Note: Find a partial transcript of my interview with Matt, as well as some internet video produced for kimbia.net, at Tegenkamp, in his own words.
If Matt Tegenkamp is feeling nervous about running the race of his life at the Olympics in Beijing next month, he's not showing it.
"Everything from this point on is just sweet stuff," says Tegenkamp, cooling down in his front yard after a recent training run. "The three weeks leading up to the [U.S. Olympic] trials, I was battling all sorts of little physical things that came up at a really bad time. Now that that's done and I've made the team, everything's good."
Among those "little physical things" was a pain Tegenkamp developed during the 5,000-meter race.
"I don't know how I got it, and I'd never gotten it in a race before, but it was a stitch, a real bad cramp," says Tegenkamp. "People say that a cramp's not that big of a deal, but it was pretty bad, and it kept getting worse and worse every lap. But once you get to the point where the spot [on the team] is on the line, you just stay in there and suffer, do what you have to do."
He did, finishing second to Bernard Lagat and qualifying for the Olympic team in the process. He'll compete in the 5,000 meters, to be televised by NBC on Saturday, Aug. 23.
Tegenkamp ran cross-country and track for the UW from 2000 to 2005, but his college career was marked by nagging injuries. A different approach to training that focused on long-term career goals allowed him to get healthy and climb in the national and international rankings after graduating in 2005.
"Jerry Schumacher - my coach - and I really sat down and made a huge switch in our training, kind of figured out what worked and what didn't," he says. "The most important thing was to stay healthy and find training I was comfortable with. We always knew there were people training harder and more than I was. But we knew that if we had a long-term focus, that I'd eventually catch up to that."
In 2006, Tegenkamp set a personal best of 13:04.90 in the 5,000 meters. A year later in Oregon, he set a new U.S. record for two miles at 8:07.07. And now he's preparing for China, which means tuning up in a few races on the European circuit and studying other runners in the field.
"We have a very good indication of what kind of race this will be from last year's world championships in Japan," he says. "It was very hot and humid there, and it's going to be very hot and humid in Beijing. The race was ridiculously slow, and it was a kicker's race, whoever can run the fastest last lap."
Tegenkamp imagines his opponents in Beijing might try to pick up the pace to take Lagat, the favorite, out of his comfort zone. But Tegenkamp's focus is on being in position when they hit the last mile.
"I've run some fast times; I'm approaching that 13-minute barrier for the 5,000," he says. "But I still am not nearly as seasoned as the rest of these guys who run high 12:40, low 12:50 over and over again. So I think a really fast race wouldn't be great for me. I think I could run well, time-wise, but I wouldn't be able to finish well."
Tegenkamp hopes to use his Olympics moment to heighten his sport's profile in the eyes of American sports fans. In a series of Internet videos he taped with training partner Chris Solinsky, available online at Kimbia.net, Tegenkamp argues that track and field can attract a wider fan base and change Americans' attitudes about the act of running.
"In gym class, if you do something wrong, the coach will make you go run a lap," says Tegenkamp. "And I don't think people who market track and field have really tried to change that perception. If you make track and field an entertainment venue, like every other sport, it can get to be like in Europe, where there are seven meets a year that get 70,000 people. It could be really big, especially here in Madison."
Tegenkamp might have a point. Last week, on one day's notice, 1,000 people showed up at the McClimon track on the UW campus to swat mosquitoes and watch Tegenkamp, Solinsky and training partners Jonathan Riley and Sean Quigley run a 1,500-meter race. Tegenkamp won in 3:37.94, the fastest time ever recorded for that distance on Wisconsin soil. After the race, he and the others posed for photos and signed autographs, turning the race into a send-off before he left for Europe a few days later.
"This was exactly how I pictured it," said Tegenkamp at the time. "When I got over here and saw all the people coming in, the butterflies got going a little bit."
Training during winter in Madison: "Everybody says we got 102 inches of snow, but the bike paths were clear. You get those negative-30-windchill days with 10 inches of snow, but the kind of culture we've created and the tradition that is Wisconsin means there's always a great group here training."
Relaxing: "I have quite a bit of free time. All things said and done, it's probably four or five hours of training a day. I say I'm semi-retired, so I can pretty much do what I want. Even part of work, traveling, has been awesome. I get to see the world and just get away."
Bernard Lagat: "He's always been really good to me. He's been in this for a long time. He kind of shows me the ropes and helps me stay calm, cool and collected during the high-pressure situations. I don't know if it necessarily takes the pressure off me, because I put quite a bit on myself. I have high expectations."
For more, see Tegenkamp, in his own words