His team says questions about his past are irrelevant
Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2005
» Gerry Lindgren's interview with the Star-Bulletin last week was his first since being named University of Hawaii assistant track and field and cross country coach. It was not his first interview for a Hawaii newspaper, as indicated in an article on Page A1 Sunday.
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Competitive distance runners embrace one of life's few absolute truths.
The willingness to accept the searing pain of oxygen debt -- always in races and often during training -- is a non-negotiable for success. Natural speed helps a little. But there's no way around it; for elite runners, winning equals pain invested.
Gerry Lindgren, more than anyone, understood this truth. It was the only way the uncoordinated 5-foot-5, 118-pound teenager could become a supreme athlete, a world-record-holder and America's best runner -- a self-described "wimp" who beat the Russians at a time when beating the Russians at anything and everything was the goal of a nation.
Lindgren's truth was running hundreds of miles each week in and around Spokane, Wash., as a high-schooler in the early 1960s, long before running was fashionable. The agony of it served a purpose in his mind, unlike the pain of growing up in a home dominated by an alcoholic father, as Lindgren -- or rather, his "shadow" -- describes in the recently released "Gerry Lindgren's Book on Running."
Running straight into the truth of physical pain was never a problem for Lindgren. He chose, though, to run away from the truth of his own life 25 years ago, and to a large extent, still does.
In 1980, Lindgren disappeared from his home in Tacoma, Wash. He didn't tell anyone where he was going or why.
He ended up in Hawaii, and he wanted to be left alone.
Lindgren did not achieve complete anonymity. He has run in local age-group meets almost from the time he arrived here.
COURTESY GERRY LINDGREN
Gerry Lindgren, above right, is the only man to defeat Steve Prefontaine, above left, in an NCAA championship, beating him in 1969. .
"People recognized him right away," longtime Hawaii track official Gordon Scruton said. "After they realized he didn't want any attention they left him alone. He might talk a little bit about today, but not yesterday and rarely about tomorrow."
Lindgren and his bubbly personality have gradually resurfaced since his United States Track and Field Hall of Fame induction last year. He spoke to the Star-Bulletin last week after being named assistant track and field and cross country coach at the University of Hawaii. It was his first interview with a Hawaii newspaper after numerous requests over the years.
He was upbeat during the half-hour conversation, and excited about coaching.
"I love it. I was very apprehensive when I took the job," Lindgren said Thursday before leaving for a meet in California. "I coached high school girls, and a lot of open runners. But I never coached a college team. I didn't know what kinds of things I would face over here."
UH head track coach Carmyn James said Lindgren has already made a positive impact in five weeks with the cross country team.
"He puts in the miles with them and makes sure they are quality miles," James said. "They make each step worthwhile. He's really changed their attitudes and approach. They're discovering new depths."
The runners are too young to remember Lindgren. They now know he is among the trailblazers of distance running in the United States, a contemporary and rival of Steve Prefontaine and one of the founding fathers of the running boom in the 1970s.
They are shocked at their good fortune to have a former world champion as a coach -- a 59-year-old who will run the tough runs with them. They don't really care about his personal past.
"That's pretty much irrelevant to us," sophomore Chantelle Laan said. "People are always looking to bring people down. I don't really know and don't particularly need to know. If he wants to express that to us, that's up to him."
RIGHT: COURTESY GERRY LINDGREN
At left, Gerry Lindgren was interviewed last week at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. At right, Lindgren, in an undated photo, paused for a moment before a race.
LINDGREN DENIES that he abandoned a family when he left Tacoma in 1980.
According to a 1987 Sports Illustrated article, Lindgren was married to a woman he met in college at Washington State named Betty Caley, and they had three children together. The article also claimed Lindgren was involved in a paternity suit with another woman, which he also denies.
"No. Just me," Lindgren said when asked about wife and children last week. He did say yesterday he spoke to Betty last week, but that she was not his wife. He repeated he does not have children.
Lindgren remains very close friends with his high school coach, Tracy Walters, and Walters' wife, Leta.
"Gerry was part of our family. Recently he told us, 'You're all I have,'" Leta Walters said in a phone interview yesterday. "I haven't met his children, but I've talked about them with his wife, his former wife, Betty, a lot. I tried to get them back together, not necessarily to reconcile, but to get some resolution at least. I don't think he's denying he was married anymore."
When told Lindgren had done just that, Walters let out a long, loud sigh.
"With Gerry, you never know what he's got going," she said.
Tracy Walters said Lindgren's family life was "very complicated."
Phone messages left for Betty Lindgren in Pasco, Wash., and Steven Lindgren in Stellacoom, Wash., were not returned yesterday.
Lindgren said he left the mainland and public life because of the government.
"Jimmy Carter's responsible for bringing me to Hawaii. In 1980 he stopped the Olympic Games. When the Associated Press called me to ask me what I thought about stopping the Olympic Games, I told them I thought it was an inept president doing something that he knew nothing about, that the Olympics were the only place where we had non-political competition between all the countries in the world and for him to politicize it like that was a stupid thing to do by a stupid president," Lindgren said.
"And two days later the IRS came in and closed my shoe shop. They came in and closed my shop to make sure I was paying my taxes. They kept me closed for six weeks and I yelled and screamed and suddenly they all disappeared. They took the locks off my doors, so I opened up and immigration came in and closed me again."
He said he came to Hawaii because a friend from college named "Gale Young" needed a business partner. Lindgren now admits to using the name "Gale Young" his early years in Hawaii.
"I did use his name in some business dealings, yes. He disappeared and left a family that needed to be fed," Lindgren said.
Lindgren, who lives in Hawaii Kai, has supported himself in various ways. His most recent job was as a parking lot manager. He denies he was ever homeless in Hawaii.
"No, my goodness," he said last week. "I think a lot of times the press gets carried away. Some guys had a real field day with me when I first came here and I wasn't there to defend myself. A lot of rumors have spread about me. I just have to laugh them off, and say, 'Stupid people.'"
EVEN THOUGH he's talking now, the absolute truth about Lindgren's personal life, why he left the mainland and his early years here as a recluse might never come to light. But, as Chantelle Laan said, is any of that really important? Isn't it enough that one of the best runners in history has decided to share his experience, knowledge and passion with a new generation?
The name Gerry Lindgren had gradually faded from the public consciousness, descending to trivia status. But it is true that he is one of the all-time greats in his sport. And at least one of his victories transcended sports and another changed amateur athletics.
"The Russian meet changed minds a lot," Lindgren said.
On July 25, 1964, Lindgren achieved the equivalent of the U.S. hockey team's victory over Russia in the 1980 Olympics. The scrawny 18-year-old a few weeks out of high school beat two veteran world-class Russians in the 10,000 meters at the annual U.S.-USSR dual meet. It was the first time an American won the event.
He went on to win 11 of 12 NCAA championships at Washington State, an incredible feat that eclipsed Jesse Owens' old record of eight.
Lindgren had put his college career at risk, though, when he refused to choose between competing in NCAA and AAU events. He won a victory for track and field athletes by standing alone against the power structure.
His Olympic career was disappointing though, as a turned ankle cost him a chance at a medal in 1964 (he had won the U.S. qualifier in the 10,000 meters). He failed to make the team in 1968.
Lindgren said his goal was never to win or gain acclaim, anyway. He wanted to be a pied piper of running.
"I wanted everybody in the world to run. That's what I decided I was gonna do as a runner, get everybody to run. When finally the revolution came along, it just bowled me over because I worked for it, but I never thought it would happen."
The charismatic Steve Prefontaine and marathoner Frank Shorter generally get more credit than Lindgren for stimulating the running boom. And Lindgren's stories -- some dubious -- about being arrested, detained and shot at by police for being mistaken for a bank robber, might have discouraged some from taking up the sport.
"Bang, a shot right across my head and I didn't know I'd been hit until I went home and saw a crease," Lindgren said with a laugh the other day.
Leta Walters laughed, too.
"Arrested 17 times? Yes, the police were concerned, but he wasn't arrested," she said.
Tracy Walters, his high school coach, knows more than most that Lindgren is a flawed human being.
"I love the kid. He's still a kid to me," Walters said. "He feels very bad about how he's handled some things in his life, but he's done a lot of good. He's beautiful, giving, humble. With all the success he had, he has no ego."
And he didn't mind being thought of as odd.
"To do anything well or outstanding you have to be a little bit crazy. You have to be weird. Because if you're not weird, you're doing what everyone else is doing. So I think, yeah, I was probably a weird guy when I was young. If I were not running, I'd look at that guy who was running all those miles and I'd say, 'He's weird,'" Lindgren said.
"But it's a good thing. The only way we change and get better as a culture is somebody has to lead the way. Everything about us, at some time it was an idea in somebody's mind. And it was a weird idea, yeah. Because it didn't exist. But now we accept all these things because they're here and they're a part of our life."
Two movies have been done about Steve Prefontaine in recent years -- the running legend died in a car accident at age 24 in 1975.
Some thought Lindgren had died when he disappeared in 1980. He's alive now, and running 50 miles a week with the Hawaii cross country team.
"Our plan is before the WAC championships we'll rent 'Pre' or 'Without Limits,'" James said, referring to the two Prefontaine movies. "We'll have him with a pause button to tell us how it really was."
Profile: Gerry Lindgren
Position: University of Hawaii assistant women's track and field and cross country coach.
Born: March 9, 1946, in Spokane, Wash.
World record: 6 miles -- 27:12, in 1964, in a tie with Billy Mills at the AAU Nationals.
College: 11 NCAA victories in 12 championship events entered while at Washington State. Three-time NCAA champion in cross country and 6 miles.
High school: While attending Rogers High School in Spokane, Lindgren set the 5,000-meter record of 13:44.0. It was broken last summer, more than 40 years later, by Galen Rupp who ran 13:37.91. Rupp went to the same high school (Portland Central Catholic) as Michel Wilson. Lindgren coaches Wilson at UH.
Note: Lindgren was inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame last year.