Steele, Potter well-traveled

Brett Angel

Minnesota sprinters Mitch Potter and Adam Steele have earned their share of frequent flyer miles this summer.

Since competing in the NCAA championships in Sacramento, Calif., two months ago, Potter and Steele have traveled to the Dominican Republic (for the Pan American Games), back to California twice (for time trials and the U.S. Championships) and most recently flew to France, where they will compete in the World Track and Field Championships beginning Aug. 23 in Paris.

And this is supposed to be the offseason.

“Everybody asks us how we can handle such a long season competing since January,” Steele said last Thursday before departing for Europe. “But we really don’t know any different. We just keep coming out to practice every day.”

Both Steele, the reigning NCAA 400-meter champion and Potter, who captured the 400-meter gold at the Pan American games Aug. 8, will represent the United States in the prelims of the 4×400-meter relay Aug. 30.

Although the U.S. team competing in the finals will likely be composed of professional runners with more international experience, Potter and Steele will be the first Gophers to compete for Team USA at the World Championships in coach Phil Lundin’s eight years at Minnesota.

Former Big Ten 400-meter champion and All-American Tom Gerding earned a spot on the 2001 U.S. team but never competed.

Potter and Steele qualified for the eight-man relay pool by finishing fifth and sixth, respectively, in the open 400-meters at the U.S. Championships in Palo Alto, Calif., in June.

Finishing in the top three would have qualified them for the open 400-meters in Paris, but as young collegians – both will be seniors this fall – Potter and Steele are just happy to make the trip.

“This meet is easily at the top of the list,” Steele said. “The World Championships and the Olympics are on the same level.”

For Potter, competing at a world-class level is something he’s had on his mind since the beginning of his collegiate career.

“When I came in as a freshman I knew I would someday run in the Olympics,” Potter said. “This year went so well for me that I can run these kinds of times pretty much effortlessly.”

Despite his high expectations, this year was really the first chance in his three seasons at Minnesota that Potter has had the opportunity to realize his potential. The 2003 spring season was the first time he made it past the first outdoor meet without falling victim to injuries.

For Steele, the World Championships will be the latest step in a series of unexpected events during the past three months.

After finishing second to Potter at the 2003 Big Ten championships, Steele sneaked into the NCAA field with a fourth place finish at the Midwest Regional.

Two weeks later, he edged Potter and South Carolina’s Otis Harris for an unlikely NCAA championship in the 400-meters. His time of 44.57 seconds was a full second faster than his previous best and the fastest time in the world up to that point in 2003.

“I anticipated Adam might be an All-American, but I never anticipated he would develop to a world-class level,” Lundin said. “It’s been just a delight to watch as he has evolved.”

Spending his summer as a world traveler is quite a change for Steele, who said it is the first time he can remember he hasn’t had a summer job.

At this time last year Steele and teammate Doug Swenson were working as carnies at the Minnesota and Iowa state fairs and heading to motorcycle rallies in their spare time.

“I made a lot of money. It was an experience,” Steele said. “This year I was going to do it again but I can’t because of all the traveling.”

Lundin, who has enjoyed the swift success of his two rising stars as much as they have, makes no attempt to mask the amount of pride he receives from seeing all they have accomplished.

“To see a couple Minnesota guys make the big time has been great,” Lundin said. “It’s been one of the more gratifying experiences I’ve had as a coach.”

Brett Angel welcomes comments at [email protected]