EUGENE - Pacific University Library Director Marita Kunkel was in the stands at Hayward Field in Eugene last Monday night, watching her son, Ian Dobson, compete in the 5,000-meter race at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.
Tuesday, on her way back to Forest Grove, she stopped at a bookstore and bought a travel guide to China .
The purchase was made with good reason: Kunkel hopes to travel to Beijing next month to see Dobson compete in the 2008 Summer Olympics.
In front of a cheering crowd of 20,949 on June 30, Dobson used a strong finish to grab a spot on the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team.
The outcome of the race was in doubt until the very end. Still in fifth place with 150 meters to go in the race, Dobson was running out of time. When two of the runners in front of him began to lag on the homestretch, Dobson kicked past them and nearly caught the second place finisher, Matt Tegenkamp, the U.S. record holder in the two-mile event.
Dobson's time in the tactical race was 13:29.76, just two seconds behind the winner, Bernard Lagat, the current 5,000-meter world champion.
Kunkel watched the race from the stands, surrounded by a large contingent of family and friends from Klamath Falls, where Dobson grew up and graduated from high school in 2000. After the race ended she made her way closer and "someone very kindly let me on to the track where I was able to talk to Ian a little bit," she recalled.
Asked later what their conversation had been like, Kunkel said, "I have no idea what I said to him after the race. I was really overwhelmed."
The seeds of distance running success were planted early on for Dobson, who is an only child. Growing up in a home where sports were encouraged, "Ian loved sports, swimming and soccer especially," Kunkel said. "(Distance) running is not great for little kids, but by middle school it was clear he was a pretty good runner."
Dobson "eventually dropped swimming and soccer," and by his freshman year in high school "he knew running would be his best sport," Kunkel noted.
Kunkel and Ian's father, who now lives in Eugene, were both recreational runners throughout Ian's childhood. Kunkel, who still runs today, downplays her running ability but admits that at one point in her life she was "pretty serious" about it.
Her very respectable personal record time of 3 hours, 9 minutes in the marathon underscores the point.
Kunkel said that as parents, they encouraged and supported Ian's running, but never pushed him.
"I always had so much confidence in Ian, but it was not my plan for him to earn a college scholarship through running," Kunkel said. "In some ways, he has always surprised me - and he always exceeded my expectations."
Ian credits his mother on his athletic blog, where he writes about a favorite time in high school when the two of them would go to a nearby lake for a trail run together.
"We would go to the Lake of the Woods," said Kunkel. "There is a great trail to Fish Lake. It's uphill and you go through lava flows and forest.
"Our grand strategy of 'running together' was to start at the same time and finish at the same time. If he was going to run for 90 minutes, we would both turn around at 45 minutes and head back. I would see him at the start for about 30 seconds and then he would be out of sight. Then we would take a swim in the lake and drive into Ashland. Those were special times for me."
After a high school running career at Klamath Falls that was highlighted by achieving prep All-American status twice, Dobson accepted a scholarship offer from Stanford University. Ironically, the Stanford head coach at the time was Vin Lannana, now the director of track and field and associate athletic director at the University of Oregon .
Although he struggled initially with the transition from high school to college running, Dobson achieved great success at Stanford. He won an NCAA indoor championship and was second outdoors. He graduated with a degree in political science in 2005.
After college, Dobson started training with a group of elite runners, including training partner and good friend Ryan Hall, who won the U.S. marathon trials last fall under the tutelage of coach Terrance Mahon. The group splits time between Mammoth Lakes, Calif., and San Diego.
The Olympic team berth is actually Dobson's second international team. He won a spot on the 2005 World Championship team, and competed in the 5000 meters in Helsinki .
"Ian really likes his coach and Terrance does a great job with his runners. He will have a high percentage of his runners competing in the Olympics," Kunkel said.
Kunkel herself came to Pacific University just a year ago, after most recently serving as library director at the Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls, where she worked for 11 years.
She's enthusiastic about the change.
"Pacific is a great place to work," Kunkel said. "I wasn't really looking for a new job, but the university and the library held great appeal for me."
Kunkel didn't want to venture any guesses about her son's future, though she did say she thought he would continue as a professional runner in the near future. She also can imagine him coaching someday.
"Ian came and talked to the Forest Grove High School cross country runners last fall. I know he really enjoyed talking with them because he mentioned it several times," his mother said. "I can imagine him working with high school kids."
Kunkel said she would be discussing her possible trip to China with her son very soon. His immediate plans are to race a couple of times in Europe before going to China for the Games, which begin in mid-August. While once again Dobson will not appear on anyone's list of favorites, his mother knows that he has a history of surprising her - and exceeding all expectations.