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Tracy Sundlun

Year of Graduation: 
'70
Tracy Sundlin

"I was hooked. I had always had an eye for movement and technique, and now I had found my sport.”

By Debbie Kane

A 12-year-old tennis player, Tracy Sundlun ’70 had just won a local tournament in Washington, D.C. He was walking back to school when he noticed a discus thrower practicing and thought something didn’t look right. Feeling cocky, he stopped and told the athlete what he thought. The thrower, who turned out to be the city record-holder, magnanimously took his advice. Fortunately, it worked. “I found a calling that afternoon,” Sundlun says. “I was hooked. I had always had an eye for movement and technique, and now I had found my sport.”

That calling launched Sundlun’s distinguished career coaching high school, college, club and Olympic track athletes. It also led him to where he is now: organizer of the successful Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon and Half-Marathon Series and senior vice president of San Diego-based Competitor Group, Inc. He’s been involved in five Olympics as a coach, manager or administrator, including head men’s track coach for Antiqua and Barbuda in 1976. This summer, he is head manager of the U.S. men's Olympic track and field team in Rio.

Through it all, Sundlun has stayed true to a core belief, fostered at Exeter, that sports should involve athletes of all ages and abilities and impact as many people as possible. “None of this would’ve happened if it hadn’t been for Exeter,” he says. “I truly believe what happens in every sport on every field there contributes to the academic and social growth of each Exeter student, and there should be more athletic and sports requirements now, not fewer — like it used to be.”

Sundlun immersed himself in Exeter’s track and field program. As a prep, he became the team manager for coach Ralph Lovshin. He managed the track and field team all four years in addition to playing other sports, and Lovshin began to mentor him as a coach. During summers, he coached recreational men’s and women’s track clubs in Washington, D.C.; his senior project was creating a dorm Olympics. “The beauty of Exeter is, if you have something that drives you, they let you take it as far as you can take it,” he says.

After Exeter, he followed his coaching dream; coaching the D.C. Striders in the early 1970s gave Sundlun entrée into Olympic competition. Two members of his team became Olympic qualifiers: Maurice Peoples for the 4x400-meter relay and Bill Dinneen for the hammer throw. Dinneen competed for Puerto Rico, and at 20 years old, Sundlun was invited to the 1972 Olympics in Munich as Puerto Rico’s assistant track and field coach — the youngest Olympic coach ever.

It was an incredible opportunity that turned heartbreaking. On Sept. 5, 1972, Palestinian terrorists took nine Israeli athletes hostage in the Olympic Village, killing two. The nightmare lasted 20 hours before the remaining hostages and six others were killed. Sundlun, who is Jewish, had many conflicting thoughts. “What’s going to happen to the Olympics? Will they be canceled? How do I keep my athletes focused?” he says. “In athletics there’s plan A, B, or C. There was no plan for this. The Olympics are supposed to promote peace and glorify life; this made no sense.” Although his athletes eventually competed, the tragedy overshadowed the games.

Two years later, Sundlun met Esther Roth, an Israeli sprinter and hurdler who had quit running after her coach was killed in the Munich massacre. Newly married, she was encouraged by her husband to return to the track, and she came to run for Sundlun’s club in California. Roth competed for Israel at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, where she carried the Israeli flag during opening ceremonies, despite receiving death threats. Head coach of Antigua and Barbuda’s Olympic track and field team, Sundlun was already on the field when Roth walked into the stadium. “We locked eyes just before she came out of the tunnel,” Sundlun says. “At the moment she stepped onto the track, she took the flag out of its holder and thrust it into the air, defying them to “kill [her] now.” The crowd went nuts. “I remember the performances of almost everyone I coach, but to this day I can’t remember what she ran in the Games … but that moment is still one of the greatest memories of my time in sports.”

Sundlun has been at the forefront of many major U.S. field milestones. In the early 1970s, he supported Title IX, congressional legislation prohibiting discrimination against women in federally funded education and athletic programs, initiating efforts to create college athletic scholarships for women. He was the original leader in the effort to introduce and involve chiropractic in track and field — a battle for acceptance within the mainstream medical and sports communities. As a college coach in the 1970s for the University of Southern California, and later for the University of Colorado, he coached world-record holding collegiate and Olympic athletes such as Mary Decker, Annette Tånnander, Dana Slater, Tom Andrews and Clancy Edwards.

In 1980, Sundlun got involved with road running and marathons and initiated the first test case, which led to open running as we know it today, with prize money and publicized appearance money. Four years later, he established the National Scholastic Indoor Track & Field Championships, the country’s first national track and field championship for high school athletes. The majority of America’s U.S. Olympic and world champion track and field athletes get national exposure at this New York City event (and its sister outdoor championship in North Carolina), originally created and run under the auspices of New York’s Metropolitan Athletic Congress (MAC). As MAC’s executive director, Sundlun promoted the idea that athletics are academic and social tools that provide stability and goals, help students become better citizens, and create life-changing opportunities. “We created millions of dollars worth of scholarship opportunities,” says Sundlun. “I wanted to create programs for kids that provided each and every opportunity in and through the sport that a child’s body or mind demanded or desired.”

Sundlun’s can-do organizational skills and outreach to runners of all types led him back to California in 1997 to co-found the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon, which has turned into the largest running series in the world. “Unlike traditional races, these were the first themed events with live bands and cheerleaders every mile along the course, pre-race health and fitness expos and a post-race headliner concert. We wanted to take our sport to the people and make the races fun. We were also the first running organization to truly embrace and promote raising money for charity through sponsored runners,” Sundlun says. “People used to roll their eyes and tell me I was crazy.” No one, however, is rolling their eyes over the money Rock ’n’ Roll events raise: more than $320 million net since 1998.

Despite the popularity of road races, Sundlun sees a shift in the sport of distance running. “The activity of running is healthy, but the sport of running is not,” he says. Once considered cultish, running is eagerly embraced by people of all ages. But it’s rare that a marathon runner or track star makes the cover of sports media outlets like Sports Illustrated. Sundlun attributes this in part to the sport itself — “Watching LeBron James slam dunk is more visually interesting than a guy running down a track”— but also to the general public’s perception. What used to be thought of as a major sport now reaches national consciousness only during Olympic years. “We used to be covered by the media for the quality of competition and athleticism,” he says. “Today you get coverage based on the quality of your public relations team.”

Sundlun is humble about his many achievements. He’s happy to still be following his passions. “I’ve lived an absolutely charmed life,” he says. “I’ve never worked a day in my life. My avocation became my occupation. I’m doing work I’m passionate about. It’s very cool to impact so many doing what you love.”