Prep distance running legend Gerry Lindgren was an unlikely success story, if you consider his first experiences in the sport. He didn’t even like running at first and was the self-proclaimed slowest on the team. He wanted to quit early in his first year of high school in 1961-62 (10th grade). Had it not been for his coach at Rogers (Spokane, Wash.), Tracy Walters, Lindgren’s story in the sport might have stopped there.
But Walters took him aside and said that by working harder than anyone else on the team, he could inspire others and make them better. Inspire others, he thought, he very much wanted to do that. So Lindgren started throwing himself into the lead during workouts, even if it meant suffering at the end. He also started piling on extra miles and running further and further on a weekly basis – more than 150 miles many weeks.
By his junior year, teammates – as well as the opposition – were catching up to the fast-starting Lindgren less and less frequently. He was getting incredibly aerobically fit and developing more courage. A turning point came that summer in 1963. Lindgren had won the state XC meet the previous fall, then lowered his mile to 4:18. He was invited to an All-Star race that included the standout Tracy Smith. Lindgren now not only had more endurance, but was able to launch all-out sprints in mid-race and still recover. In a wild race, he beat Smith at the tape with a PR 4:12.9 and now realized he could beat almost anyone.
After another unbeaten XC season his senior year of 1963-64, and months more of mega-mileage, Lindgren was invited to run indoor 2-mile races against elites in California and came up with an incredible trio of HS national records: 9:00.0, 8:46.0 and finally 8:40.0 (8:06.3 3k) on Feb. 15 in a narrow defeat to world-record-holder Ron Clarke of Australia at San Francisco’s Cow Palace. The 8:06.3 and 8:40.0 would not be broken until 2013. Lindgren set yet another indoor record, 13:37.8 for 3M, in taking 4th at AAU seniors.
Outdoors, the fireworks came in the summer – with several prep records at 3M/5,000m and 6M/10,000m. Lindgren’s most significant highlights were his 5,000m mark of 13:44.0 at Compton – unbroken until Galen Rupp in 2004; his 29:17.6 10,000m record victory in an amazing dual meet performance against Russian Olympians before 50,000 wildly cheering fans at the L.A. Coliseum; and a 4:01.5 mile in Jamaica – nearly joining Ryun in the sub-4:00 prep milers club.
In September, the official HS season over, Lindgren won the Olympic Trials 10,000m for the 1964 Tokyo Games in October. He was considered a medal contender, but an ankle injury limited him to 9th – still the greatest Olympic long distance performance by an American male that young. He was the 1964 Track and Field News HS Athlete of the Year.
Lindgren continued on to Washington State, winning a record 11 NCAA championships before he was through and tying with Tokyo Olympic champ Billy Mills during a spectacular 27:11.6 6-mile world record at the 1965 AAU nationals.