Cross country athletes from throughout the nation received the blue carpet treatment at the Indiana Theatre Thursday night as they attended a special screening of the Disney movie, “McFarland, USA,” which stars Kevin Costner.

The screening took place in conjunction with Saturday’s NCAA Div. 1 National Cross Country Championship, which will be run at the Lavern Gibson Course east of the city.

The athletes attended a banquet at Hulman Center and then were bused to the theater, which was decked out as though for a Hollywood premier. Before the movie, they received words of encouragement from Jim Ryun, former NCAA middle-distance track champion, world record holder and three-time Olympian. He also was the first high school athlete to break the 4-minute mile, in 1964.

He encouraged the runners to dream big and not let negative thoughts deter them Saturday. “When you were growing up, could you imagine you would be at the NCAA National Championships?” he told them. “You have earned the right to be here. ... You are living some of the dream right now.”

Also attending the event was Jim White, the legendary McFarland High School cross country coach who Costner depicts in the movie; Disney invited him to attend. “I never dreamed they’d have a movie about us,” White told the crowd in brief remarks before the showing.

White said it was a “wonderful opportunity” for the runners to see the movie, which will have a world premier Feb. 20.

But the night belonged to the nation’s best college cross country runners, who literally walked down a blue carpet as they proceeded through the lobby of the Indiana Theatre. “We want everyone to feel very special,” said Jennifer Cook, who serves on the cross country nationals committee that helped coordinate the event.

As the athletes walked the aisle, they saw banners of previous cross country championship winners. One at the end was blank and read, “Your picture could be here next year.” The goal was to “really give them that level of encouragement,” Cook said.

At the end of the aisle, both national championship team trophies sat on tables. “We made that the focal point for them to walk to,” Cook said. Theatrical lighting also added to the atmosphere, as did a spotlight outside. 

“It’s pretty awesome. It’s a little overwhelming,” said Troy Reeder of Fishers, who is part of the team from Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. “I didn’t really expect it to be this nice. It’s pretty fun.”

Melanie Townsend, who is part of the Northern Arizona University team, was impressed. “It’s great. It feels very official walking down the carpet,” she said. She is from Australia.

Her teammate, Futsum Zienasellassie, said: “This is beautiful. It’s amazing. Everyone is really excited watching this movie and getting motivated for the race.”

Erin Hooker, from Iowa State University, said, “I think it’s a great event. It makes it really special for all the athletes who have worked all season.”

John Mascari, who will be running in the championship for Indiana State University, said, “It’s very exciting. I think it definitely gives us a good ‘rep.’” Looking ahead to Saturday, he said, “I’m going to go for the win, just like everyone else. I think top 10 would be wonderful. We’ll see how it goes.”

John McNichols, coordinator of ISU’s combined men’s and women’s track and field and cross country programs, said Thursday’ event was impressive. ISU has served as host of the nationals 11 times in the past 13 years.

“I think this is going to be a pretty special evening,” one the athletes will remember, McNichols said. 

The movie had a special viewing in Terre Haute because the city is considered “Cross Country Town USA.”

About 1,200 college athletes, coaches and staff are here for the cross country championships.

At about 7:30 p.m., the film began. Inspired by a true story, “McFarland, USA” follows novice runners from McFarland, an economically challenged town in California’s farm-rich Central Valley, as they give their all to build a cross country team under the direction of Coach Jim White (Costner), a newcomer to their predominantly Latino high school. Coach White and the McFarland students have a lot to learn about each other but when White starts to realize the boys’ exceptional running ability, things begin to change.

The story takes place in 1987. White created a cross country program that became a state championship powerhouse.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at sue.loughlin@tribstar.com Follow Sue on Twitter @TribStarSue

Sue Loughlin has been a reporter at the Tribune-Star for more than 30 years. She covers general news with a focus on education.