With rich dreams being brought to life yesterday in New York, Boston, and Glasgow by Mary Cain, Galen Rupp and Duane Solomon, each heralding a fruitful beginning to the 2016 Rio Olympic cycle, it was at a small all-comers meet in Chula Vista, California that I was again reminded of track’s enduring draw. On a dreary Saturday morning at the San Diego Track Club’s Mid-Winter Track Classic I witnessed track’s profound but timeless connection to effort, exhaustion, joy and frustration, the likes of which transcend the fanciful vogues of the moment while linking generations in a manner that the tastes of the day never can.
As wife Toya completed a finely paced victory in the 1000-meter run at Montgomery High School’s Al Prazak Stadium, my eye was drawn to a young competitor focused on her upcoming race as she was being advised by portly man many years her senior.
A seventh-grader at El Centro Junior High, 13 year-old Sabrina Benavides was running in just the second 3000 meter track race of her life. She had debuted at this very meet one year ago, notching a 12:07 time. Since then she had run a 20:27 5K at the Cougar Invitational, the cross country meet staged by Cal State San Marcos head coach Steve Scott, the former American record holder in the mile. Holding court with Sabrina before the start of her race yesterday was Alberto Bazan, 61, of Imperial, California, her grandfather.
Bazan is now a stoutly built man with the weathered face of a man who has spent considerable time working from the sweat of his brow. Then, with his granddaughter settling into second place as the race got underway, I got to talking with Alberto before quickly realizing that Sabrina’s smoothly efficient stride was more likely than not a family trait.
“I ran for Imperial Valley College in the `70s,” Alberto told me as Sabrina moved into the lead after a few laps. “We had so many good runners in the area then, Thom Hunt, Ed Mendoza, and the Jamul Toads Track Club. I wasn’t among the best at all, but my PRs were 14:56 (5000m) and 30:41 (10,000m). My real love was cross country. I was a big fan of Pat Porter (the late two-time Olympian and eight-time U.S. Cross Country champion). So seeing Sabrina follow my passion gives me so much pride.”
In 1973 Alberto finished fourth in the small schools cross country championships, while Sabrina’s mom Melissa, Alberto’s daughter, had taken her athletic talents to the world of tennis. For years Alberto was coordinator for the Imperial Valley Tennis Association.
“She’s already a dedicated runner,” said her granddad after Sabrina scampered free to a PR 11:37 win, easily putting distance on her competitors through the second half of the race. “But we don’t want her doing any more than 20 miles per week. She’s still very young.”
Though her granddad was the runner in the family, it was Susan Millan, Sabrina’s sixth-grade P.E. teacher who suggested her pupil take up running after watching the ease with which she moved on the soccer pitch at school. Who knows where the family legacy and her own drive may eventually take her.
A talent like Bronxville, New York’s Mary Cain, who broke the 41 year-old U.S. high school indoor mile record this weekend at the New Balance Games in New York City, come along perhaps once a generation – if that. I remember quite well watching Harvard, Mass. standout Lynn Jennings take on the top women of her era as a high schooler in the late 1970s on her way to a Hall of Fame pro career (Mary Cain’s 1500m split of 4:16.1 in yesterday’s indoor mile record broke the record set by Lynn back in 1978, of 4:18.9.)
There are no wild projections considered or developing for 13 year-old Sabrina Benavides. She is just beginning her running life. But watching the exuberance and pride of her grandfather, and the smooth efficiency of her stride makes even a cynical - and often critical - senior writer have faith, not just in the future of this particular athlete, but in a sport which allows all of like mind the chance to explore the depths within, and in doing so connect with all others who seek now or once sought the same salvation.