SPT 111916 NCAA OREGON 1W

Tribune-Star file/Joseph C. Garza It was great weather if you were a duck: Members of the Oregon women's cross country team celebrate their first place team finish with the National Champions trophy in 2016 at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course.

People longing to see the good in this world can find it Saturday on the rolling hills of eastern Vigo County.

If you want to be inspired, go watch the world's best collegiate distance runners dash through the world's best cross country course in a city those athletes call "Cross Country Town, USA."

Two-hundred and 55 women race in the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships at LaVern Gibson Cross Country Course at 11:15 a.m. Saturday. An hour later, 255 men do the same thing.

It's happened a dozen times before in Terre Haute. I was fortunate to witness the first. I could tell something special was unfolding.

That was 2002, the inaugural attempt by Terre Haute and Indiana State University to host the "Big Dance" of college cross country. John McNichols' vision of creating a venue specifically for the distance sport began more than seven years earlier, and had become a reality. A core of others helped drive that mission, including land donor Greg Gibson, longtime Terre Haute running coach Bill Welch and McNichols' fellow Sycamore track and cross country coach John Gartland.

Any skeptics of McNichols' confidence that the community could become a global mecca of something positive disappeared on Nov. 25, 2002.

Just before the starting gun was fired, a team of pilots from Terre Haute's 181st Tactical Fighter Group roared through cool, nearly cloudless sky overhead as ISU music professor Thomas Potter sang the last stanza of "The Star Spangled Banner." Students from colleges from every corner of America wore their school colors and waved flags. Kids backing the Arkansas Razorbacks donned hogshead hats.

Even the athletes, at this pinnacle moment in their careers, got into the fun. The Notre Dame women's team ran their warm-up laps shaking green pompoms.

Once the first race began, parents and friends had staked out prime spots along the course to watch. McNichols and the course creators designed the layout so fans could actually see the runners, almost from start to finish. That's a rarity in cross country. In many cases, the competitors run on golf courses or the back 40 of a school's property, disappear into the woods for 15 minutes and then re-emerge elsewhere to finish.

The parents, families and classmates filling the sidelines at the NCAA Championships represent a cross section of America and the world. Saturday's race includes teams from dozens of states and runners from across North America and places beyond, such as France, England, South Africa, Switzerland, Ireland, Lithuania, Kenya and other countries.

In the 2002 championships, Jose and Maria Torres and their two oldest sons followed the couple's younger twin sons, Jorge and Edwardo, blaze through the grass at Gibson. Jose and Maria operated a jewelry store in Chicago. Jorge and Edwardo earned scholarships to run for the University of Colorado, a cross country powerhouse.

That moment in Terre Haute was a dream come true for the twins, their parents and the whole family.

Jorge took the lead in the 8,000-meter race and held it, sprinting to the finish gate and victory. He raised his fists triumphantly, pointing his sweaty, smiling face toward the blue Hoosier sky. Seconds later, Edwardo completed his run, finishing 10th.

And just a few yards away near the fence, their mom, Maria, stood beaming. She clasped her hands and told me, "This is the best moment of my life."

Later, I found McNichols hustling to handle post-race details and trophy ceremonies. He emphatically insisted that Terre Haute's and ISU's performance as the meet host, the spectacular course and the satisfaction of the runners and coaches would prompt NCAA officials to bring the event back in 2004, 2005 and 2006, at least.

"After today, people are going to talk about this," he told me.

McNichols — who died unexpectedly in 2016 — was right, of course. NCAA teams, athletes, fans and families appreciate the attention paid to world-class athletes in a sport often overshadowed. That's why the championships have come to this town in 13 of the last 18 years. That's why NCAA runners continue a tradition of tossing their shoes into a Sycamore tree beside the course, just to say, "I was in Terre Haute."

There's plenty of trouble and turmoil to be found in the world, replayed nonstop on digital screens we all stare at too much.

For a few hours on a Saturday in November, six days before Thanksgiving, joy, determination and the reward of hard work will unfold right before the eyes of those who show up. Make the effort. Go. Your headache might just vanish.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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