- Jul 7, 2006
Making the Team
This guy has mad talent. Mad talent. I tell everyone I meet that he's the real deal. The next Ian Crestwell. Anyone who will listen. The kid's name is Jeff Michaels. Here's his background. Crazy stuff.
He finished third at the Foot Locker High School Cross Country Championships in 1999. Was a scholarship athlete at the University of Oregon -- top-shelf running institution. In his freshman year he gets a stress fracture in his femur. Very rare place for it. Usually it's the foot. It takes six months to heal and he returns to training for three weeks and, boom! He's injured again. Same thing. Can't run until his sophomore year. To stay fit he's running in a swim pool with floatation devices on his arms and he's riding a stationary bike and lifting weights.
Six months go by and it's just eating at him. I mean, this guy was a competitor on the grandest of scales. He raced the 3,000-meter steeple-chase at the world-junior championships. Did the world-junior cross-country championships. Raced in the junior Golden Mile at the Bislett Games in Oslo. He's used to some top-notch events but now he can't even do a local charity road race.
But he hunkers down, gets into his studies, hits the pool, the gym, tries to swim, runs in the water, rides the stationary bike and still, when he gives his leg a little test -- maybe hop up a flight of stairs or a little trot across the street to beat traffic -- he feels it. The same hurt. Same location. Same exact pain. And after, what? A half dozen steps?
And he hasn't run more than 50 miles in the past 18 months. This is a guy who used to do 80-mile weeks. It's eating him alive. He's 20-years-old. He reads about his teammates winning the Pac-10 cross-country title, getting on the podium at the NCAAs, guys meeting the qualifying marks for the Olympic Trails on the track. He reads the results from the NCAAs or the PAC-10 or SEC meets. The agate print in the back pages of the sports section, and he's sees the names of guys he has no idea who they are and then he'll see a guy finishing fourth or third or second. Sometimes it's the guy who won and he'll recognize the name. It'll be a guy he beat at the Foot Locker or Golden West or a guy he beat out of a spot on the world-junior team.
The start of his sophomore year some of the guys on the cross-country team don't even know him anymore. I mean, sure, he did some great results, he has some history, but compared to his teammates? At the University of Oregon? At that school he's average. Less than average even on his best day. The only people who know him at this point are his old high school coach, his girlfriend and his mom and dad. The track and cross-country athletes, they come into the athletic trainers room to be iced down after some speed work or a brutally long run and he's on a table getting muscle-stem or ultra-sound and they have no idea who he is. Coaches hardly speak to him anymore. And here he is, a world junior team member, high school All-American, six-time state champion. And no one has any idea. No one even cares enough to ask.
Midway through his sophomore year they move him out of the athletic dorms and in with the normal kids. No big difference. Still a bunch of jackasses running around, drinking, smoking until all hours. There was no real change. The rooms were about the same size. He had to share with some guy. No difference. The coaches said it was just until he got back to competing, you know, like he'd be back in the athletic dorms the following year, but really he could tell it was something different. Like with the athletic trainers. It was the same thing there. Every time he tried to schedule an appointment for treatment, they're booked or sometimes they just didn't show. He said -- and it was probably a fact -- that the coaching staff gave up on him. The dorm, the treatments with the athletic trainer, his meal card refused at the athletic cafeteria... it was like they were sending a message to give up.
So he does. He detaches. He just drifts away. He stops going to the athletic trainers for treatments and stops visiting his friends at the athletic dorm. Stops checking in with the coaches. It's like breaking up with a girlfriend. Hard feelings. He's done with it.
He told me once they sent him to a chiropractor his freshman year. The guy tells him he's reached maturity and that his muscles and the forces they exerted during peak performance are too much for his bones. The chiropractor says it's rare but he's heard of it before. Read about it in a journal. He compares it to a gymnast who's out-grown her greatness. He says Jeff has out grown his. He says it happens sometimes.
Well, at first the kid thinks the chiropractor was full of it. Like I said, he got that diagnosis his freshman year, but when the months turn into years and people are like, Jeff Who? it turns into the only logical explanation he can hang his hat on. He finally takes it to heart one day early his junior year when he's wearing a pair of Nike Zooms with the USA colors. He's eating in a dining hall on campus and this kid comes up and asks about the Zooms, and -- come to find out -- those shoes were in a big bag of Nike **** he got when he made the world's team and the other kid says, Hey, I was on the worlds team last year and Jeff says, I was on it back in 2005. I used to be good back in those days.
Back in those days. He said when he uttered those words he knew it was over. He said he had banged his head against the wall long enough and it was time to move on. He said it was a kinda relief.
He stays on scholarship. School pays for his education. Full ride. They can't take his scholarship away if he has a medical explanation for not competing. They don't fight it. Did a press release. It appears in the school newspaper as a sports-brief that his athletic career is done. Not one notices.
Then one day he's in the dorm and some kid comes clomping down the hall in cycling shoes with a bicycle slung over his shoulder and Jeff becomes interested. There's a cycling club on campus and so he joins. He's got some money saved up and someone on the club has a bicycle for sale and he gets them down to $300. It's an old Myatta with down-tube shifters. They have no idea what they're unleashing.
So, this is where I come into the picture. We're at a bicycle race near Corvallis, Ore. It's called Piece of Cake Road Race. First race of the year. Flat, cold, it's like a Belgium classic without the cobbles. They've got a gravel section instead. Anyway, were standing around and I'm telling my guys -- I'm the manager of the Mell's Muffins/Portland Bicycle Centre team -- and I'm giving them the lay of the land: the gravel section, the crosswinds, this really narrow part of road with potholes where it makes more sense to ride on the shoulder, who our protected rider for the day is... things like that -- when this kid comes flying by us. He's all alone. I'm thinking, Okay, some guy out warming up particularly hard, when about five minutes later the entire CAT4-5 field comes blowing by into the finish. I look around and I see the kid leaning on the hood of a car drinking a coffee.
So I ask him, Hey, did you just win that race? And he says, yeah, like it's no big deal. I mean, the kid isn't even breathing hard. He's standing there with coffee in hand and I half expected him to light up a cigarette he's so nonchalant. So I ask him how long he's been racing and he tells me it's his first race. I take interest. I ask him if he's riding for a team and yes he is -- the UofO club team.
I take note. Get his name. I know Russel Stevenson, the faculty adviser for the university club so I call and I ask if it's okay for Jeff to join us for a training ride. He says no problem. So later that week I get home from the training ride and dial Russ up and ask if the kid can join us down in SoCal for Sea Otter and Redlands as a guest rider.
Now, I don't want to play up Mell's Muffin's/Portland Bicycle Centre too much here. We're a regional team but with a national presence. We've put six riders into the pro ranks and we're pretty well funded and highly thought of by the USA Cycling. We put Heath Mahaney into the pro ranks with Jelly Candies and Timothy Christopher on the national team and later with Prime Institutions before they went bust and now he rides for Jittery Jack's, so we've got some street cred. And so, it doesn't surprise me when Russel says yes. Yeah, you bet, man. It'll be a great opportunity for him to ride with your team.
Anyway, to make a long story short, we get down there, to SoCal, and Jeff laps the field twice -- twice! -- in a CAT4 crit and they bump him up to CAT3. The next day at Redlands he solos to a win in the CAT3 road race. He's off the front most of the race. The field marks him the next day and he finishes in the pack. At Sea Otter he drags a break of six guys around a crit course and finishes last in the sprint. The last day he wins the hill climb with the eighth fastest time on the day. Eighth fastest time including the pro riders. He beats guys who have done the Tour de France.
And he's been bicycle racing for six weeks. Six weeks at that point.
Well, we get back to Oregon and they cat him up. He's a CAT2 now. First couple races he takes his lumps. Some because there's two or three guys who really are just as strong, but mostly because he's making colossal mistakes. Stuff like dragging around a break of 10 guys just because he can or sitting on the back of the group in a crosswind. Big mistakes. Nothing subtle about it. The type of mistake you make once; twice if no one is around to point it out. That's really all he needed. Stop making the colossal errors. After two months his technique locks in, he gets race fitness, he figures out Race Tactics-101 and then no one can touch him. He wins the state road championships in early June. Alone. By two minutes at the top of a climb. They cat him up to CAT1.
He started racing in February as a CAT5 and less than five months later he's a CAT1.
Stuff of legend.
Bob Hans was the CEO in charge of marketing at CBS television. He sat behind a massive oak desk, a view of downtown New York City through the tall windows behind him. He liked wood. The naturalness of it. His floors were bamboo and the chairs and the giant conference table and coffee table were made of massive beams and slabs of bleached oak. The furniture was bulky. Hand crafted. Rustic. Everything else in the office was sleek. Aerodynamic. Low profile electronics, laptop, desktop phone. He picked it up.
"Marcie, has Ian Crestwell arrived?"
"No Mr. Hans."
"Okay... Well, show him directly in when he gets here."
"Will do, Mr. Hans."
Hans looked over to his new Trek Madone road bike. He just outfitted it with the carbon fiber deep-dish Bontregger wheels. Leaning next to it a six-by-10-foot hardback laminated poster of Ian Crestwell at the top of Mont Ventoux. Exhausted. Foggy. His arms, eyes cast upward in triumph. The words Making the Team are above his head. His hands, through the magic of Photoshop, are a layer above the letters that spell out the name of the new reality show. Drop shadows for effect.
The big oak door to his office opened. A petite, pretty, business suit secretary stopped at its threshold.
"Mr. Hans, Mr. Crestwell is here to see you."
Mr. Hans stood. Crestwell entered. He strode across the bamboo floor, hand extended. Hans noticed his size as the champion stood in front of him. Smaller than on television. He noticed Crestwell rocking on the balls of his feet. Forward and back. Forward and back. Hands stuffed in pockets. His storied barreled chest pushed out with each nervous bob on his Nike running shoes. Designer jeans. Designer t-shirt. It's an honor, Hans said.
"The pleasure is all mine," Crestwell said. "So, I understand you've got a reality program you want to pitch me? I didn't get a chance to read the synopsis you sent over. Just scanned it. It sounds interesting. Making the Team?"
"Yes. I think this project is perfect for you."
"Well, it would be just about impossible to make it without me."
"Eh, yes... I've heard you are a tough negotiator."