Shay takes NCAA title on idol's old stomping grounds
By NOAH AMSTADTER
Editor's note: After the most successful spring sports season in Notre Dame history, The Observer recaps what happened after the spring academic semester ended. This four-part series will continue until Thursday, Sept. 6.
Ryan Shay idolized Steve Prefontaine since high school. He's seen all the movies, read the books. Shay even has articles about the former Olympian taped up on his bedroom wall.
So last fall when the Irish distance runner found out that the 2001 NCAA Championships were to be held at the late 10,000-meter star's old track at the University of Oregon, he set a goal.
"When I found out last year that the NCAA's were going to be in Eugene I was like, `If I'm going to win, that's where I want to win.'"
Shay is now a fifth-year senior completing his final year of eligibility on the Notre Dame cross-country team. And Shay, who finished seventh at the NCAA's in 2000 after running a Notre Dame-record and Olympic trial-qualifying 28:26 in the 10,000-meters at the Mount Sac Relays in California, never swayed from his goal.
On May 30, the fourth-seeded Shay embarrassed some of America's best runners, taking his first-ever national championship in a time of 29:05.44, more than 20 seconds ahead of second-place Murray Link of Arkansas. Shay's win was Notre Dame's first NCAA outdoor title since 1956.
"It felt great when I crossed the finish line," Shay said. "It was one of my goals coming into Notre Dame as a freshman was to win an NCAA Championship."
Shay's win was as much a testament to his mental strength as to his physical endurance. In 2000, Shay entered the NCAA meet with his time at Mount Sac ranking him among the top collegiate runners. But his opponents, many of whom were also competing in the 5,000-meters, went out slow, then kicked past Shay in the second half of the race.
"Before  NCAA's, I told myself, `I'm a 10K runner. This is going to be a 10K race from the start. Anybody who wants to go out slow, this isn't going to be the race for them.'" Shay said.
And when the gun went off, Shay sat back for the first 300 meters. Then he noticed how slow the pace was. So he sped it up, carrying a group of four or five runners along with him. The other runners, perhaps seeing Shay as behaving like a "rabbit," chose not to try to keep up. By the halfway point, it was just Shay and Link.
"I told myself that if the only person I had to beat was this guy, then I'm going to win," Shay said. "I was feeling great. I knew I had a better kick than he did. So with five laps to go I just picked it up and as soon as I did he didn't respond to my move and with three laps to go I had a huge lead on him."
With three laps left, Irish head coach Joe Piane yelled at Shay, telling them that if he stayed on his feet the race was his. Shay did, and he took the title.
But Shay's NCAA adventure didn't end there. The senior had also previously ran a qualifying time in the 5,000-meters and was scheduled to run that race two nights later.
On Thursday morning, the day after the 10,000-meters, Piane asked Shay if he wanted to compete in his other race.
"I'm like, `You know what, I really don't think I want to,'" Shay said. "So he said, `You don't have to answer right now, but tonight. And even if you don't know tonight, the race isn't until 7 or 8 tomorrow night. But on Friday morning, Shay decided he felt decent and chose to run after all. Shay's goal was to top Dan Garrett's 1988 school-record time of 13:35.52. But the first lap went out slow, so Shay changed his focus.
"I was thinking, `Okay, that's out of the question. What should my goal be now?'" Shay said. "So I was like, `Okay, make All-American. From that point on I was just racing to make All-American. I wasn't really concerned with time."
Shay reached that goal, finishing sixth overall. Of the runners competing in both the 5,000- and 10,000-meters, only Stanford's Jonathon Riley, who won the 5,000 after finishing a disappointing tenth in the 10,000, finished ahead of Shay in the shorter race.
When Shay looked up at the scoreboard, he saw that his time was 13:52.45.
He had topped Garrett's record by a mere second.
Shay's 13 total points were enough to give the Irish a 21st overall finish, even though Shay was the only male runner competing.
All Sports Stories for Wednesday, September 5, 2001