By Robert McKinney, Athletics Communications Director, (503) 370-6110
SALEM, Ore. – While attending high school, Keith Carlson competed as a cross country runner at Bainbridge High School in Bainbridge Island, Washington, and was a coxswain for a club team in rowing. He experienced success in both sports, but thought he had a chance to compete in rowing at the NCAA Division I level. So he looked into attending the University of Washington.
But things didn't work out, and he considered attending Oregon State University as a coxswain. Carlson said that at the same time "I applied to Willamette University just to have a running option" to compete in track and field if he didn't go to OSU.
"Coach McGuirk called me," Carlson said regarding his first contact with Willamette's head cross country and track and field coach. "Then the rowing option (at Oregon State) fell apart … And it's worked out great."
Instead of telling a sad story about his athletic future disappearing at both Washington and Oregon State, Carlson, a freshman, talks about his fun, exciting and successful experience as a runner at Willamette.
"Talking with Coach McGuirk was definitely the biggest factor in helping me decide to go here," Carlson said. "I also knew some people from my school who ran at Whitman and they said Willamette was a powerhouse in the conference, so that was definitely pretty cool. We talked on the phone, then my dad and I drove down and visited. Coach McGuirk gave us a tour of the running facilities … and I just really liked it all."
In the fall of 2015, Carlson was a member of the Willamette men's cross country team which won the Northwest Conference title, placed third at the West Regional and received a team bid to the NCAA Championships. Carlson took 10th place at the NWC meet to earn Second Team All-NWC recognition. He was 54th at the West Regional and placed 200th among scorers at his first NCAA meet. Willamette finished 28th in the nation in the team standings.
"His development was fun to watch," McGuirk said. "He immediately looked up to the seniors, who had already won three straight NWC titles, and was eager to learn from them about how to collect a fourth. He then effectively applied that knowledge out on the cross country course."
For Carlson, being part of such a successful program was a great experience.
"I've never been on such a competitive team," Carlson said. "In high school, during my senior year, I was the fastest on the team. Here we have a lot of fast guys."
The depth on the team helped Willamette win the NWC team title. The Bearcats achieved a strong score of 31 at the NWC Championships.
"The coolest part is that I was our fifth man. We won by quite a lot," Carlson noted. His 10th place finish completed the team score.
It was then on to the West Regional, where Willamette took third place. Only the top two teams at each Regional earn automatic bids to the NCAA Championships, but the Bearcats received a team at-large bid to compete for the team and individual titles.
Carlson faced another new experience when he competed for Willamette at the NCAA meet.
"It was really fun. And everyone was really serious," Carlson said about participating at the NWC Championships in Winneconne, Wisconsin. "We had already competed in Wisconsin during the season. The race definitely was really cool."
McGuirk said the postseason experience was valuable for Carlson. He was the only freshman among Willamette's seven runners at the NCAA meet, as he competed with four seniors and two sophomores.
"Any time a freshman gets to compete in the championship meets it is of great value," McGuirk commented.
After completing a wonderful cross country season, Carlson was ready to take on a new challenge … his first ever season in track and field.
"Keith has adapted very well," McGuirk said regarding the transition to track and field. "He has been very enthusiastic about the new experience. He is really tough. He is coachable. He is a great teammate."
It has taken time and a positive approach for Carlson to adapt to his new sport. His practice regimen is significantly different than the lengthy runs associated with cross country.
"Getting in shorter, quicker distances," Carlson said, such as 300-meter or 400-meter repeats. "It's been tough to find that fast, quick speed."
He added that running those sprints is a key factor in preparing to compete. "It's an important part, especially on the track, instead of cross country, because people will close fast (kick) at the end of the race. There's less of that in cross country," Carlson said.
McGuirk has been pleased with Carlson's work during practices. "He brings energy every day. He does not take energy from the team. We stress the importance of that on a regular basis," McGuirk commented.
Every time Carlson has competed this spring, he has set a new personal record. He has achieved continued success in part because he's running in track events for the time. Part of it is his determination to do well, and part of it his willingness to practice.
He has competed in the 5,000-meter run twice, improving from 16:19.72 the first time to 15:39.67 at the Willamette Invitational. He has participated in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at three meets, most recently earning a time of 9:59.37, an improvement of 27.36 seconds from his first competitive race. At the John Knight Twilight, he ran the 1,500-meter run for the first time. Six meets … six personal records.
The steeplechase poses its own problems for an athlete new to the event. As with everything else in his young Willamette running career, Carlson has taken on the challenge, while looking to the coaches and the older members of the team for guidance and support.
"It's just been a challenge to really figure out how to attack it," Carlson said. "Which I think is good because I'm starting to figure it out more and more. It silently takes the energy out of you."
One of the battles within each race in the steeplechase is dealing with the water jump.
"You want to get one foot in the water," Carlson noted. "And when you bring the other foot forward you put in out of the water." The result is a relatively smooth transition from water to the track and less chance of slipping or falling.
This week, Carlson's focus is on the steeplechase and the 5,000-meter run at the 2016 NWC Track and Field Championships, which are set for Friday (April 22) and Saturday (April 23) at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon.
In the 3,000-meter steeplechase, Carlson will run alongside Willamette athletes Jacob Shafi, Patrick Loftus and Hunter Matthies. The steeplechase is scheduled for 3:20 p.m. on Friday. Carlson will be joined in the 5,000-meter run by senior teammate Yonny Castillo. The 5,000 is slated for Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
Carlson is part of a group of athletes who will continue to practice and compete following the NWC Championships.
"I want Keith to just keep improving to set himself up for a great sophomore year," McGuirk said.
As for how much improvement Carlson can make, McGuirk added "The sky is the limit. He can be very good."
Carlson is majoring in computer science and may seek a double major in mathematics.
"That's what my dad does," Carlson said. "And I've done it, too. Whenever there's a computer or math challenge, it's fun to work it out."
His experiences in the classroom have been exciting, too.
"All of the professors in computer science and math have been great," Carlson commented. "The math professors have been really inspiring."
There may not be much spare time for a freshman student-athlete who's competing in two sports and working on two majors. According to Carlson, when he gets some free time, he likes to hang out with people … just resting.
He also said that he really enjoys spending time with teammates from cross country or track and field. One such occasion was earlier this spring. "We went to the coast for Spring Break so that was fun," Carlson said.