The pain of sprinting 800 meters and the pressure to produce a good result showed on Boris Berian's face as he powered to the finish line in the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.
He had endured a lawsuit filed against him — and dropped just days before the trials — by the sport's corporate giant, Nike. He had watched his training partner and Big Bear Track Club teammate Brenda Martinez stumble in a collision with another runner and lose her Olympic bid just minutes before his race.
Eighteen months ago he was a college dropout, working at McDonald's in Colorado Springs, sleeping on a friend's couch and wondering if he ever would become a world-class runner.
But on this warm night at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon — known as Track Town USA, the historic stomping grounds of the late running icon Steve Prefontaine — the 23-year-old Berian galloped into the lead on the race's second and final lap. A top-three finish would seal his invitation to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Berian had won state championships in the 400 and 800 in his junior and senior years (2010-11) at Widefield High School. He then dashed to a gold medal in the 800 at the NCAA Division II championships as a freshman at Adams State University. His path was set. But he soon left school, quietly, and returned home. He worked out on his own, but with no coaching or competition to push him, his form wouldn't hold.
"There were some doubts, a couple of times," Berian said in an interview with the running website PikesPeakSports.us. "Working there [McDonald's], training by myself. It was hard, mentally, knowing I might not be able to do what I wanted."
He needed a break. And then came a life-changing Facebook message. Coach Carlos Handler from the Big Bear Track Club invited him to train in California. Days later he found himself pounding out long runs in the snow. His 2015 season was off to a promising start and he ran well through the year. His form returned and his natural talent showed in March when he won the World Indoor 800 championship with a time of 1 minute, 45.83 seconds.
Sitting in the bleachers at the Olympic Trials, his high school coaches Fred Marjerrison and Erik Nelson had no problem recognizing their star athlete. Berian carries more muscle than other runners and he punched his way down the backstretch as the track-savvy crowd rose to its feet. Berian has always pushed the pace.
"He's a front-runner," Marjerrison says. "That was the first time I'd seen him run in person since he anchored the 4-by-400 relay for us. And I said to my wife, 'That's the same kid.' He didn't go away to train somewhere else and learn something new. He's gotten stronger and his endurance is better, obviously, but his tactics are the same. He races from the front and tells everyone, 'Come and get me.' That puts a lot of stress on the field."
Berian visited with his old coaches between qualifying heats. "It was great to talk to him," Nelson says. "He was loving it. He genuinely enjoys it. He doesn't treat running like a job. I just think he is super-competitive and he likes to run fast. I always said that everybody likes to win, but Boris hates to lose more than anyone else."
It hasn't all been fun, however. Elite track and field is a business, and no company plays as shrewdly as Nike, which saw Berian's star power and signed him to a sponsorship deal. The endorsement gave Nike the option to match any other offers when the deal ended on Dec. 31, 2015. When Berian struck a new agreement with New Balance, Nike claimed it had matched the offer and the company sued the runner for breach of contract. The U.S. track and field community erupted in protest with a "Free Boris" social media campaign. Faced with a public-relations disaster, Nike dropped the suit on the eve of the Olympic Trials.
"Boris was in his element, but you could tell it has been a stressful journey for him," Marjerisson says. "He has to deal with the lawsuit, then the lawsuit gets dropped. Then he has to get through the preliminary rounds."
The trials did not end on a perfect note. Berian hit the home stretch with a good lead in the 800 final but eventually finished second to Clayton Murphy, a gutsy 1,500-meter specialist who ironically had signed a sponsorship deal with Nike just days before. The Widefield kid bulled his way through the race and missed an Olympic Trials championship by a sliver of time. Murphy hit the finish line in 1:44.76, with Berian a half-stride behind in 1:44.92. But there were smiles all around on the Hayward track where Berian waved an American flag and congratulated Murphy and the other runners.
Marjerrison and Nelson cheered him on. The coach-athlete relationship never really ends.
"This kid went from making $8 an hour at McDonald's to running at an elite level and making a lot of money," Nelson says. "We're proud of the way he is running, but we're also proud of the way he is handling all of it, and I think that is who he is."
Berian is scheduled to take the track in Rio on Aug. 12 for the preliminary rounds of the 800, with the semifinals the following day. By all accounts, his finishing times and training are where they need to be.
Will Colorado Springs have a hometown runner to cheer in the finals on Aug. 15? The gutsy front-runner who once saw his dream fading away. The Colorado state high school champion who fought back against tough odds to compete on the Olympic stage for greatest award in sports.
Can he do it? Why not?
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