Athlete Feature 38 - Richard Girvan - USA Athletics Scholarships

Athlete Feature 38 – Richard Girvan

Richard Girvan

With the 2013 edition of the Oregon Pepsi Invitational occurring last weekend, we interviewed one of the few UK runners to represent the University of Oregon – Richard Girvan. Recounting the story of how he ended up in Eugene, we also explore how discussions over steak and beer with the Ducks’ legendary former coach, Bill Dellinger, led to a scholarship and a daily interaction with some of the most noteworthy names to have graced US distance running’s mecca, Hayward Field, and Track Town, USA.

tbUSA – Firstly, when did you attend the University of Oregon and what course did you study?

RG – I attended UO from September 1997 until graduating in June 2000, when I got a B.A Hons in History.

tbUSA – You didn’t take the conventional path most people take to earn a NCAA scholarship; how did yours come about?

RG – This is where I am a bit different. I had been offered a few scholarships when I was younger (I ran 1:49 age 18), although the opportunity interested me, I didn’t really consider it. I was later approached by Northern Ireland Athletics about a scholarship through Rotary International, organised through Bangor Rotary Club. It was in memory of two Oregon athletes who were killed in separate road accidents in the 80s. Both were great runners, including Oregon Legend Bill McChesney (13.14 5000m and still the Oregon Record).

His family had Irish roots and they wanted to help fund an Ireland-based athlete. However, this was never intended to be an athletics scholarship – just a NI student who had an interest in sport. The Rotary Scholarship pretty much covered tuition fees and offered housing through local families rotating their hosting duties every quarter. There was no additional money, but most expenses were covered.

Inevitably, I ended up feeling this would be a good chance to go and get the experience that running at UO offered, but without the same commitment to the track team that comes with full athletic aid. However, when I arrived, and despite Dellinger’s best efforts, due to NCAA regulations and the notorious red tape associated with the collegiate system, I wasn’t allowed to “walk on” to the track team as it conflicted with stipulations for scholarship-funded athletes, as well as complications because I was an international student.

I had already introduced myself to Dellinger (picture below with Pre) when I first arrived and did a few workouts with the team, so he knew I was capable of contributing. After discussing my involvement on the team, an invite for dinner with his family over steaks and beer followed.  We discussed what was going on in athletics around the world, as well as other sports like golf. He liked to get to know his athletes, and from that moment on, I knew I’d be an Oregon Duck and was offered a full ride.

Of course, this was done with the full support of both the McChesney family and Rotary International. Rotary were happy; they got to save the money and spend it supporting another student. Meanwhile, I continued to support them by speaking at their lunches and attending conventions when required, both here and in the US. It worked out really well.

I moved into an apartment and started the normal scholarship life with the monthly stipend, etc. As you’d expect, Oregon were really good with things like running gear, shoes and food – they even did my laundry with my kit delivered back to my locker at Hayward washed and dried ready for practice the next day. Financially, the full ride was far better and I had an instant connection with Dellinger and the guys on the team. It was the right move and the first thing we did was head to California for spring training. I raced for the first time at the Stanford Preview in March 1998, clocking 1:51.3

tbUSA – The list of Oregon university records reads as a who’s who of US distance running legends. Can you recount some of the more well-known alumni you interacted and trained with?   

RG – As I said above, my initial coach was Bill Dellinger, best known for winning an Olympic Medal and for coaching Steve Prefontaine. Bill is one of a kind and I learnt a lot from him about training and racing. He is a special guy who has time for everyone. I still visit him and his wife if I am in Eugene, although his health has deteriorated.

To tell you a story about Bill, he never refused an athlete from training with the guys. One athlete, Josh, had a 3k PB of about 10 minutes; Bill got up to meet Josh at the track at 7a.m. so he could coach him one-to-one before class. Alternatively, when Martin Smith (current head coach at Oklahoma University) came in, you had to run four miles on the track in under 20 minutes just to walk on.

In terms of athletes, Oregon had a bit of a reputation as a party school when I arrived, it’s certainly not the finely tuned machine that Vin Lananna has developed recently. However, we had some great athletes, including five sub-9 min steeplechasers (two sub-8:40); a number of sub-14min 5k athletes; and three sub-3:45 1500m athletes, including a 3:41 guy.

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In fact, my roommate for the first year was Karl Keska, one of the big names of UO athletics, who was sent over by his coach and former UK Athletics Head of Endurance, Ian Stewart. Karl is a good friend of mine, and although he graduated before I arrived, he still lives in Oregon. Karl was the second non-African in the 10k at the Sydney Olympics.

Through Bill Dellinger and the McChesneys, I met most of the big names of Oregon past, including Bill Bowerman, Alberto Salazar, Rudy Chapa, Matt Centrowitz Sr., Pat Tyson and a whole host of others. Dellinger also coached Mary Decker-Slaney, who we ran with (her husband is British). At that time, Maria Mutola, who went to high school in Eugene, even trained at the track. Maria was lovely and very generous with her time. Oregon track is a big family and I have been fortunate to have had a connection with all these guys.

It was not unusual in 1999/2000 to have numerous Olympians from around the world training at Hayward. Other big names that often came to town included: Suzy Hamilton (Oregon resident and now famous hooker); Nick Rogers (former UO student with 13.18 5k PB); Dan Steele (decathlon gold medallist).

The Oregon Project, where Rupp and Farah are now, started around that time in Portland and had athletes like Bob Kennedy, Keska, and Dan Browne, and they would come down occasionally. OTC was not such an elite club back then, but it did have some decent athletes around the 14-min 5k mark.

tbUSA – Are you still friendly with any of your fellow UO alums?

RG – I am so old that I graduated before Facebook! However, I am still in close contact with most of my teammates and recently attended a wedding of a college friend in San Francisco. This photo is from that wedding with a few of the guys showing off their Oregon Duck tattoos. It includes: Thomas Newman – 1:53/3:50 (5th California state HS champs);  Kevin Cadman;  Matt Davis – Great  as a prep (sub-9 two mile, multiple state champion and 3rd at Footlocker); Karl Keska – 3:42/7:50/13:20/27:44; (multiple All-Americans; 13th World X; 8th 2000 Olympics; 5th 2002 European Champs; 9th 2002 World Champs); Me – 1:49.1/3:46.

tbUSA –  One of the big adjustments to NCAA sports is that you still have to adapt to a lot of the factors that a normal student does, as well as dealing with the daily commitment to training. How did you find your adjustment to the West Coast, and was your adaption easy?

RG – I have to say that I settled into US life almost straight away, I think going to a similar climate helped and the guys on the team really made a big difference. Eugene has a really strong running community and I was one of only two international athletes on the team. This meant that I was never short of dinner invitations and social options. It tended to be really friendly local track people and they really made me feel welcome. It definitely helped that I was 21 when I arrived as I’m not sure how I would have coped at 18.

I also really enjoyed the local culture. I found that I had an affinity for little things, like driving huge trucks, Thanksgiving and enjoying American sports. Another thing is that I never came home for Christmas, I felt it would be better to get on with training and go find some sun for a week or two, which definitely helped me concentrate, in contrast to the cold weather back in Northern Ireland.

tbUSA – With the training group, coach, and facilities most athletes can only dream of, how did your running at UO progress?

RG – Initially, Oregon really suited my racing schedule. I wasn’t good enough to make the XC team as the 6th man was a 31:20-guy. This allowed me to have a full break after the track season and start at my own pace. Indoor track was really an option and I only ever ran one individual race the whole time I was there. In theory, I was expected to run six to eight 800m races a year and help out with the 4 x 400m team. I only had two years eligibility and the first year under Bill Dellinger went really well. Most of the winter training is on marked woodchip trails, so my legs really held up well. I raced a lot in 1998, when over the full season, I ran under 1.51.3 or better 25 times, which culminated with my fastest time of the year at the Commonwealth Games in Sept. I had finished 5th in the Pac-10s, won by Bernard Lagat from 1:45-man, Jess Strutzell. It was a long year and with hindsight I should have taken more of a break.

I returned to Oregon a few days after traveling back from Malaysia (Commonwealths) to a new coach and new regime. The new coach, Martin Smith, didn’t really fit in and the press never gave him a chance. In the end, I was coached by his assistant but ended up developing a stress fracture that I never truly recovered from. However, we did make the NCAAs DMR Team (after running 9.36 to qualify), but I personally only ran once outdoor in 1999.

Despite this disappointment, one of the things that I am eternally grateful for is that Oregon agreed to extend my full-ride scholarship without any eligibility for a full extra year to allow me to graduate. How many schools would do that?

tbUSA – In returning to the UK, do you feel having an American degree has helped or hindered your career prospects?

RG – I work as a financial adviser and although I’m not sure my history degree helped from an academic point of view, I think it offers much more to a potential employer by speaking volumes for my character. Without a doubt, it shows that I can work independently and allows me to offer life experiences that other applicants cannot.

tbUSA – Are there any other final things you’d like to share that you think are interesting?

RG – There are a few things, but the most notable was how the athletes on the team were treated. Firstly, crowds at Hayward Field ranged from 2000-4000 people at every race, with an organised signing session with the crowd after races to autograph photos, etc. Secondly, every race was televised, with the local news filming our Thursday training sessions before big races. These included interviews and pre-race predictions. Finally, there was a huge community involvement expected from the team, which included speaking at schools and giving out prizes, etc. We even got free food at local restaurants before races. All of this culminated in the Oregon experience, and one that I doubt, at the time at least, you could have got anywhere else.

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