At the starting gate

At the starting gate

Joe Bails and his father Bill rubbed shoulders with track and field's elite recently, watching the best in the country vie for a place on the U. S. Olympic team bound for Rio.

Bails, of Mahomet, and his father, of Stanwood, Iowa, volunteered at the Olympic Trials, held in Eugene, Ore., from June 30 to July 10. It was the third time the two had volunteered at the Olympic track-and-field trials.

The Bails father-and-son team have worked in credentialing at all the trials where they've volunteered. It's the best way to meet athletes and coaches, Joe Bails said.

Blog Photo"Everyone who wants to get access to limited places needs credentials. That includes athletes, coaches, families, media, the shoe companies," he said. "It's pretty cool. I made credentials for Alberto Salazar, Galen Rupp, Carl Lewis, Sara Hall.

"For the most part, they're down-to-earth. They're people just like us. The difference is they have extraordinary talent," Bails said. "It's fun to meet them and chat with them, even if it is for just a minute."

He met marathoner Ryan Hall and middle-distance runner Sara Hall in 2008 and talked with Ryan Hall for about a half-hour. He saw Sara Hall this year and chatted with her for a few minutes, and his father got a photo with the couple.

Bails met mile runner Alan Webb at a previous meet, and he once sat next to sprinter DeeDee Trotter on a flight, where she showed him her gold medal for the 4x400 relay from the 2004 Olympics.

Blog PhotoHe met Greg McMillan, a well-known running coach, in 2008, and McMillan gave Bails coaching advice. (Bails is a track-and-field and cross-country coach at Mahomet Junior High School and also has a private coaching business.)

One of the highlights at this trials was having lunch with Linda Prefontaine, sister of the famous University of Oregon runner and Olympian Steve Prefontaine, who was killed in a car accident in 1975 at age 24. Both Bailses have a number of items of memorabilia related to Steve Prefontaine, and Bill Bails has communicated online with Linda Prefontaine and built a relationship with her over the years. When he told her he and his son would be in Oregon for the trials, she agreed to meet them.

Their love of Eugene and Hayward Field is another big part of the attraction of attending the trials. Bill Bails — who was a longtime track and cross-country coach before he retired — has been a season-ticket holder for University of Oregon track-and-field meets at Hayward Field since 2000, primarily to get priority tickets for high-profile events there such as the annual Prefontaine Classic track meet in May and the Olympic Trials every four years.

They scheduled their volunteer shifts around the events they wanted to watch. They had tickets for events every day of the trials.

"The 400 (meters), 800 (meters) and 1,500 (meters) are what I want to see. The long jump. I like the shot put. It's cool because of how strong they are and how far they can get it out there," Joe Bails said on the first day of the trials.

He was also excited to see central Illinois athletes competing, including Dani Bunch of Mahomet in the shot put (failed to qualify), Chelsea Blaase of St. Joseph in the 10,0000 meters (finished 16th), and Stephanie Brown of Downs in the 1,500 meters (finished 10th).Blog Photo

Bails coached Bunch when she was in junior high, and Brown was competing against Bails' Mahomet athletes during his first year of coaching.

"It's cool to see these athletes who I saw compete when they were little here in Olympic trials," he said.

"The whole thing is exciting," Bails continued. "It's amazing. There's nothing to compare it to in our area, the excitement that surrounds it, having that many people go to a track meet. And they're all passionate it."

He also ran in the mornings. The shoe manufacturer Brooks held fun runs every morning for anyone who wanted to join in, and Bails ran with them whenever he could.

He met and talked with 800-meter runner Nick Symmonds at the Brooks house. Bails was looking forward to seeing Symmonds run the 800 meters, but Symmonds dropped out due to a torn ligament and stress fracture in his ankle.

"The cool thing is, he was not super-down about it. He's grateful for the fact he's a two-time Olympian. He's grateful that he's been able to do everything he has as an athlete," Bails said. "He's one of best 800 runners in the world, and he's standing there talking to everybody. It's a different sport. (Athletes) don't have entourage. They don't charge you for an autograph."

The best part of being at the trials for Bails, though, was not meeting the stars of track and field, but spending time with his father. Bill Bails wasn't sure he'd be able to volunteer at the trials this year until a few weeks before the two left for Oregon. He's been fighting cancer for several years, and the treatments he's undergoing now have the disease under control to the extent it can be, Joe Bails said. A week before the trials, Bill Bails got cleared to start doing some running again.

"I don't know if we'll be able to do this again," Joe Bails said of working at the trials together.

"We don't always have to talk to each other. We can just hang out."

Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at, or follow her at Her blog is at

Photos: Top, Joe Bails, left, and his father Bill Bails in Eugene, Ore. Middle: Joe Bails poses with 800-meter runner and NCAA record holder Donavan Brazier at the Olympic Track and Field Trials. Bottom: Joe Bails with Stephanie Brown, a 1,500-meter runner who grew up in Downs. Photos provided by Joe Bails.

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