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Ducks Return to the Track

Jan 28, 2021

Robert Johnson's preseason meeting with the Oregon track and field and cross country programs Monday went on a little longer than normal.

After all, the Ducks don't just have a season to prepare for; they also had to discuss protocols for traveling to and competing in meets held during the ongoing pandemic. Still, that couldn't dampen the mood.

"The kids' enthusiasm level," Johnson said the next day, in a video conference with local media, "is through the roof."

Not since last March have the Ducks donned their school colors and taken to the track against opponents from other schools. Oregon was a day away from competing at the 2020 NCAA Indoor Championships when the pandemic brought the meet, and the rest of the season, to a halt.

Competition finally resumes for the Ducks on Friday, when they open the two-day Razorback Invitational, hosted by Arkansas. That kicks off an indoor schedule that will include at least three other meets, scheduled concurrently with a cross country schedule that also currently includes four meets.

The NCAA Indoor Championships also will be hosted by Arkansas, March 11-13, while the NCAA Championships in cross country will be hosted by Oklahoma State on March 15.

For the last year, the Ducks have trained with and against each other but they're finally poised to enter a meet as a team again, after nearly a year.

"You can hear the excitement level in some of their questions; you can see the excitement at practice," Johnson said. "Just a different vibe around the facility this week."

The Razorback Invitational has been a regular event on Oregon's competition calendar in recent years. But this weekend will feel different, in multiple ways.

For one thing, Johnson said, the Ducks took more than 70 athletes to the meet a year ago. This year, due to COVID-19 protocols, entries are limited to 27 men and 27 women.

Also, the Ducks generally have had the benefit of at least one "rust-buster" prior to heading to Arkansas. This year, the rust better have been busted in training sessions, intra-squad meets and time trials earlier this winter.
"There won't be any off events," Johnson said. "We're going to hit the ground running."

Right from the start, the Ducks will be looking for marks this week that get them qualified for nationals. But while they're laser focused on that goal, Johnson knows his program will need to be ready to adjust, too, in the event the pandemic forces a change of plans along the way.

"One thing this pandemic has taught us is patience beyond belief," Johnson said. "So, have a plan A, have a plan B and keep having plans, to be able to adjust. …

"Nothing is set in stone. You need to be as flexible as possible. Our schedule hopefully indicates that, giving us maximum flexibility based on the curveballs we might get thrown."

Among the athletes who will need to be most flexible in the coming weeks are Oregon's distance runners, who face the prospect of the indoor and cross country seasons being contested concurrently.

The Ducks plan to host a cross country meet Feb. 5 at Lane Community College, and another there two weeks later, on Feb. 19. That second weekend also will feature an indoor event in North Carolina, and the NCAA Championships in cross country will be held two days after the indoor championship meet concludes.

How to balance all that? Let the results from meets in the coming weeks determine the best course for each student-athlete, Johnson said.

"That's been a big topic of conversation, one of those ones we're still working out," Johnson said. "But the ultimate theme there is for us to put athletes and put the University of Oregon in position to be successful. …

"Let them compete in cross country meets, let them compete in track meets, then get a better idea based on where they are."

The Ducks don't have an outdoor track and field schedule to announce yet, with gleaming new Hayward Field awaiting the first chance to host a meet.

Johnson said Oregon hopes to host a competitive event in April. That event's format, down to the basics of how many teams could participate, is still in preliminary planning stages. But Johnson is optimistic it can be a reality, a decision to be made in coordination with Lane County Public Health.

"They'll let us know," he said. "I think it's something we can do; I think it's something we can do safely. It's just a matter of working out the details and what that looks like."