The invisible man (hopefully)
Michael Reilly is the competition director for the upcoming Olympic Trials and he spends all day making sure that the meet runs smoothly. But will he even get to enjoy the fruits of his labors?
By Joachin Chapa
At 11 a.m. on a Wednesday, Michael Reilly has just finished a weekly operations meeting in the Casanova Center, the beating heart of the University of Oregon athletic department. Those weekly sessions are where the deathly serious minutiae of running the Olympic Trials are hashed and rehashed--1,000 athletes, 1,500 members of the media and 15,000 fans, daily, for 10 days, is the kind of thing that creates a lot of logistical juggling.
How will the garbage be picked up? Where will the equipment be stored? How will the infield grass get mowed overnight and where will the mower go? How will the medical facilities be oriented? The specificity goes all the way down to "how many chairs will we need in the officials' area," which Reilly ticks off at the end of the list. That line, like everything that comes out of Reilly's mouth, is delivered with a kind of excited intensity, a level that is maintained pretty much constantly in Reilly's speech and manner, ever so often reaching slight but controlled peaks, and it never bottoms, at least while I'm around him.
Reilly has one of those jobs--like football referee or train conductor--that, when done well, keeps people mostly unaware of the doer's existence. Reilly has maybe the biggest job of anyone involved in the forthcoming 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials, and the title--competition director--to go with it. This may seem like an anomalous career path for someone who graduated from Stanford with a concentration in artificial intelligence just as the tech bubble began to inflate, and it is. Rather than dealing with complex computer algorithms, Reilly deals in the sophisticated orchestration of arguably the world's simplest sport. His white shirt and dark pants, clean part down the right side of his cranium and thin, unobtrusive glasses pretty much spell out "all-business."
Reilly's aforementioned cool intensity is going to be awfully important come the Trials, when every coach, athlete, agent or anyone else with a stake in the outcome of the Olympic Trials will come looking for him if they feel that they've been on the receiving end of some administrative wrong. Those interactions can be very unpleasant. With the Trials serving as the gateway to the Beijing Games, we're talking about the most important moment of people's lives: professional lives, emotional lives, dreamed-about-this-since-they-were-10 lives. "Everybody is going to be operating right at their emotional redline during that week," says Reilly. And when someone is at that red-line and feels, justifiably or not, that something as totally arbitrary and unfair as the meet's administration has caused their life's dream to go forever unrealized, the result can be a very ugly scene indeed. "At those moments, it will be our job to maintain our cool and make sure everybody's experience is a positive one," says Reilly, coolly. But, he adds, "If we do everything right, I ought to be out of the spotlight for the most part."
"If we do everything right," says meet director Michael Reilly, "I ought to be out of the spotlight for the most part."
All of this might give the impression that Reilly is unable to have a good time at the meet that he works so hard to put on. Certainly, coaches screaming in your face, timing system snafus and the combined drudgery/complexity that is the coordination of shuttle bus schedules would seem to sap some of the fun out of the 10 days, but he does enjoy the meet, depending on your definition of "enjoy the meet." "I enjoy the event after the fact," he says. Though this might seem like a back-handed kind of enjoyment, he does get to be on-site, and when you have four beautiful athletes lurching down the homestretch for three spots, even Reilly can't help but look on and enjoy, briefly. "Of course you get caught up in the excitement while its happening," he says. "But then it's right on to the next event." The real satisfaction, Reilly concedes, won't come until the night after the Trials finish, when all the fires are put out, the results are in the books, the tickets to Beijing punched.
All of this Trials-related micro and macro coordination demands some serious nose-to-the-grindstone type work ethic, something Reilly is quite famous for in the small but intricately interconnected world of track and field. That attitude certainly helped carry him through his undergraduate years at Stanford, where he was both a track athlete and a major in symbolic systems, a complicated mix of philosophy, psychology, computer science, linguistics and math. His respective academic and athletic specialties were artificial intelligence and the steeplechase. The general expectation seems to be that once you graduate from college, all-nighters to finish last minute projects will--should--stop. Yet, in the track world, rumors abound of Reilly working all night and sometimes sleeping in the office as a meet approaches and jobs remain undone. "No, that's not true," says Reilly, shaking his head and looking embarrassed. Then, immediately adding, "A couple of times at Stanford. I lived about a half hour away from campus and a couple of times on really late nights I would worry that if I was late or overslept then I wouldn't make it back in time. So I just stayed. But it's not part of my life in Eugene. Nor do I plan for that to happen during the Olympic Trials." When queried about his off-duty interests, he only half-jokingly answers, "I don't have any time outside of the Olympic Trials." Before adding that he enjoys cooking, graphic design and new software applications.
But why track and field and why Eugene? Other than the gut-wrenching decision part, Reilly's story would fall into the classic follow-your-heart genre of narratives. As it has worked out though--the lucrative career in Silicon Valley available to an early symbolic systems grad was never even seriously considered--it may be the truest heart-following story there could be. "I knew I didn't really want to go into the business world," says Reilly. "I knew immediately from when I got to Stanford that I liked the college environment." His last two terms at Stanford were spent filling out applications to Ph.D. programs, but his eventual career has kept him in other wings of universities. Immediately after finishing his track career, he moved into an assistant coaching job under Vin Lananna, the man with whom he helped build Stanford track and cross country into the NCAA juggernaut it remains today. After 10 years at Stanford, he left, with Lananna, to become an assistant athletic director at Oberlin College. Two years later, the Lananna-Reilly team left again, back to the West Coast and to a rival Pac-10 school, the University of Oregon. The mission: to build something similar to what they did at Stanford, and then some. So while Reilly is also an assistant athletic director at the University of Oregon, that doesn't really get at what he's truly there to do. He is there because when it comes to putting on a big, complicated track meet like the Olympic Trials he is The Man.
In many ways though, his experience with the Stanford track program mirrored that of a tech startup. "What we did there was very much what a Silicon Valley startup does." They were trying to do things that nobody had done before: setting up meets on U.S. soil where runners could run Olympic qualifying standards and set American records, all while bringing Stanford athletes themselves up to that level of competition. "Those kinds of things just didn't exist," he says of the meets he helped pioneer at Stanford. They were doing it the tech-startup way too, from scratch and with no money. They succeeded: American Records were set, Olympic standards achieved, NCAA championships won. In 2000, three Stanford distance runners made the Olympic team. "It very much was a startup culture from what I know. Based on friends of mine that did go into the startup world, our experiences were very similar. It's just that they were making a whole lot more money."
Fifteen years later he is a long way from trying to get a startup going. The track program at the University of Oregon is established and venerated, its coffers flush with NIKE dollars, at least in the relative world of collegiate track and field. From putting on new meets with no money, he's now orchestrating the crown jewel of the sport. He tries to downplay the stress of the event. "It's not that crazy," he says. "Before the event there is obviously a lot of anxiety and excitement in getting ready." And then once the meet starts, "the four hours during the competition are very stressful." (Remember the screaming coaches.) And what about after? "It's stressful again right afterwards, getting everything cleaned up and ready to go again for the next day."
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