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New Documentary Film Highlights Former UO and North Salem Champion Claudette Groenendaal
By Steve Ritchie / Special to the Statesman Journal
June 27, 2012

Claudette Groenendaal (photo courtesy of Oregon Athletic Media Services)
EUGENE, Ore. - The story of the University of Oregon's acclaimed track & field program—including such notable icons as Steve Prefontaine and Bill Bowerman—is well-known across the country and even around the world. At least the men's track & field program is.

Ellen Schmidt-Devlin, a former UO track standout from 1976-79 and an executive at Nike for 27 years, realized that, while the story of the UO men had been told well and often in books and films, there was another story still waiting to be told—that of the Oregon women.

Schmidt-Devlin, now retired from Nike, has worked for nearly three years on We Grew Wings, a fascinating, feature-length documentary film telling the story of two University of Oregon women's track and field teams. The world premiere of We Grew Wings will take place in Eugene - fittingly during the Olympic Trials run—on Saturday, June 30 at 9 p.m. at the historic McDonald Theatre.

The two teams featured in the film are an era—and a world—apart. The 1985 team, which won Oregon's first and only outdoor national championship in track & field, was composed of young women who really represented the first female athletes to have gained a semblance of equality of athletic opportunity, due to the implementation of Title IX.

The second team examined in the movie is the 2011 UO squad, led by Jordan Hasay, English Gardner and Melissa Gergel, which won the indoor NCAA title and had aspirations of winning the second-ever NCAA outdoor title for Oregon. Despite the many obvious differences between the two teams, there are also striking similarities, and the film examines the personal struggles and triumphs of both groups of athletes in a compelling manner.

The film mixes interviews with the former and the current Ducks with archival footage that is, in itself, worthy of attention. Watching Mary Decker Slaney and a young Leanne Warren, a UO freshman at the time, competing at the 1980 Olympic Trials is a rare treat for fans of track and field.

Salem-area track fans will also enjoy learning about or recalling, depending on your age (recalling in my case obviously), Claudette Groenendaal, who is one of the five featured athletes from the 1985 team in the movie. It's recognition that is clearly well-deserved by a woman who has to be one of the greatest athletes in any sport to come out of Salem.

Groenendaal's family moved to Salem from Los Angeles when she was eight years old, and she attended Parrish Junior High and graduated from North Salem in 1981. She was a state champion in the 1500 meters as a sophomore and placed in the top three in both the 800 and 1500 as a junior and senior.

Claudette Groenendaal (photo - Tom and Janet Heinonen archival collection)

Following high school, Groenendaal chose to attend Oregon over Stanford because of "the excitement in the air. Stanford was a great school, but it was hard as a runner not to go to Oregon."

Her break-through year at Oregon was in 1984. Groenendaal won the NCAA 1500 meter title and took second in the 800 meters. She finished sixth in the 800 meters in the Olympic Trials that year.

Groenendaal's success continued in 1985, her senior year at Oregon. She won another NCAA championship, this time in the 800, and was second in the 1500. She went on to win the US championship in the 800, and, running in an international meet in Bern, Switzerland that summer, Groenendaal ran 1:58.33 in the 800, breaking the collegiate record.

Groenendaal's 800 meter record would not be touched for 25 years until Phoebe Wright of Tennessee broke it in 2010. Groenendaal remains the UO record holder in the 800 and is third all-time in the 1500. Overall, she was six-time All-American, competed in five Olympic Trials, and was ranked among the top American runners in her events from 1984-1996.

After graduating from Oregon with a degree in psychology, Groenendaal joined the Nike-sponsored Athletics West training group based in Eugene. In 1988 she moved to Southern California to train with Coach Joe Douglas and the Santa Monica Track Club.

Now 48, Groenendaal still lives in Southern California and is the Director of Risk and Insurance for Health Net, Inc. She flew up to see the Olympic Trials 800 meter finals on Monday, and is staying in Eugene to see the rest of the Trials, as well as the premiere of the film on Saturday.

Groenendaal said she has not seen the entire film yet, but believes it will have historical importance, and hopes it will be a source of inspiration for young athletes.

"I would like to have the younger kids see this and feel inspired. I would like it to touch them in a way that the role models I had like Mary Decker paved the way for us. Hopefully it will be an inspiration for other athletes. There aren't many movies made about women athletes."

Claudette Groenendaal (photo courtesy of University of Oregon libraries archival collection)

Groenendaal recalled how she was mentored and inspired when she was a 13-year-old just getting started in running.

"I would come home from a long day of berry picking and take a shower. Then my mom would drive me over to the Salem Track Club practice. There were these two very kind gentlemen, John Frey and Lee Fields, who took me under their wings. They were my first mentors and would take me on these long runs."

Among the storylines in the movie is how Groenendaal, in turn, had a major impact on UO pole vaulter Melissa Gergel, who as a senior in 2011 had been hampered all season by injury.

"For the movie, they had the 1985 team meet with the current team," Groenendaal said. She told the current Ducks about how she mentally approached competition.

"I really believed in myself. I strongly believed and knew that if I was with someone with a lap to go, I would win."

Listening to Groenendaal talk about her mental preparation inspired Gergel, who was "freaking out" with worry at the time about just getting to nationals.

"I met Claudette and her story really inspired me," Gergel said on Tuesday. "One story that she told me really had an effect on me and I just clung to that . . . it was my inspiration going into NCAAs." At the NCAA meet, Gergel survived a nerve-wracking competition and went on to win the national championship in a big-time upset.

"It gave me chills just hearing about (Gergel)," Groenendaal said. "We will always have that bond between us. It's kind of funny because I'm a distance runner and she is a pole vaulter, and how she took that story and applied it to herself is something I don't understand."

Groenendaal is still inspiring others with her commitment to health and fitness. She continues to train with the Santa Monica Track Club as often as she can. She even looks forward to turning 50 in two years because she is hoping to break the women's 50-54 age group world record of 2:16 in the 800.

Looking back, Groenendaal marvels at her journey from a track-crazy teenager to world-class competitor who ran in the Trials, Grand Prix meets in Europe, and major international events like the Goodwill Games.

"I went to school at Oregon at a magical time. We had an amazing group of people (on the 1985 team) . . . It's an amazing experience growing up in Salem admiring and idolizing all these athletes and then fast forward all these years and I'm there in the same meets and competing with them. It was like a dream. It really was. It was living out any runner's fantasy.

I'm very lucky to have gone to a school like Oregon that nurtured their athletes and it was such a warm place that just embraced the athletes. Not just the university but also the community of Eugene and Salem too. The support that you get just nurtures excellence and brings the best out in you."


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