is any other meet, like the MAC Championship meet. Sadly, I am the only one from my team now that is at the Trials. So I have been training kind of separated from the group, but that actually fuels me more to work my butt off so good things happen at trials and I can go back to training with them.”

How does training for the Olympic Trials compare to training for a collegiate season?

“It is long course work compared to short course work. You have to get more yardage in, because it is a longer race no matter what you swim. But at the same time you have to work on better finishes and better starts to get those extra few seconds. Work on the little things.”

How do you deal with the busy and demanding training schedule involved in the sport?

“I have lost a lot of sleep since high school. It’s just time management. Freshman year is always hard, but after that you get a routine and figure out that you can’t watch television so long because you have to do your homework because you won’t have time tomorrow. It’s just a lot of time management. That is all you can do.”

What runs through your mind during the final stretch of a race?

“You know if the race is good enough from the very start. If the race is good and you feel good, the finish is just so easy. You kind of  blackout for a minute. At one point you are in the middle of the pool and the next you are on the wall and you see this amazing time and you jump up and down. It’s a really good feeling when you know you are swimming well.”

Fast forward to 20 minutes before the race on Sunday. What emotions are running through your head?

“I went out to the pool today (Friday) and my heart sped up just because it is a little overwhelming. I think it is good I am getting that out of my system now because on Sunday I will just be cool and collected behind the blocks, but at the same time I am really excited to swim amidst all of those people watching. The whole atmosphere is crazy so I am really excited to get started.”

How would it feel to to be able to represent your country on the biggest of stages in London this summer?

“I have no idea how I could even explain how I would feel. I am at the second biggest meet in a swimmer’s lifetime. It’s crazy how close I am to even going to the Olympics.”