Team sports never were Max King's thing. At least, not the stick-and-ball stuff. Too many objects, too many moving parts, too much room for failure.
"I was just terrible at team sports," says King. "I wasn't so good at hand-eye coordination and just didn't like them that much."
Not that he didn't try. He played baseball and basketball in the sixth grade at Mae Richardson Elementary in Central Point. But it wasn't until he ran a mile as part of a P.E. class that same school year that he discovered he did have a thing, and that thing was running. The only moving parts were his arms, legs and flopping shoelaces.
"I found out I could outrun just about everybody in my class," says King.
At 28, he hasn't stopped, and now King has a chance to do something he's dreamed about for so long: make a team, of all things. The U.S. Olympic team.
The 1998 Crater High graduate, who used to train with his Comet teammates across nearby railroad tracks and along dirt roads that circled onion fields in Central Point, now hopes to harvest one of three positions in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
King met the top qualifying standard more than a year ago and will compete in preliminaries at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials at Hayward Field in Eugene on Thursday evening. The top four placers in each of two heats plus the next six best times advance to Saturday's finals.
In the finals, the top three placers will make the Olympic team and compete in Beijing if they also have achieved the Games' qualifying standard of 8 minutes, 24.6 seconds.
Only one runner in the field, Anthony Famiglietti, has hit the standard this year. Four others did it previously and need only the top-three placing to make the team.
King, who has made news locally in the Pear Blossom Run, which he's won a record four times, and internationally as a two-time member of the U.S. world cross country team, has to improve a bit to reach his goal.
His best time is 8:31.26, which he accomplished in May 2007 in Eugene to qualify for the trials. The mark has him seeded 10th.
His best time this year is 8:35.95, which he clocked at the Prefontaine Classic on June 8 in Eugene.
A seven-second improvement seems like a lot, but King's Oregon Track Club coach, Frank Gagliano, considers it well within reason.
"This is where you see that kind of improvement, in this type of competition," says Gagliano. "The biggest thing for Max is, he has to make the final. And the way he's running, he should."
Unlike in 2007, King has been free of injury and his training has gone uninterrupted. He's worked diligently since moving from Bend, where he was a chemical engineer, to Eugene nearly two years ago to join the Oregon Track Club.
As such, he doesn't read too much into his time at the Pre Classic.
"My races to this point have been indications that I've been training hard because I've been kind of tired," says King, who receives a stipend from Nike as part of his club affiliation and who will eventually return to his job in Bend. "Coming in to the Olympic trials, I think I'll be able to peak really well. I think all the training I've put in is really going to show now."
He began tapering his workouts early this month, going from 60 miles a week, to 50, then to 30 this week.
As the miles came down, the intensity went up with interval training.
"I'm trying to make my legs feel really, really good," says King. "I'm hoping it all comes together and my fitness is there."
If it does, he'll realize that dream.
While other neighborhood kids might have fantasized about being the next Joe Montana or Michael Jordan, King fancied himself in the Olympic Games.
"I feel really grateful and blessed to be able to make the Olympic trials," says King. "It's a dream I never thought would happen back when I was running for Crater. I never thought this level would be possible. Just to get here is pretty amazing."
He recalls his days with the Comets fondly.
Dan Speasl, the athletic director and wrestling coach, also handled the cross country team for a time before turning it over to Hugh Barnhill about the same time King came along.
There wasn't a lot of difference between the unit that ran in the fall and that which occupied the mat room in the winter.
"Most of the team was wrestlers," says King, noting that they turned out at Speasl's behest for conditioning. "All we'd do was goof around and wrestle and go for runs."
If King found himself in a fireman's carry before a five-mile run, laughs Barnhill, it was his own fault.
"Those guys were so full of energy and always knocking each other around," says Barnhill, who has since retired. "It was kind of boring just running mile after mile, so we did some fun stuff."
King established himself as the star of that team but didn't reach the same status in the state or even the Southern Oregon Conference. He ran fifth and sixth at state as a junior and senior, respectively, and couldn't overcome Klamath Union's Ian Dobson in the SOC.
King knows now there's no shame in not keeping up with Dobson. The former Pelican is in the trials as the No. 6 seed in the 5,000.
Barnhill, whose own son, Brent, was ranked in the top 10 in the nation as a steeplechaser a quarter-century ago, remembers King as being one of the brightest and hardest working student-athletes he had.
He often ran alone, says the former coach, "because no one could keep up with him."
That speed helped forge his way to Cornell, where King realized after one year of competing in the 5,000 that he wasn't likely to improve much. He turned to the steeplechase and, as a sophomore, immediately posted fast times and kept up with older teammates.
Once again, King had a thing.
The steeplechase is track's "odd child," he says, a hybrid that is part hurdles, part cross country. It originated in the British Isles, where runners raced from one town to another, using steeples as markers and jumping over low stone walls and creeks along the way.
The track version has runners clearing 28 barriers and seven water jumps. The barriers are 36 inches tall and sturdy enough to step on.
"It's a grueling, bloody race," says Barnhill, whose son was knocked out of the national championships one year when a competitor stepped on and cut his foot, leaving him unable to negotiate the last barrier.
"They don't tip over, you do," he says of the barriers.
Taller runners — of which King is not — expend less energy clearing the hurdles, and some runners are faster on the track than King, but he's able to compensate for those deficiencies.
"There's a mentality to the race because you're having your stride broken up every 150 meters or so," says King. "It's similar to road racing or cross country, where there are hills and your strategy is broken up all the time and you never get in a rhythm. It's a race that fits cross country guys. If you're good at that, you're good at steeple, and that's where I fit in."
How good he is this week remains to be seen.
He's plotted the race in his head, fought anxiety as it's squeezed him and imagined running before the largest and most energized crowd in his career.
He's trained at Hayward Field for months, marveling at the stadium which has undergone $8 million in improvements, many before his very eyes.
"It'll almost be a solid wall of people around the stadium," says King. "It'll be pretty amazing.
"I've been getting a little nervous for the last month or so thinking about the race. I try not to get nervous. I've got to be careful not to get too excited right before the race. I've noticed that that really bothers me. I've got to remind myself of all the training I've done and that the fitness is there and just try to relax. I have to tell myself I'm in this for the fun of it, that I've made it this far and this is just one more race."
Or two. Or more.
Underdogs emerge from every Olympic trials, says Gagliano.
"You never know who's going to rise to the top," he says. "There's always someone. Max has as much of a shot as anybody, definitely."
Then he'd have another thing. A very special thing.
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 776-4479, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org