Leann Warren, a legend in the making

Leann Warren, a legend in the making

In Oregon in the late 1970s there was a renaissance of track and field for men's and women's high school athletes. Young girls were energized by the potential opportunities afforded by Title IX and boys were inspired by Steve Prefontaine and the Oregon track program.

It is debatable but out of that renaissance the greatest of the group of women was probably Leann Warren from Crescent Valley High School in Corvallis.

Leann grew up to be a passionate basketball player. As a freshman she knew that the basketball coach, Lyle Fagnan, wanted everyone to play a fall sport. Her basketball coach was the cross country coach and so she joined the team. It became clear that she would have three sports, cross country, basketball, and track and field.

In her junior year of 1978 the starting point guard helped her team win the state title over Hillsboro, 54-51, but lost in the semifinals the next year in the re-match against Hillsboro, 48-44, and finished third by beating Marshall 49-45 (sophomore year they lost in the third place game to Centennial, 46-45). All the way through her junior year of her high school career she talked to college coaches about playing basketball and she could go all day, "I could play great defense but I couldn't shoot." Not being able to shoot ended her chances at a college career because even a 5-5 point guard then was too small.

Hayward Field hooked her during her junior year, "It was pretty easy. Once I went to a track meet there I fell in love with it. My junior year I saw a dual meet and I just fell in love with Hayward Field. I visited a couple of others but it was Oregon hands down."

At the state meet in 1978 she won the 400 meters (55.99) and was third in the 800 meters at 2:12.9. She had fallen in love with the sport, "The thing with running that I really like is that it was so honest. It is the best person that day that determines the winner."

After the basketball team finished third her senior year former Ducks head coach Tom Heinonen remembers bringing his Duck team to the Portland Indoor that used to be held at Memorial Coliseum in February. He knew Warren would have a good season after he saw he run there, "she ran the Portland Indoor, with no training, and ran 2:14 over 880 yards going away."

At the state meet in 1979 she won the 400 (55.66) and 800 meters (2:10.18). She anchored her team's mile relay with a 55 second final leg that put her team into second. As Duck coach Tom Heinonen remembers her, "The picture at the finish has her hands over her head because she was thinking the team won the team title. Her coach had mistakenly advised her that the team would win if they finished second." At the same time, Springfield finished fourth in the relay and won the team title with 39 points to the 38 of Crescent Valley and Crater.

OSAA divided the schools into three classifications back then. Although this was over 30 years ago and with fewer participants the current 6A format only had superior marks to the old AAA in half the running events, the 100 meters (12.06 to 12.21), the 3,000 meters (9:57.97 to 9:58.39), the 300 hurdles (43.58) was intrinsically superior to the time of for the 200 hurdles (28.34) and both relays (48.32 to 48.68 and 3:55.71 to 3:58.59 for the mile relay). The field events were competitive and the long jump was superior 30 years ago (18-7 ½ to 17-10 ½).

Out of that great state meet the Ducks were blessed with incoming freshman and future Ducks including two-time Olympian Linda Hughes (javelin, also NCAA runner-up), collegiate champions Sally Harmon (javelin), Claudette Groenendaal (800 and 1500), and Warren (800 and 1500). There were also all-Americans from Class AAA Eryn Forbes (5,000 and 10,000) and Kim Roth (1,500 meters) and Class A competitors included Shari Collins (high jump), and Rosa Gutierrez (3,000 and 10,000).

She was impressive enough that senior year for Prefontaine meet director Tom Jordan to put her in the 800 meters when another athlete dropped out. In that race was Mary Decker who at one point in her career held every American record from 800 meters to 10,000 meters, future Olympian Ruth Wysocki, 1976 Olympic 800-meter runner Kathy, and high school phenom Deanna Coleman (2:04 pr coached by Ken Foreman of Falcon TC).

Heinonen remembers it well and describes how Leann looked, "Wearing a navy blue tank top and candy cane shorts. Leann could always accelerate like you couldn't believe. With 250 meters to go she took off like a rocket. She got so far ahead and no one could catch her although they came back. She ran 2:04 something."

Leann recollects, "I was in there to fill in a field. I was in a naive space. I just slipped by on the inside and ran like a scared rabbit. If the race had been three meters longer Slaney would have caught me." This fed her attitude and although she was 5-5 and not that short for a runner she had been short as a basketball player, "I was a feisty kid that liked to win. I thought that people underestimated me because I was little. I like to prove that little ones could do it too."

Back when AIAW recruiting rules favored the athletes Head coach and distance coach Tom Heinonen and sprint and jump coach Mark Stream took Leann Warren and Sally Harmon to the US junior meet in Bloomington, Indiana where Warren won in 2:03.02.

Now with only one sport to focus on she completely prepared for her freshman cross country season along with co-Freshman Eryn Forbes. Forbes was a Portland legend who ran a 4:24 1500 meters in the eighth grade in 1976 during the Portland Indoor meet. Injuries and maturation slowed her progress but by the time she reached Oregon she had won seven state cross country or track titles.

That fall Eryn was the fourth runner for the Ducks at the AIAW championships cross country meet with a 39th place finish, Leann fell to the back on the team and 140th overall and the Ducks finished second overall. That was a disappointing cross country season. Leann recalls, "During cross country the first couple of meets went ok. I had bad sideaches by the end of the season."

Things changed for the better when the 1980 track season came around, "800s, couple of 400s, 1500s. It was a really good team and teammates. Everyone was competing. I feel really lucky to be around so many great runners at Oregon. It was a great aspect of track and field to have dual meets with the men. It was an awesome experience. I had a great experience running at Hayward Field."

As a freshman she sat meet records in most of the meets she ran 54.22 for the 400, 2:03.04 in the 800, 4:21.4 in the 1500, and joined the mile relay. In 1979 the Ducks had finished second in the AIAW mile relay (3:41.76). This year they added Olympian Grace Bakari and Leann Warren and won the mile relay in 3:34.55 as Bakari anchored in 53.5 and Warren was second to fellow freshman Delisa Walton of Tennessee (fifth 1988 Olympics) in the 800 in 2:04.88 to 2:04.99. Future 12x all-American and nine time collegiate champion Walton was the one runner in the collegiate ranks with more foot speed (52.0h 400). In 1982 and 1983 Walton eventually set the 600 meter (1:26.56) and 600 yard (1:17.38) indoor world records and four 4x200 meter and 4x400 meter top two NCAA finishes. Warren ran at the Prefontaine meet and won again in 2:02.58, fourth all-time among US juniors.

At the 1980 Olympic Trials held in Eugene Warren was qualified in the 800 and 1500 meters. The 800 was a tremendously fast race won by three-time Olympian Madeline Manning in a meet record (1:58.30) and she finished behind Walton (2:01.93) in fifth (2:02.80). Warren said about that, "I thought I was done but Tom said ‘what the heck, why not run the 1,500 meters." She hadn't made the qualifying standard but they needed to fill the field and three days later were the heats of the 1,500 meters.

Leann fell in the heats but got up to finish in 4:25.79. They protested and she was advanced to the final. Mary Decker ran away, as expected, from the field in 4:04.91. On the last lap Leann moved from ninth to third by running down the legendary Francie Larrieu, 4:15.16 (#3 all-time US junior) to 4:15.32, but she did not have the qualifying standard (4:10) in a year that the US protested the Olympic Games.

The next day Leann called Tom to say that Nike would send her to Europe but she needed to fly out that night. Tom and Janet Heinonen drove her to Corvallis (AIAW rules allowed for this) to apply and get her passport, then to the airport and that was closed so they took her to Carrows until the airport was open. In Europe she ran no 1,500s and just ran 400s and 800s.

That trip was only productive mentally, "I went to Europe in 1980 and got torn apart. The perfect way to end my freshman year was to get beaten up. I felt I had a long way to go to get to the next level. I wanted to get experience where there was a lot of pressure in the races. I thought in four years (Olympics) I could get a lot more experience."

Leann trained during the summer and was the fifth runner for the Ducks (107th) at the AIAW cross country championships as Forbes was the top runner in 35th and the team finished fifth overall. She was determined for the track season and went on a tear her sophomore year. She set meet records of 2:06.73 against UCLA, 54.08 against Washington, a 4:30.36 collegiate record in the mile at the Pepsi Invitational, 9:25.94 in the 3,000 meters against Oregon State, she even ran a 52.8 relay split in the 4x400 meter relay and skipped the NCWSA conference meet.

At the AIAW championship meet she won the 1,500 meters in 4:15.00 by waiting until the last 200 meters to kick by Monica Joyce (4:16.15) who tried to run the kick out of Warren but she was patient and said to Track and Field News, "I was just trying to save as much as possible for the 800." An hour later she used her kick to beat Walton (also ran the 4x400 and 800 meter medley relay) 2:06.07 to 2:08.37, a margin that was created entirely in the last 100 meters. She told Track and Field News, "I knew I would be tired from the 1500 so I waited to kick as long as possible. Tennessee won the last AIAW title with 61 points as Oregon tied for third with 40 points (Sally Harmon won the javelin, Eryn Forbes was sixth in the 5,000 among others).

That year Leann was undefeated in collegiate track and only lost to Madeline Manning that year among Americans when she lost to her in the TAC championships 1:58.50 to 2:00.08. After the race Track and Field News heard her say "Shoot, I don't believe it!" because she had just missed breaking 2:00, but later smiled because of her new pr. By that time she had also run 4:12.1 for the 1,500 meters.

That summer she ran 4:25.31 in the New York Mile (on the road downhill), then she ran in US vs USSR dual meet and the World University Games in July in Bucharest. In the heats on July 25th she broke 2:00 (pr 1:59.63 to move to third all-time in the US) and finished second, "It felt so easy. I shut down the last 25 meters. I was trying all season (to break 2:00). In the final I broke 2:00 again and it was so painful." She was fifth in the final. She ran 4:09.32 in Luxembourg in August. She was named AIAW athlete of the year (Broderick Award). She ranked second in the US in the 800 and 1,500 meters and had the top US time in the mile.

With a long season she wanted to take a break, "I was going to take cross country off. By the time I finished my sophomore year I thought they've (Europeans) got faster times but I can do this. I had never trained year-around, done more than one workout a day, or trained for distance races. It would take a lot of experience to go out of my comfort zone. I didn't know if I had the ability or experience to do that well."

Led by AIAW president and UCLA Athletic Director Judith Holland the AIAW dissolved in the 1981-82 school year and all of the major schools joined the NCAA by the fall of 1981.

Leann Warren improved a lot that fall and finished second at the NCAA cross country championships (Eryn Forbes 13th, freshman Kathy Hayes 16th, Lisa Martin 22nd) as the Ducks lost to the Martin Smith led Virginia Cavaliers 36 to 82.

By 1982 Leann and Tom planned to have her focus on the 1,500 meters for collegiate nationals. First she won the TAC indoor 880 yard title with a time of 2:04.61 (school record 2:03.89 for 800 meters). She did run 2:03.11 (season best) to set the meet record at the Washington State meet and ran.

The week before the Washington State dual she offered to triple at the UCLA dual to help the Ducks beat the powerhouse Bruins led by future Olympic champions Jackie Joyner (Long Jump and Heptathlon) , Florence Griffith (100, 200 and 4x100 relay, and Jeanette Bolden (4x100 relay). Warren set meet records of 2:06.63, 4:20.21, and 9:14.02 to help the Ducks win their third straight dual against UCLA, 69-58.

That effort affected the rest of her season, "I got sick after the triple at UCLA and couldn't get act together." She expected to do that double for the team though, "It started my sophomore year feeling like I wasn't a kid anymore, one of the big dogs. It came with expectations."

At the NCAA meet in Provo, Utah she won the 1,500 meters in 4:17.90 and then came back an hour or so later and lost to Tennessee teammate Delisa Walton (2:05.22) and sophomore Joetta Clark (2:06.49) with a run of 2:06.58. With the new 12 person scoring system Oregon finished fourth with 104 points behind UCLA's 153 points and Tennessee with 126, and Florida State. In the javelin Freshman Lynda Hughes was second ahead of Sally Harmon in third, Eryn Forbes was second in the 10k and third in the 5k, Rosa Gutierrez was third in the 3k and freshman Kathy Hayes was second in the 5k. Oregon had a bright future for Leann Warren and Sally Harmon's senior years.

At the US championships Warren sat with the pack as Mary Decker Tabb ran away with a 4:03.37 win. Warren ran a season-best 4:10.23 by closing faster than anyone else with a 62.8 final lap and 2:10.8 final 800 meters. Less than a week later she won the US/West Germany/Africa meet in 4:11.74.

Later that summer she ran in the US vs USSR dual with Mary Slaney. Slaney ran away again and Warren gained some good experience. She got a good dose of rough, international racing. She recently described the race, "Slaney blew out. In the with pack and with a lap to go took second and held it. I felt like I had a pretty good kick. That is I was in the game with 200 meters to-go I had it." She finished second in 4:05.88, sixth all-time among Americans and her third collegiate record.

She says now about that experience, "By that time I figured I could compete against these women. The European women were more than willing to gang up on me. I had to fight like a dog to get around them. They were willing to box you in and throw elbows. At the collegiate level they wouldn't do that. I came away from that race thinking I could do this. I was getting mad, I had to do that."

She said the troubles started after going to Europe and training for cross country. She was ranked second in the US by Track and Field News in the 1,500 meters and sixth in the 800 meters. During that summer, "I trained like a mad woman, injured my knee and that threw me into an injury tailspin for the next couple of years." Coach Heinonen remembers her in the summer of 1981 running hills and gravel and hurting herself. He says, "One leg went bad and then she had surgery and it looked like she would be ok and then the other leg went bad." At one point in time Leann left school and moved to California after three arthroscopic surgeries and two scalpel surgeries.

In 1984 Oregon had the NCAA championships at home and finished fourth and the Ducks had a good shot of winning the NCAA championships in 1985 with most of the top athletes that had dominated the last few years having graduated. Sally Harmon had battled shoulder problems the last two years and both she and Leann would have an opportunity for a sixth year due to the NCAA grandfathering the eligibility rules of AIAW.

When the men won in 1984 the women did not get a lot of credit even though Kathy Hayes won the 10,000 meters and Claudette Groenendaal won the 800 meters and the team finished fourth behind Florida State. Tom and his team felt slighted, "This is great we've done so well but the entire focus was on the men's team. We felt second class because the men had done better."

Everyone knew 1985 was a big year for the team, the team would not even score in 1986. Claudette and Leann were collegiate record holders. Leann had tears in the cartilege under the patella in both knees." Now she says, "Overuse and stupidity on my part. I could not get to myself to see it. If I could have rested. I just did not have the patience."

She ran 4:21 for 1,500 meters indoors in 1985. She says about that, "Just the fact I was able to run and some measure of success. A really long, frustrating road and I was able to run again." That year all of them had a different motivation, "It was a really good way to finish out my career. We were all about the team championship. I don't think any of us were thinking individual. We had such a strong distance core and throwers that could score."

This would be a tribute for Tom, "He had done so much for Oregon track. The end of the first legacy of Oregon track and it was time to nail a championship." Leann was not on the same level she had been, having not trained and a little heavier when she returned, and Tom recalls, "Leann's surgeries changed things. Certainly her progression stopped and she had to start over. She had taken three years off. She did what she did on her senior year on pure talent."

Everyone worked hard that last year and the Ducks set a world record 4xmile relay (18:39.58) record at the Oregon Relays that will probably never be broken (no one runs it). The Ducks saved their top athletes from the conference meet (and still won) but athletes struggled in the heat of Austin, Texas, site of the NCAA championships. The team won but it took Texas and UCLA faltering for Oregon to pull it out. Senior Claudette Groenendaal took second in the 1,500 meters and won the 800 meters as Leann Warren pulled the same double separated by two hours as Warren finished third and fourth in the two races, respectively.

The renewed eight-place scoring system was used and Oregon had its first and only women's outdoor title with 52 points to 46 for Florida State. Groenendaal followed that by winning the TAC championship in the 800 and breaking Leann's collegiate record with a time of 1:59.48. Leann ran in the 1,500 meters and finished fourth in 4:07.50 and closed in her typical fast fashion, 63.0 for the last lap but everyone else was finishing in a similar pace." She stayed in Eugene and ran a mixed race 1,500 meters in 4:07.7 and 800 in 1:59.2 but struggled as her knees started to bother her again.

After the University of Oregon, "I did a lot of wandering around. Ran for Adidas that summer. Ran for AW next year after having pulled a lot of strings with those high-up at Nike. I couldn't train the way I used to. I moved to Maine for three months." The frustration with the pain and problems got her to quit, "I quit running for 1 ½ to 2 years and started to run a little. Road racing, some indoor. No track, so a lot of hurt just from the disappointment."

In 1989 Eryn Forbes had become a lawyer and asked Leann if she wanted to join her and ex-Duck all-American Paul Geis, another Portland lawyer, if she wanted to train in their group. They trained at Lincoln high school. She was excited about the training, "I started having some awesome workouts and got really fit without focusing." Since she was at that point she thought, "I am really fit, I should do something." She ran a few races and in her last race she didn't have a proper warm-up and still ran 32:00 but she was hurt again. She now travels up to OHSU every once in a while to see if she can replace her cartilege and not the whole knee, "It's just a cartilege issue! I just need the cartilege replacement!"

The talent was so evident to everyone around her. Heinonen recently said, "Who knows what she would have done going straight through. She seemed like she was perfect. She was so light footed. She was so mechanically perfect. How could she ever have the problems she had? She wasn't the same and she had no background."

While Leann was hurt Claudette Groenendaal was now the top 800-meter runner in the country and won the US title the next year but now reminisces about Leann, "Leann is one of the missed talents in this country. She really was a talent that this country did not get to see."

Now Leann goes on long bike rides every Saturday. She hasn't been to Hayward Field in more than ten years and would have loved to come to the 1980 Olympic Trials reunion during the 2008 Olympic Trials but she had planned ahead more than a year ahead of time to go to France on a biking tour. Those in Salem used to hear her as a dejay and now she is webmaster for a radio station in Portland.

Oregon has another great chance to win an NCAA title because you never know when this chance will come around again, just ask Leann Warren.

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