Matt Tegenkamp, the former UW-Madison distance runner who has qualified to compete in the 5,000 meters at the Olympics next month, ran the fastest 1500 meter race ever on Wisconsin soil Tuesday night, beating training partners Jonathon Riley, Chris Solinsky and Sean Quigley in front of approximately 1,000 cheering fans at the McClimon Track.
Tegenkamp's time of 3:37.94 falls just three seconds short of his personal best, but beats the previous track record of 3:42.63, set by John Wild of Oklahoma State in 1996. Riley finished in second at 3:39.02, Solinsky came in third 3:40.67 and Quigley came in fourth at 3:43.36.
Riley challenged Tegenkamp on the last lap, but with hundreds of fans standing right on the track, leaving just two lanes open for running, the Olympian pulled ahead, beating Riley by just over a second. The race, hastily assembled in the last week, was originally supposed to be a time trial, but with about 300 high school athletes in Madison for a cross country camp, it didn't take much to turn it into a bona fide event.
"We put this together in about a week and it's crazy how fast it spread by word of mouth," said Tegenkamp after the race. "It shows what great support we have in Madison. I look forward to doing it more."
The athletes were originally supposed to compete in a 1500-meter race in Europe, but the timing wasn't right and Jerry Schumacher, the former UW cross country coach who oversees the group's training, wanted the runners participating in something competitive. The night ended up serving as both a showcase for Wisconsin's most celebrated distance runners, and also a send-off for Tegenkamp who leaves Thursday morning for Europe, where he'll compete in a few meets before heading to Beijing for the Olympics.
"This was exactly how I pictured it," said Tegenkamp. "It was different from a regular meet because I was at home all day and kept reminding myself that I needed to be preparing for a meet. But when I got over here and saw all the people coming in, the butterflies got going a little bit."
The night presented an opportunity for some world-class athletes who are too often overshadowed by football, basketball and hockey players to feel a little love from the hometown fans. Solinsky and Tegenkamp both signed autographs and posed for pictures after the meet.
"To get these kids to see this, not just the times but actually see what it looks like, is great," said Solinsky, who grew up in Stevens Point. "If I was in high school at this camp and seen something like this, I would have been drooling."
For hundreds of people to show up on a Tuesday night for a three-minute distance race begs the question: How many fans could a big-time track and field event draw in Madison?
"I think Wisconsin is a great fan base for the sport," said Schumacher. "With the right facility and some good marketing, we could have a great event here."
Solinsky seconded the call for a track facility that could showcase the sport better than McClimon's rickety wooden bleachers.
"Tonight showed that people in this community really reach out and supports their athletes," he said. "If we had the facilities like [Eugene, Oregon's] Hayward Field, I think Madison would be a big draw."