Here’s Jeff Benjamin’s story on one of my favorite human beings. Tracy Sundlun loves the sport, and has put his heart and soul into it. He also was part of the Swedish Relay world record, way back in 1977, but that is for another time.
Tracy Sundlun – Our Sport’s Eternal Optimist – by Jeff Benjamin
If the Sport we all love has an eternal optimist through the years, then it’s none other than Tracy Sundlun. “I’m as passionate today as I’ve ever been, back to when I was a 12-year old chubby Jewish kid trying to help a discus thrower,” said Sundlun who, over a five decade and counting career, has been involved in all the facets of the Sport.
Those qualities of optimism, fortitude, and perseverance came from Sundlun’s father Bruce.
“My father Bruce Sundlun set an incredibly high bar, so we were all competitive in many ways in my family,” recalled Sundlun.
The elder Sundlun possessed great athletic skill in his youth as he set the Rhode Island High School Long Jump Record as a Prep before World War II
(23’9″), a Record that wasn’t broken for 52 years until Eric Clinton did it at the Reggie Lewis Arena at the National Scholastic Indoor Nationals.
The meet director?
“If not for the War, Dad may have made the 1940 or ’44 team,” said Sundlun.
Instead, the Second World War made the elder Sundlun a hero. A pilot, Sundlun was shot down over Belgium. In what can only be described as a larger than life Hollywood-like adventure he stayed in Nazi-Occupied Europe, eventually joining the French Resistance and participating in raids on the Germans. For his wartime service, Tracy’s father was awarded a Purple Heart, a Distinguished Flying Cross, an Air Medal with oak leaf cluster and France named him a chevalier of The League of Honor. Later on he went on to become a successful businessman and Governor of Rhode Island.
“I unfortunately did not inherit his genes,” said Sundlun, who nevertheless inherited his competitiveness and love of Track & Field.
Yet how did Sundlun originally decide to utilize those qualities? “I became a Coach.”
Beginning in the late 1960’s, the younger Sundlun honed his craft and was able to draw many into his fold. “I knew I could take risks and try to create things that others couldn’t,”said Sundlun. “I knew my parents wouldn’t let me fail…I never wanted to ask them for help and I never really did, but I knew I could if I absolutely had to…I could take risks because I knew I was safe.
Those risks included
– Creating and running Women’s development track clubs in the pre-Title IX era.
– Recruiting and properly providing for talented athletes
– Leading the effort to introduce chiropractic care into Track & Field and Olympic sports thereby fighting the AMA and the insurance industry along the way.
-Encouraging Track Officials to adapt to new ways of managing meets.
– Fighting against the hypocrisy of the AAU’s Amateur rules.
-Creating the National Scholastic/High School Track Championships.
– Creating events for all to participate in and always advocating for the betterment of the Sport, it’s athletes, officials, coaches and fans.
“But it’s also about the friendships forged throughout the years,” Said Sundlun, who still maintains contact with most of the people he’s met and worked with to this day. “It truly a great profession.”
Among the many talented athletes coached by Sundlun include two time American 400 meter champion and 1972 Olympian Maurice Peoples, A many time World and American Record Holder the 2-time Olympic hurdler and Pan Am Champ Patty Van Wolvelaere (Who just recently gained induction into the USATF National Track & Field Hall of Fame), former American Marathon Record Holder, the Late Pat Petersen, and hundreds (thousands?) of others who were guided by his passion and encouragement.
But two athletes he worked with really awed Sundlun.
“The athletes who were put on this earth to run
by God were Mary Decker Slaney and Henry Rono,” said Sundlun of this legendary duo.
“Usain Bolt too!”
Among Sundlun’s other impacts have been stints over 5 decades in Georgetown, Colorado, USC, Television Commentary, The Warren Street Social & Athletic Club, Athlete representation and management, The Metropolitan Athletics Congress (Now known as USATF- NY and USATF-Long Island, where Sundlun was the first full-time paid Association Executive Director), his creation of the Indoor National Scholastic HS Championship meet (Now known as the New Balance Nationals) and the Rock ‘n Roll Marathon series races, both main staples in the American athletic world to this day. As a result of all this and more, in 2016 Sundlun was named the Head Men’s Coach for the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team in Rio, which was the most successful in history!
As for his most rewarding moments? “None beats another,” said Sundlun. “I’ve enjoyed every aspect, from coaching and managing to administration, Road Racing, Track & Field, Racewalking, Men, Women, young or old, Fast or slow, I love it all…It’s all so rewarding.”
“The Sport deserves this.”
Bell Lap– There was one more moving story shared by Sundlun. In 1972, he was appointed the youngest track coach in Olympic history!
“I was an assistant coach for Puerto Rico at the age of 20,”recalled Sundlun. But more important than his achievement (which he called “being in the right place at the right time!) was that it was also shared by his father.
“I was able to get him a credential and bring him to Munich” said Sundlun, “and I saw a look of pride I’ll never forget, and for the first time he thought my “fooling around” in this Sport might make sense!”