Gerry Lindgren, who ran the fastest 5,000 meters in high school history as a senior in 1964 – a record which stood for more than 40 years – and almost single-handedly put Spokane running on the national map, will tell anyone who will listen that he was, and remains, a wimp.
Lindgren tells the story that when he was a sophomore walking in to Rogers High School for the first time, he didn’t have the upper-body strength to pull open the big doors at the front of the school.
Though he is slightly built (5-foot-6 at his peak), mild-mannered and soft-spoken bordering on squeaky, Lindgren was a giant in the sport and is, quite simply, one of the greatest distance runners of all time.
Lindgren, now 72 and a resident of Hawaii, is in town this weekend for the Mooberry Relays at his alma mater.
This year the Mooberry features 23 boys and 22 girls teams from across the state.
“Just look at this track,” Lindgren said. “We had an old used-up cinder track that had big boulders around this curve when I was here. It was hard to run on.
“It’s nice that they have a quality facility and there’s so many people involved.”
The event – in its 55th year – might not exist without the contribution of Lindgren, who helped to gain Spokane a reputation as a running town.
“When I was first running, I wanted everyone in Spokane to run,” he said. “It’s such a nice feeling when you run. I does so much for your body, health-wise.”
The event coincides with Monday’s announcement from the WIAA that Lindgren has – finally – been elected to the state high school Hall of Fame.
“It’s a great honor,” he said. “I’m glad I could maybe help inspire somebody by being there.”
As a teen, it was Lindgren who needed inspiration. He said he almost quit running multiple times at the beginning, stemming from confidence problems that started at home.
Why does one of the elite athletes the world has seen consider himself – even today after all he’s accomplished – a wimp?
“That has been a conflict within myself all of this time,” he said. “When I first came to Rogers, I had an alcoholic dad who belittled me all the time for being such a wimp. I had no self-confidence.
“I was a worthless person. That was my self-image.”
He started training with the cross country team at the back of the pack at first, eventually racing out to the front only to be caught, then finally retaining the lead to end of training races.
As a junior, he won the mile race at state, breaking the meet record.
“I never wanted to win a race,” Lindgren said. “I always expected someone to come on and whup me in the end.
“But it almost never happened.”
The list of records Lindgren held is staggering. In high school he set five American high school national records (300, 1,000 and 5,000 meters; 2 miles and 3 miles) and he ran the second-fastest mile in history. He set five more collegiate and American records, including a world record in the 6-mile race.
Lindgren won 11 cross country or track titles at Washington State and his only loss at an NCAA championship was to Jim Ryun in the 1968 indoor 2-mile (3.2 km) race. He was one of only two people to defeat Steve Prefontaine in an NCAA championship.
Lindgren is a member of just about every running hall of fame, including the inaugural class of the National High School Track and Field Hall of Fame.
So why did it take so long to be recognized by his home state?
“I don’t know why,” Lindgren said. “I was from the eastern side of the state and most of the good (runners) were from the western side of the state at the time. Maybe they didn’t like me because I was from here.
“I never really wanted to be in a hall of fame. I never wanted to win races. I just wanted to see what I could do make life better for as many as I could.
“If I’m honored, I’m honored to be there.”
But the feat Lindgren is most known for came the summer after his senior year at Rogers.
That’s when he beat the Russians.
Lindgren told an assembly at Rogers on Friday that he wanted to wait for one of the Russians to make his move, then he would pace with him. One of the Russians stumbled and Lindgren, thinking that was the Russian’s kick, took off.
He told the assembly he kept hearing the Russians pounding the track behind him and described how he made sprint lap after sprint lap, expecting one of the Russians to catch him.
“I knew they were behind me and they knew I was up front in trouble,” he said. “And they were trying to make me hurt bad.”
But he explained that later he realized what he had heard was the echo of his own feet pounding – and the clapping of 80,000 spectators.
The Russians never did track him down, and Lindgren became the first American to beat a Soviet athlete at that distance.
“Coming across the finish line in first place blew my mind,” he said.
Lindgren knew right away the cultural ramifications of the event.
“It had so much significance for all of America,” he said. “After that, when we still had the Russian meet, we beat ’em – boys and girls. It’s because we had a different feeling on the team. We now knew we could win.”
The event triggered the greatest year for American distance runners. The ensuing 12 months brought two gold medals by Americans, in the 5,000 and 10,000 in Tokyo, as well as world records in the 2 mile, 6 mile and indoor mile.
Lindgren won the Olympic Trials that summer, but an ankle sprain just before the Olympic Finals hampered his chances for a medal. He finished ninth in his limited capacity.
Though he didn’t achieve Olympic glory, Lindgren was one of the pioneers in American running. It’s fitting he was in Spokane, where it started for him, when the state high school hall of fame recognized his achievements.