A retired executive with United Heath Group, Jack Wickens has been involved with the USA Track & Field Foundation since 2005. Then in December 2008 he was voted onto the USATF board of directors after sweeping bylaw changes directed by the USOC reduced the board’s size from 31 members to 15. As director of USATFF, Wickens heads up the USA Distance Project which supports training centers across the country. A Bucknell grad, Jack ran on the track and cross country teams for the Bisons.
T.R. Where does the USA Distance Project need to go to maximize it’s potential?
J.W.> We’ve been a godsend for Team USA Minnesota, the Mammoth Track Club, Zap Fitness, and Indiana Elite. We have 10 or 11 elite training groups which are eligible for support, and we are funding about six or seven this year. But we will have a mid-year evaluation to decide whether to add one or two more programs.”
T.R. You list ten “eligible” training centers, but only fund six or seven. Some clubs like the Hanson’s-Brooks Distance Project in Michigan told me they have never applied for support, while Brad Hudson’s group Marathon Performance doesn’t receive a nickel. Yet by having their names listed on the Distance Project website there’s an inference that they are being supported.
J.W.> Well, like you said, Hanson’s has never applied, but Brad was funded for three years. We stopped when his roster disappeared, when he didn’t have a roster we could support. We have to be selective about where our support goes.”
T.R. So how are the evaluations made to the eligible clubs?
J.W.> We are very objective about it. It’s a transparent process. We look at roster strength, then performance of the athletes, and finally, what services are provided to the athletes. For instance, Zap Fitness provides the most services to their athletes even though they might not have the strongest roster of athletes.
T.R. What’s the extent of your own funding and support?
J.W.> New York Road Runners Circle of Champions was directed through the Distance Project for years, and they were very generous, over $200,000 per year. Our other two anchors are the Twin Cities Marathon and Houston Marathon. They’re in their sixth or seventh year of contributing. Plus they help us evaluate the centers who receive funds.
” When we moved the Distance Project from USATF office to the Foundation, we also added our own donors as sources of funding. We raise a half a million dollars a year through our board of directors and other wealthy contributors. Through the Foundation we help youth programs, individual athletes through all events, and the Distance Project.”
T.R. What is the balance of that funding for the Distance Project, events versus private donors?
J.W.> If you don’t count the NYRR which ponies up $200,000 plus, Houston and Twin Cities contribute $20,000 per year, and the Foundation another $30,000.”
T.R. That seems like a very limited donor list. How are you trying to connect to a wider base?
J.W.> We are trying to strategize around a quid pro quo or set of services we can offer events. For instance, right now we’re talking to the Competitor Group (Rock `n’ Roll Series) about major group health insurance for their participants. We can get a cheaper policy than they could buy. So we can offer same-day health care coverage for the day of the event for people that don’t have health insurance, or inadequate health insurance for far less than $1.00 per participant.
“We would charge a little more than the cost, and the difference would be a donation to the Foundation to help support the Distance Project. In the case of Competitor Group, that would be $150 to $200,000. Competitor Group is very interested, and once they buy, we can go to other races with the same offer. We have three or four different ideas like that.”
T.R. Needless to say, USA Track & Field has had a long-standing image problem with road racing. Even the name suggests that. How do you overcome that?
J.W.> It’s not just image, it’s substance, too. I’ve seen USATF stub its toe over and over again. But it’s changeable, and there are enough people ready to make a dramatic change. It begins with the new CEO, and hopefully we’ll know who that is in the next few weeks.
“I only joined the USATF board of directors a year and a half ago, anxious to help the organization take a big step forward. We lost momentum for awhile, but I’m optimistic that with a new CEO a newly invigorated USATF will emerge. We are down to the final decision moment, and all the candidates are terrific. I think once the new CEO is in place, and with new voices of influence on the board from the business world with a new point of view, you’ll see a whole different USATF.”
T.R. But let’s get back to how the road racing world fits into that new scheme.
J.W.> The good news is that while the national governing body was asleep there was amazing entrepreneurship taking place in road racing. But the sport is so fragmented that it’s hard to make the power that’s there cohesive. But with the right leadership I think we can turn that around. I know many of the top races don’t care about elite athletes. But if distance running fails and doesn’t create stars, it will hurt the races. I think that’s what we’re about. I think that’s what everyone yearns for.”