Track coaches agree that success in the 800-meter run requires a nearly impossible blend of a sprinter's speed and a miler's endurance. So Brown's track-and-field director, Bob Rothenberg '65, can't stop pinching himself that the Bears entered this year's outdoor season on the winged heels of Trinity Gray '00, a true master of this demanding event.
Over the past year and a half, Gray has been steadily making the transition from outstanding collegiate athlete to one of national and international stature. Of the seven indoor and outdoor NCAA championships held since Gray arrived at Brown, for example, he has now qualified to compete in all but one.
Gray earned his seventh All-American pick by finishing fourth in this year's NCAA 800-meter final, which took place in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in March. At last year's NCAA indoor track-and-field championships, Gray finished second in the 800-meter, an event in which both he and winner Derrick Peterson of the University of Missouri broke the previous indoor collegiate record. Ranked fifth in the world at the 800 during the 1999 indoor season, Gray last year shared Brown's Fritz Pollard Award with football star and current New England Patriot Sean Morey '99.
A month before going to the NCAAs in March, Gray displayed remarkable versatility at the Indoor Heptagonal Championships, leading Brown to a second-place team finish - its best finish in the Heps since 1989 - in competition against the other Ivy League schools and Navy. To help juice up Brown's team score, Gray sat out the 800 and instead entered and won both the 500- and 1,000-meter races. He also anchored Brown's 4x800-meter relay squad to a come-from-behind victory in that event. To no one's surprise, Gray was named the outstanding athlete at the meet while earning first team All-Ivy honors for each of his events. The United States Track Coaches Association then named him regional indoor Athlete of the Year.
Gray's running style resembles that of the all-out sprinter he once was. He credits Rothenberg with helping him build up the strength and endurance he needed to make the transition to middle-distance events. But Gray, who is from Yeadon, Pennsylvania, has stuck with his lifelong racing strategy of getting ahead early and staying there. He believes this is the best way to achieve his loftiest goal: to break the world 800-meter record.
"I'm trying to run a fast time," says Gray, "and to do that I've got to get out fast and try to hold on as much as I can. I know that in order to break the world record, I'm going to have to go out fast. If I slow down and run a faster second lap, it is not going to help me get there."
Rothenberg can only watch and wish him well. "Trinity runs very, very aggressively for a middle-distance runner," he says. "He likes to go to the front and push the pace. That has two advantages: it keeps him away from the problems that can develop in a pack and it takes other people out of their race pattern by forcing them to go out faster than they might normally want to go." The disadvantage, however, is that it leaves Gray vulnerable to runners, such as Derrick Peterson, who have the kick to nudge ahead of him at the tape.
This year, Gray is learning to pace himself, if not in individual races then over the entire track-and-field season. Although he has already qualified for July's U.S. Olympic trials in Sacramento, California, much of his training and racing this spring is geared toward doing well enough in Sacramento to earn a ticket to Sydney this fall. "He'll be working as hard as he's ever had to," says Rothenberg, "to try and succeed at a very high level. He'll run hard for Brown, but he'll be trying to peak in July, not in April or May."
"Last year wasn't even the tip of the iceberg," says a confident Gray. "I feel like I'm ready to take it to the next level. I'm not going to set any limits on myself with times, but I'm going for the absolute best I can do. The stronger I get, and the longer I can hold on at the end, the less people there will be who can catch me."