SURGOINSVILLE — It was only fitting that the only American Olympic gold medal winner in the 5,000 meter event be on hand to celebrate the opening of Hawkins County’s new 5K cross country course at Phipps Bend Industrial Park.
Bob Schul, who won the 5,000 meter in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, was the keynote speaker during a luncheon hosted by Cooper Standard Automotive Thursday afternoon as part of a ribbon-cutting event for the new cross country course.
Schul, 79, entertained the audience with detailed descriptions of his training regime leading up to the 1964 Olympics, as well as anecdotes from some of the preliminary races.
A video was then shown of the ending of that 5,000 meter Olympic race where Schul, who was in seventh with three laps to go, propelled himself from a distant third place with half a lap to go, took the lead coming out of the final turn and pulled away.
Afterwards he joked that every time he watches that footage he’s a little worried he won’t win that time.
A recurring theme of Schul’s storytelling was the importance of preparation and teamwork, especially while training.
The creation of the new Phipps Bend cross country course was also the result of preparation and teamwork, and the cooperation and partnership of multiple agencies.
Among those agencies were the Hawkins County Industrial Development Board, Phipps Bend Joint Venture Committee, Hawkins County Board of Education and the Hawkins County Commission — and representatives from each of those groups were in attendance for Thursday’s event.
The Kingsport Chamber of Commerce and the city of Kingsport were also represented, as were college, high school and middle school track and field coaches from across the region.
The course was designed this past August by Volunteer High School head track coach Jim Ailshie and school board member Chris Christian. The course has already hosted home meets for Cherokee and Volunteer.
Ailshie told the Times-News Thursday that the attendance of the Kingsport officials was significant, as was the attendance of ETSU head track and field coach George Watts.
“Kingsport doesn’t have a cross country course, and Johnson City had some recent development at the VA Hospital, so they no longer host a cross country meet,” Ailshie said. “There’s a real need for this. I had a call from George Watts, who is director of track and field and cross country at ETSU, and he said, ‘Do you think there’s a possibility that we can host some collegiate cross country races out there?’ There’s 2,000 acres, and I think with a little ingenuity, perhaps it can be done.”
Ailshie added, “Also, we had officials from the city of Kingsport (in attendance), and they host a lot of AAU events, which brings a lot of tax revenue to their city. ... They had an interest today to hear what we’re doing, to perhaps host AAU meets here, which would bring a lot of people from out of the area to our community.
Watts told the Times-News that the new Phipps Bend course is a great opportunity to build up cross country and distance running in this area, as well as provide local runners somewhere close to home to train.
“I recruit a lot out of the state of Tennessee and a lot from the upper Northeast Tennessee area,” Watts said. “Any of the places people are holding cross country meets, I’m going to be there recruiting. Hopefully, Jim and the people here will have a chance to have bigger meets and draw more people from around the state and outside the state as well.”
Ailshie noted that the new track belongs to Cherokee High School as well. In fact, he doesn’t believe the track would have been completed if not for Cherokee’s support.
Cherokee assistant cross country coach Lisa Kirkpatrick said the new course couldn’t have been created at a better time. This year was Cherokee’s turn to host an IMAC conference tournament, which in the past has been run through Rogersville City Park and the streets of Rogersville.
Kirkpatrick said the Phipps Bend track was flatter and faster — and preferred by her athletes.
“Jim told me he was going to start this and it worked out perfect because he held his meet — a couple weeks later we held our meet — and it went flawlessly,” Kirkpatrick said. “If he hadn’t started it I don’t know what we would have done.”
Hawkins County IDB coordinator Rebecca Baker noted that the track utilizes floodplain while leaving the buffer areas untouched for future industrial growth at Phipps Bend.
“Although our main focus is to bring jobs to Hawkins County, we will work in any way we can to facilitate this endeavor,” Baker said. “ ...With the addition of the cross country track in the Phipps Bend Industrial Park, we are promoting a healthy lifestyle, which goes hand in hand with education and training for our future workforce.”