Mitch Potter took the baton from Adam Steele en route to winning the 2003 Big Ten 4X400 relay title.
Minnesota sprinters take track world by storm
By Chris Coughlan-Smith
Mitch Potter and Adam Steele share many things: a Minnesota upbringing, a close friendship, intense competitiveness, and world championship gold medals in a most unlikely event. The 23-year-old Gopher seniors were on the USA 4x400-meter relay team that won the title at last summer's World Track and Field Championships in Paris.
It was a stunning accomplishment. For decades, African Americans, West Africans, and runners from the Caribbean and West Indies have dominated the sprint events. Although both Steele and Potter had earned All-American honors in their freshman and sophomore seasons, their junior year "created literally a worldwide buzz," says University of Minnesota track coach Phil Lundin. "People were saying, 'What's going on?'"
Potter, who grew up in St. Michael, was named outstanding athlete of the Big Ten meet in May. Steele, of Eden Prairie, won the NCAA 400 title in June. Then Potter took gold in the 400 at the Pan-American Games in the Dominican Republic in July, beating many of the top runners in the Western Hemisphere. They also finished fifth and sixth at the U.S. championships, cementing their spot on the world team for the relay. At one point, they had the first and third fastest times in the world for 400 meters-at 44.57 and 44.58 seconds. "What makes it special is that they're Minnesota kids," Lundin says, "the kinds of kids people don't think can run like this."
Because the NCAA finals and the U.S. championships were scheduled on consecutive weekends, Potter and Steele had to run eight races in nine days to make the relay team for the world meet. "The critics said no college sprinter, especially the two white guys from Minnesota, would be able to make the U.S. team after all those rounds of races," Potter recalls. "That was just fuel for us."
"We get to a meet, we don't talk to anyone, we don't look at anyone, we keep our mouths shut," says Potter. Steele agrees: "We let the race speak for itself."
Potter is stockier, betraying his high school football and wrestling days. His blue eyes flash with intensity and his emotions show plainly. He is quick to laugh and quick to give himself competitive ultimatums. On the track, he rockets off the starting line. "I always knew I was fast," he says. "I know I am capable of doing anything I want to do, period. That's just the way I've always been.... But there are always a million variables that could knock me down or injure me."
Potter suffered injuries his first year that forced him, like Steele, to take a redshirt year. Then Potter set lofty goals for his first competitive season and told Lundin he would quit the team if he did not achieve them. He did, setting school records indoors and out in the 400.
"Mitch is wound about three turns tighter than Adam," Lundin jokes. Potter has posted impressive times each season, and has earned four individual and five relay All-American honors. But he has been plagued by injuries. Lundin, the national college track coach of the year in 2003, often has to adjust Potter's workouts to accommodate what he can handle from week to week.
Steele is thinner, looking more like the state distance running champion he was in high school. He is quieter and intensely watchful. Steele insists that while growing up he never had an inkling he was that much faster than others. "I had good coaches in high school and again in college who pulled me aside at the right times and helped me find the talent I had no idea I had," he says. In a race, Steele usually starts a little slower but runs down fading opponents in the home stretch.
Although Steele won two Big Ten titles and earned three All-American citations in the 4x400, he had advanced more slowly-until a breakthrough last spring. He could handle a large amount of training but needed to work on his sheer all-out speed. "The kid never thought he could run under 22.5 [seconds for 200 meters]," Potter says. "Then he came out at [a meet last May] and ran 21.12. It was a huge breakthrough and I think that's what convinced him he could he could race with people at the national level."
"It just clicked for him," Potter says. "He took six-tenths [of a second] off one day, another four-tenths off the next. Now that you've run that fast, you're never going back."
"I'm just fortunate to be here while these guys are here," says track coach Phil Lundin. "You won't see this kind of thing too often."Although confident and competitive, Potter and Steele do not exude the cockiness that marks some sprinters, who are known to trash-talk before races and to celebrate success with grandiose displays afterwards. "We get to a meet, we don't talk to anyone, we don't look at anyone, we keep our mouths shut," Potter says.
Steele agrees: "We let the race speak for itself."
And the race is grueling. The lungs and heart struggle to provide oxygen to muscles that are going at almost a full sprint; after 30 seconds, the supply is far behind the demand. Arms, legs, and lungs begin to burn with oxygen debt. As a result, the race sometimes goes to whoever slows the least over the last 150 meters. Potter, as a pure sprinter, tries to get far ahead early, demoralize the competition, and hang on. Normally, he's successful. Steele charges hard at the end, as he did when he beat Potter by .01 seconds at the NCAA meet, still the only championship-level race where he's beaten Potter. At the Pan-Am meet, where Steele was fourth, Potter's first 200 meters were close to world-record pace. Although he slowed, he had enough to win by .02 seconds over Cuba's top runner.
In August, they went to Paris wearing the colors of Team USA. "I have a brother serving in the military in Korea," Steele says. "So I was pretty happy to be able to put the red, white, and blue on to represent our country instead of the olive drab. We thought about that a lot while we were over there. We really wanted to represent the U.S. well and be humble about it." Potter and Steele were given a chance to race in the relay preliminaries, and they came through, running the two fastest legs-at 44.3 and 44.7, respectively. But they ended up being left off the squad for the final.
"The other athletes had their coaches and agents there pleading their cases," Potter says. "There's a lot of politics in the selection, and we learned from this experience." Instead of a spot in the finals-and on the medals stand before 70,000 people-Potter and Steele were handed their medals later, without ceremony.
This year, they have a pair of goals: winning the NCAA 4x400 title (Minnesota was fourth indoors and second outdoors in 2003 and returns a third member of the squad, senior Mikael Jakobsson of Orebro, Sweden) and making the U.S. team for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. "Ever since I was a little kid I've dreamed about running in the Olympics," Potter says. "Every year I've counted down, getting myself ready. Now this is the year to do it."
Steele and Potter know that they have pushed each other to become better racers. But they credit Lundin with molding them: shaping workouts to take advantage of their natural strengths, to work around injuries and improve their weak areas, and to improve the way they think about the race. But Lundin deflects the praise. "I'm just fortunate to be here while these guys are here," he says. "You won't see this kind of thing too often."
From an article that originally appeared in Minnesota magazine, March-April 2004.