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Tribute to Brian Sell
October 30, 2009 - Erik Brown
Brian Sell win run the New York City Marathon on Sunday and, with his plans to enter dental school next year firmly in place, all indications are this will be Brian’s last race as an elite competitive runner. As one of his biggest fans (there are many), I don’t want to let this moment pass without paying tribute – to the runner and the man.
It’s no secret around here that Brian Sell is a great runner. Even people who don’t pay attention to marathon happenings know that he’s the local kid who made it to the Olympics. But, if you’re not a distance running fanatic, you may not be aware of the folk-hero status that Sell holds, across the nation, in the distance running world. Brian Sell, the working-class underdog who boldly worked and willed himself onto the U.S Olympic Team, is regarded as highly as Steve Prefontaine by many distance running devotees, from near and far. If you think I exaggerate, check out the links at the end of this post.
I’ve had the opportunity to talk with Sell on a couple occasions. Each time, he was very approachable, friendly, down to earth, and just completely unassuming. I first met him at the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame Induction Banquet in April, 2008. The banquet had just concluded and I caught up with Brian and his wife Sarah, as they headed for their car. It was late in the evening, not a good time to attempt an interview, so I just congratulated him on making the U.S. Olympic Team and secured an autograph (thank you Hines Ward).
My second opportunity to talk with Sell occurred at this year’s Altoona Mirror Athlete of the Year banquet. Thanks to Neil Rudel, the Mirror was able to secure Brian as the keynote speaker for the event, and (also thanks to Neil) I had the good fortune to be seated at Sell’s table. It was a golden opportunity, and I was prepared. I had borrowed a cassette tape recorder to tape Brian’s speech and to record an exclusive interview for an ATW blog post. After the speeches and the award presentations, I spent maybe 10 minutes talking with Sell about his Trial’s race, the Olympics, his training, and his plans for the future. Brian’s responses were great. It was vintage Sell commentary and I was sure my blog would be a big hit.
So, you may be wondering… how did I miss this great interview with Brian Sell on ATW? Well, it’s one of those things that I’ll wince about for the rest of my life every time I think about it, and I’m sure if Brian ever sees this blog, he’ll get quite a good laugh. When I got home, I re-wound the tape, hit “play” and… silence... followed by endless, uninterrupted, silence. I had forgotten to turn on the microphone. Aauugghh!!! An old Coast Guard buddy of mine used to say, “You’ve gotta be smarter than the equipment you’re working with.” Aauugghh!!!
I tried to sit down and write from memory, but it just wouldn’t have been the same and the risk of misquoting him was too great. I can recall three things clearly enough to relate them now:
I asked Sell what went through his mind when he passed Dan Browne and moved into third place with about 4 miles left to go at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials. He told me he wasn’t sure what place he was in until he crossed the finish line, or if anyone was coming up behind him, so he just focused on running as hard as he could all the way in.
I asked him what his favorite memory from the Beijing Olympic Games was. He told me that his roommate at the Games was Dathan Ritzenhein, and that the two of them had become good friends.
I asked Brian what his plans were for the next six to twelve months, and what the chances were of seeing him at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. He said planned to do some shorter races over the summer, and that he wanted to run either Chicago or NYC this fall. Beyond that, most of what he had to say is included in the several links you’ll find at the end of this blog. But something he told me that I haven’t seen elsewhere was that he awoke extra early this past Christmas morning to go out for a long run (24 miles if I recall correctly) before Sarah and their baby got awake. He talked about how it will be nice when that isn’t part of his Christmas morning plans. I guess I can understand that!
In his speech at the Mirror’s Athlete of the Year banquet, Sell talked about his early athletic career and pointed out that his accomplishments in high school were actually quite modest compared to many of the athletes in the audience. In fact, he noted that he had never been named an Altoona Mirror Athlete of the Week. He wanted the athletes in the audience to grasp their enormous potential, if they’re willing to work hard. It reminded me of my favorite Brian sell quote - a response he gave to a question at the press conference immediately after the 2008 U.S. Men’s Olympic Marathon Trials:
Runners World: Does this validate your position as one of the top American marathoners?
Sell: I guess the proof is in the pudding. In high school I was probably a minute and something slower than these guys (Hall and Ritzenhein) in the 2 mile. I’m just so happy today. I hope every kid out there who’s not a state champ or district champ looks at what I achieved today and says: Hey if I put in the work, I can do this. This is the happiest ending I can think of.
Here are the links I promised.
Amby Burfoot wrote a very nice tribute to Brian Sell for Runners World. It’s a quick read and I highly recommend it.
Here is a video clip of a very recent interview Runner’s World did with Sell. Good stuff! And, Brian is sporting his famous facial hair – his not-so-secret way of indicating he feels fit and ready to run well.
Running Times has this in-depth feature article discussing Sell’s impending retirement.
Last but not least, here are two terrific YouTube video clips from the 2008 Olympic Trials. What the first one lacks in production quality, it more than makes up for in content. The second video is a bit longer and better quality. Both are must see.
Run Fast Brian!