Sportsmanship isn’t dead after all. You just have to know where to look to find it. Here’s one place to start: Trac Norris and Bryce Miller.
They have quietly become archrivals on the track. Norris is from Utah Valley University and Miller from Missouri-Kansas City, and their races — usually in the 3,000-meter steeplechase — are epic struggles against the other. Last week, they waged their fifth race in a year, this time in Austin, Texas, in the NCAA West Regional track and field preliminaries. With a berth in the NCAA track and field finals on the line, they produced another stirring fight to the finish; their dual was decided by two-hundredths of a second, which is considerably less than the blink of an eye.
The rivalry has all the elements for tension, for cold shoulders, for silence, for giving each other a wide berth. Instead, this is what happened. Norris and Miller ate breakfast together the morning after one of their races. After every race, they congratulate the other and exchange high fives. They warm up for races together and afterward run their cool-down laps together.
“We probably communicate twice a week, just checking in to see how training is going and keeping the camaraderie going,” says Miller.
“There’s a lot of respect there,” says Norris. “Even though we compete against each other and have lots of reasons to hate each other, we have become friends.”
Miller grew up in Wisconsin, where he was a high school state champion distance runner and a basketball player. Norris grew up in Panguitch, where he played basketball and won multiple state championships on the track under the direction of his coach/father Troy, a former hurdler for Southern Utah University. Trac’s name pretty much assured his athletic destiny — it’s pronounced “TRACK.” He left UVU after his freshman year to serve a mission for the Mormon Church. When he returned, he found a new rival in Miller, a freshman at the time.
At the 2014 Mt. SAC Relays in California, Norris placed second in the steeplechase with Miller right behind him in third.
At the 2014 Western Athletic Conference outdoor championships, Norris was first and Miller a close second.
This winter they met again in the mile at the WAC indoor championships. This time Miller outkicked Norris to win the race, with his rival second.
They met again in the steeplechase at the WAC outdoor championships, which were held in Orem. Once again, the rivals were in lockstep much of the last lap and Miller had the better kick. Miller was first, Norris a close second, giving them a 2-2 record against one another on the track.
The next morning, with his team still in Orem, Miller found Norris on Facebook and messaged him to ask if he wanted to go on a training run. “I told him I take Sundays off, but invited him over for breakfast with me and my wife,” says Norris. “Our friendship sort of began there.”
Both of them had qualified for the NCAA West Region preliminaries in Austin, Texas. The steeplechase prelims were divided into three heats of 12, and the top three finishers in each heat would automatically qualify for the NCAA championships in Eugene, Oregon, plus the next three fastest times. As fate would have it, Norris and Miller were in the same heat.
“I was ecstatic he was in my heat,” says Miller. “We run similar race strategies. We talked about trying to get two WAC guys into the NCAA finals. That was a big goal for us building up to regionals.”
Two days before the race they ran into each other on the Texas track where they were doing last-minute preparations. “We ignored the rivalry and wished each other luck,” says Norris.
Before the race, they warmed up together and then as they stepped toward the starting line, Miller and Norris wished each other well again.
Their dual in Austin was a thriller. The 12-man field ran as a pack through five laps, with no one willing to push the pace. Miller stalked Norris, sitting on his shoulder.
“I knew he was there,” says Norris. “I knew he had outkicked me the last two races and it was definitely on my mind.”
The racing didn’t begin in earnest until the final two laps of the 7 ½-lap race, when five runners — including Norris and Miller — made a move and gapped the field. Norris was third, Miller fourth. With one lap to go, Miller made a move and passed his rival and Norris followed. It was a four-man race now. Coming off the final turn, Miller and Norris were racing for third place, the last automatic qualifying spot. They raced shoulder to shoulder down the final homestretch. At the last moment, Miller dived toward the finish line in an attempt to edge Norris and then crashed to the track.
Norris was timed in 8:50.51, Miller 8:50.53.
After the race, Norris walked back toward the finish line to help Miller get to his feet, but a meet official shooed him away. The next day Norris messaged Miller: “Great race yesterday. Sorry I didn’t talk to you afterward. I was just super tired.” As it turned out, Miller also qualified for nationals, grabbing the final spot based on time. Both hope they wind up in the same heat again.
“One of the things I love about track is that people who could be your enemy end up being good friends,” says Norris. “A lot of that is because it’s such a hard sport, and you need someone to push you. Bryce and I know that. We respect the fact that we wouldn’t be as good without the other.”
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org